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January 19 2011

15:06

How Can We 'Gamify' the News Experience?

One of the biggest emerging conversations over the past year in Silicon Valley is around "gamification." Simply put, this is the idea of applying game mechanics, particularly those found in videogames, to all sorts of non-game experiences.

After following this conversation for many months, I've come to believe that over the next decade gamification will profoundly reshape the way we experience the web, to the same degree that social media and networks redefined the web last decade. To that end, I've been thinking in the broadest terms what that could and should mean for how we can reinvent digital news.

To carry this thinking forward, I'm announcing the launch of a new project: NewstopiaVille. The goal is to explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news. My hope is that by thinking as ambitiously as possible about this idea, I can accomplish two things.

First, I want to get the concept of gamification on the radar on every news organization so that it becomes a central part of their discussions as they continue to push into digital media.

Second, I want to build a prototype of a fully gamified news experience. There won't be a single solution that makes sense for every news organization. But I'm hoping to demonstrate the possibilities to inspire others to pursue their own concepts in this area.

To be clear, all I have at this point is what I think is a big idea. I don't have any funding. I don't have a demo. And I don't stand here pretending to be an expert in the realm of videogames. In fact, until fairly recently, I wouldn't have even thought of myself as a gamer. That has changed as my own kids have plunged into videogames, bringing me along with them.

Let me start by elaborating on what I see happening with gamification.

About Gamification

Even if the term is new to you, the elements are probably not. Gamification suggests features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods. Now that we live in a time where the majority of people play videogames of some kind, often many hours each week, it's fair to say that these kind of features have become widely familiar.

What has begun to change in the past year or so is the growing push to take these common elements out of the videogame experience and incorporate them into sites across the web. That's been driven in no small part by the explosive success of social games like FarmVille by Zynga. But it's also being pushed by a generation of developers raised on videogames, which have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment.

While it's easy to dismiss some of these games as trivial, in fact, they succeed because they take sophisticated approaches to tapping into fundamental human psychology. Developers use those lessons to build experiences that deliberately guide people to perform tasks and behave in specific ways.

Gamification represents a powerful intersection between videogames and social networking. Developers have seen the deep level of engagement these games create. And they have witnessed how games built around cooperative, non-competitive structures have gained a mass appeal.

That has led to a growing number of developers asking, "If I can get someone to spend hours harvesting virtual crops and feeding digital sheep, is there a way to take those same dynamics and get people to do something even more meaningful?"

Virtual Goods

Though not a gamer, I got started on this line of thinking about a year ago with the subject of virtual goods. I was staggered that people were willing to spend billions of dollars on virtual goods. In fact, I wrote about this idea last year when I asked, "Why will people spend $1 to send you a virtual beer on Facebook, but not to read a news story online?"

The reason had to do with the emotional context around those goods. But while I felt news organizations should be thinking about virtual goods, I realized that this was too limiting in isolation. The power of virtual goods comes in the context of an experience. I needed to think more broadly, and that led me into conversations about gamification.

The trap one can fall into is with gamification is to break it down into various tools and try to use a grab-bag approach. Stick a leaderboard here, a few badges there, and believe you've "gamified" your website. But used in that way, these tools will have minimal effect.

The reasons the best videogames succeed is because they offer an all-encompassing experience. They leave players with a profound sense of happiness by allowing them to accomplish a series of goals. And they tap into a central desire to do something with meaning, to be a part of something larger than yourself when you team up with others to accomplish shared goals.

Think about that: A desire to be part of something bigger, and to do tasks that are meaningful. Those are core, shared values that motivate the very best journalists I've known in the most successful newsrooms.

The concept of game mechanics is not entirely new in the context of news. I can recall several years ago talking to news executives who were fascinated with Digg and wanted to understand how game theory could help them. The problem comes with focusing too narrowly on the tools, like Digg's leaderboard. To really leverage the potential of gamification, it has to be central to the entire structure of the news experience.

CityVille Lessons

In that regard, I can imagine any number of areas where game mechanics might address some of the most important and challenging questions facing news organizations:

  • How do we improve commenting?
  • How do we get more people to participate in creation and processing of news and information?
  • How do we think differently about monetization?

