Gaming the news: Do ‘game mechanics’ have a place on news organizations’ websites?

This month, I attended the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, a gathering place to share information and ideas about web-development trends. I’ll recap information from SXSW in a series of blog posts and invite comments and brainstorming for each topic. So please join in!

There has been a lot of talk about “game mechanics” in web development, including the news industry. In a nutshell, adding a game element, or “gamifying,” a website or a web application means using points, badges and other rewards to motivate users and keep them coming back.

For example, Philly.com, the website of The Philadelphia Inquirer, last fall started giving readers badges, points and trophies as rewards for reading, commenting on, and sharing stories with their friends. (The gamification activity, powered by a vendor called Badgeville, is featured at the bottom of most pages on the site, including the homepage.)

Update 3/30/11: I talked with Chris Branin, Digital Product Manager for Philly.com, about their goals for Badgeville and how it’s working for their site.

Philly.com, which as far as Branin knows is the only mainstream news site currently using Badgeville, sees the partnership as just one of several efforts that falls under community-building.

“It’s been an interesting experiment to figure out how users want to engage with technology. We’re still in the beginning phases,” Branin says.

Because Badgeville has been on Philly.com for less than a year, and the startup offers no tools (yet) to measure traditional metrics, it’s “too early to tell” what effect Badgeville has had, Branin says.

In addition to gamification tools, there are also news games, such as The Huffington Post’s “Predict the News.” While HuffPo readers earn points for playing (the gamification part), the game itself is a poll asking readers to vote on such urgent topics as Will Todd appear on the next season of ‘Dancing’? and Will Sheen return to “Two And A Half Men”?

Finally, there are plain old fun games that have nothing to do with news topics, like the Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Find 5 Challenge.

The hoped-for result of all these games, points and badges, of course, is to drive more readers to websites, get them to register, and keep them coming back … thus boosting traffic, increasing audience engagement, and saving journalism. But will it work? That’s what many are trying to find out.

Priebatsch

Priebatsch

One of the keynote speakers at SXSW was Seth Priebatsch, who runs SCVNGR, a social location-based gaming platform for mobile phones.

The subject of a New York Times profile last fall that made him seem a little nutty, Priebatsch talked at SXSW about his goal to build a game layer on top of the real world.

His key point: Games must tap into motivation and psychology to be successful, because people lose interest when rewards seem fake or contrived. (His speech can be viewed here.)

Indeed, game mechanics have pitfalls. When Philly.com announced its Badgeville partnership, some readers were dismayed. (Sample comment: “oh NO!…the day done finally come when IT-nerdgeeks took over whatever used to be journalism.”)

Critics contend that game-like experiences can quickly grow tiresome or feel mechanical unless they’re designed to be intrinsically fun. (Perhaps that’s partly why only 4% of of U.S. online adults have ever used a location-based social network such as Foursquare?)

At another SXSW panel, called “Gamechanging: Turn Your App Into A Cooperative Game,” the speakers presented an alternative to competitive games, which they say can make people feel manipulated and excluded.

Buster Benson (@busterbenson), founder of Health Month, and Thor Muller (@tempo), CEO of Get Satisfaction Inc., warmed the room up to the idea of cooperative games by having all 500 or so of us rearrange ourselves by birthday. (A photo of the process was, of course, tweeted.)

Benson and Muller said games that are cooperative rather than competitive feel less gimmicky and make users more loyal and keep them coming back. Benson’s website, for instance, is designed to help people improve health habits by sharing goals with friends. And they cited Farmville, the popular Facebook and iPhone game, in which players can invite each other to visit and do work on each other’s farms and share supplies and chores.

Off the top of my head, here are some examples of how cooperative and other games could be used on PalmBeachPost.com:

  • Allow readers to interact with each other by voting comments up and down (YouTube and other websites do this). This would be one solution to community policing of inappropriate comments.
  • Season to Share: Allow readers to vote for their favorite families and suggest and share resources for the needy. (Last year, there was an outpouring of comments from readers on The Palm Beach Post’s holiday-season fund-raising website, SeasontoShare.org, offering help.)
  • Build social sharing tools into our entertainment coverage on pbpulse.com. For instance, let readers create SunFest schedules, suggest bands to friends, and share their plans with others the way social networks like Plancast do.
  • With their permission, map the news tips we receive from readers onto a public, interactive map. Make the tips also searchable by topic or keyword. Allow other readers have a say on what they think are the most important. Let readers vote for which community issues should receive coverage from The Post.
  • Create social “teams” of Post readers that allow them to have influence and insider status on our site. Offer other rewards for readers who share the most Post stories on their social networks. Recognize these active and engaged readers with homepage presence, newsletters, tweets, etc.

What are your ideas for other uses of game mechanics? Do you think tools like these would make people want to visit a news website more often? Please share your comments below.

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1 Comment

Filed under Cool tools, Online journalism

One response to “Gaming the news: Do ‘game mechanics’ have a place on news organizations’ websites?

  1. Pingback: Quick hits from SXSW | Web Up the Newsroom

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