Game Boy

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

WHEN PRIEBATSCH TOOK THE STAGE for his South by Southwest keynote address, wearing his trademark shades, orange polo shirt, and jeans, expectations were high — because he’d raised them. “There’s one thing that will blow everyone’s mind,” he had told the website before his speech. “The concept is brand new and if it works it will be one of the most epic things that has ever been done.”

That thing was a game he’d designed for the audience of roughly 3,000. Each person was given a randomly colored sheet of paper. At the end of his speech, he instructed the crowd to trade sheets so that everyone in each row held the same color paper. If they could do it in less than two minutes, he’d donate $10,000 to the National Wildlife Foundation. The audience did it. Priebatsch was pumped: “That’s freakin’ awesome!” he exclaimed, going on about how the game illustrated that people who don’t know one another can come together for a common purpose. The crowd was less excited: There was polite clapping and a few whoops, but the reaction seemed roughly that of a school group that had just been forced to play an educational game.

Then again, maybe they were already in a skeptical frame of mind. Earlier in the speech, Priebatsch had argued that his game layer could be used to overcome such intractable problems as climate change and the nation’s struggling schools. Games, he insisted, are the tools of a reformist revolution. And there lies the fundamental disconnect with Priebatsch. He talks with messianic fervor about how game mechanics can help solve the world’s ills…but so far he’s only offering cheap deals on burgers.

And getting those cheap burgers isn’t even any fun. I’m as ambivalent about the SCVNGR app as the crowd was about Priebatsch’s paper-trading game. I’m just not inclined to go to a bar and pull out my phone to take a picture of my food, or take the time to answer inane questions, all in the name of getting two points toward a free drink. Other people seem to like it — the app’s average rating at the iTunes store is three out of five stars — but I feel too self-conscious playing it. I wonder what that girl across the café or at the end of the bar would think of me going around like a doofus, trying to get my photo taken with an employee. Besides, many of the challenges on SCVNGR are very basic and, frankly, not that exciting. One game for the Toscanini’s ice cream shop, for instance, just asks you what your favorite flavor is. Not exactly a brain-bender. You can almost feel yourself being manipulated by SCVNGR’s partners.

When I told Priebatsch I didn’t really like the app, he understood my frustration. He could see how some people might not want to be playing a game all the time. “A large portion of people [who] were playing SCVNGR didn’t quite get it,” he said.