Let me just give one example related to the last question. In recent weeks, I've been playing CityVille, the latest game from Zynga. The goal is to construct a city by accomplishing a series of tasks, like harvesting crops to supply stores, which then earn you coins. It's free to play and each time you begin, you have a set amount of energy that allows you to accomplish about 30 tasks. Once you run out of energy, you have a few choices.

First, you can take a break and come back later when your energy builds back up.

Second, you can ask your friends in the game to send you free gifts of energy that allow you to keep playing. This rewards you for being super social, and building up a big network of friends that you've helped accomplish other tasks.

Third, you can spend real money to purchase energy. You can do this by buying Facebook credits, or "buying" CityVille cash which you can then spend in the game to buy energy. The money and the credits are not one-to-one. So $2 of real money gets you $15 of CityVille money. This is an important psychological break that makes people feel like this is a trivial expense to feed their desire to keep playing.

Applying It to News

Think about how that could work at a news site that uses some kind of metered revenue model. Someone who is a free member gets to do 30 things: Read an article, post a comment, contribute to a news task. When they run out of credits, they could ask their network for more credits. Or, they could buy some more.

The ability to induce someone to do this would rest on the success of the larger experience a gamified site has created.

Let me also pause here to make another distinction. I consider this project to be distinct from the idea of "newsgames." While there are certainly similar dynamics, I think of them as complimentary.

For me, newsgames represent a way to reinvent storytelling. It is a contained object. (Here's a broader history of newsgames.)

Gamification is about bringing game mechanics to the entire platform and experience of news and information.

These two concepts certainly can and should fit together. I've thought about this relationship as I've watched my son play his favorite online game, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures. In the game, a player creates an avatar, usually a Jedi, who wanders around the virtual world. At times, he enters various rooms where he plays more specific games, such as a snow speeder chase.

Gamification would be about shaping the entire news experience for someone. At times, as they move around that gamified news platform, perhaps there would be rooms or spaces where they enter to play more specific newsgames. That would be one of many tasks that might allow them to earn rewards, or build their reputation or earn experience points.

Getting Started

But the question, then, is where to start? As I said before, it would be a mistake to begin by focusing on the various tools, the technology, or the protocols. Figuring out which of these to use would be something that would come at the end of the design process, not at the start.

Where I want to start is by asking the larger questions that I think are critical to the success of any game: What is the goal? What is the mission? What is the experience we want people to have?

From there comes a longer list of questions about what exactly we want people to do. What are their motivations? How do we reward them? How do we keep them moving through the game? What are the levels and rewards?

Next Steps

My next step: In the coming months, I'm going to accelerate my personal research and interviewing in this area. This coming week, I'll be attending the first ever Gamification Summit in San Francisco, and next month I'll be at the Game Developer's Conference.

I'll be blogging along the way at NewstopiaVille.com to share my thoughts and to hopefully get lots of feedback. Most importantly, by making this a public discussion, I'm hoping this will bring folks forward who want to take these ideas further.

In a few months, I'll try to gather these folks together for a more focused discussion. I'm thinking this might take the form of a meetup/bar camp/or hackathon. The goal being to produce something tangible that can test some of the ideas that have been formulated, and to figure out what resources would be needed to create a real prototype or demo.

As I said, I don't pretend to have all the answers. Just a serious curiosity driven by the belief that I think this is potentially a really big idea.

If you agree, then I hope you'll help me.

October 14 2010

16:00

Badges? We might need some stinkin’ badges! Badgeville tries to bring a little gameplay to the news

Is good content alone enough to build reader loyalty? Or could adding a little gameplay — and some circular icons — turn casual readers into engaged ones?

Early next week, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News’ philly.com will launch a virtual rewards program to build reader engagement. Registered users will earn points each time they visit the site, read an article, or post a comment. These points will translate into a series of virtual trophies, which will appear alongside the articles the users read and be displayed next to their usernames whenever they comment on a story.

Philly.com’s partner in this project is a tech startup called Badgeville, which won the audience choice award at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference earlier this month. The company’s name puns on FarmVille, the Facebook game which convinced as many as 85 million users to trade virtual vegetables from virtual farms. Badgeville uses similar social gaming techniques, like awarding points, trophies, and badges, to help web sites retain users. This is not a new idea: The Huffington Post already rolled out their own system of badges this April. But Badgeville is expecting newspaper and media sites to become some of their most enthusiastic clients.

As users grab their news from the swiftly moving streams of Twitter or Facebook, homepages can seem increasingly irrelevant, and traffic spikes from successful stories soon melt away. Two years ago, the focus of philly.com execs was on pageviews, said Yoni Greenbaum, philly.com’s vice president of product development. Now, as at many newspapers, what matters at philly.com isn’t just clicks, but engagement. How long are visitors spending at the site? How often do they return?

I spoke to Badgeville’s CEO and founder Kris Duggan about the company’s overall strategy for news sites, as well as to Greenbaum and Christopher Branin about why and how Philly.com is adding points and trophies.

Building on the lessons of social gaming

Duggan told me that he doesn’t think news sites should move beyond just adding Facebook widgets to their pages as their social media strategy. “You’re just promoting Facebook, which is kind of your competition,” he said. Instead, he thinks news web sites need to leverage the same kinds of tactics that make Facebook so additive. The goal is for users to spend time as part of the news site’s own community, rather than just viewing the organization’s content occasionally through the lens of another site. (The New York Times, of course, has already implemented their own on-site version of this, Times People, which has yet to really take off.)

In order to encourage users to hang around, Badgeville can create built-in frameworks to incentivize any kind of behavior with any kind of reward, Duggan said. Rewards might be completely virtual, like shiny pixel trophies, or more real, like coupons or access to premium content. The key, Duggan said, is “communicating with the user at the right moment in time to drive behavior.”

What news sites need to do, Duggan said, is build on incentives that have worked elsewhere on the web — anything from the badges that powered Foursquare, as TechCrunch suggested, to the little profile completion bar on LinkedIn that tells users that they’ve only filled in 60 percent of their profiles.

“I really do believe that people want to see their face on web sites,” Duggan said. News sites right now use their sites to highlight their content. Duggan suggests they might need to become more like Facebook, and highlight their loyal users, as well. Why not add a widget with the faces of the users who have emailed the most stories, he told me, as well as a typical “most emailed list” of stories getting a lot of attention?

While Badgeville bills itself as a loyalty and rewards system, at the core, Duggan said: “We think of us as an analytics product…I don’t think they [news sites] really understand who their audience is. I don’t think they have the analytics to say, ‘here are our high-loyalty users, and our medium-loyalty users.’ They don’t know who’s sharing, they don’t know who’s commenting, they don’t know who the high-quality commenters are. They might have little tools for each of these things, but none of these things are unified…We think the next generation of analytics is actually influencing outcomes and changing behavior, and we think we’re in the forefront of that.”

Fitting gameplay into a newspaper context

For philly.com, partnering with Badgeville is a substantial investment. While Greenbaum said the monetary terms of their partnership were private, he did say that among philly.com’s third-party partnerships, it was “in the top three” in terms of cost.

Philly.com’s Badgeville roll-out, tentatively slated for Tuesday, will start off with a very simple incentive system. Users will get one point for visiting the site, one point for reading an article, and one point for commenting. The trophies they are awarded will be generic ones from Badgeville’s trophy library, but the “badges,” awarded for certain milestones — like posting a given number of comments — have been custom designed for philly.com. Branin said Badgeville’s service includes some barriers to keep people from gaming the points system — users can only get a point for visiting the site once every half hour, for instance, and for commenting once per article.

Branin said that they hope the points system will convey status on the site’s more enthusiastic, dedicated readers and commentors, and that the system might have an impact on the commenting culture, as HuffPo’s badge system set out more deliberately to do. As they get initial feedback on how the system is working, they’ll continue to add incentives and rewards.

I asked both Greenbaum and Branin and Duggan about how they thought reporters would react to the new system. After all, Badgeville operates on the assumption that giving out digital gold coins will attract loyal readers in a way writing good stories won’t. To a certain segment of journalists, the ones who pounce on tech entrepreneurs for referring to articles generically as “content,” Badgeville is likely to look like another step towards the total trivialization of news.

“I don’t think we’ve done a really in-depth analysis in talking with our reporters on how they’re going to feel,” Branin said, adding later that he didn’t think readers would be clicking on stories just to earn points.

Greenbaum said he thought Badgeville was friendlier to reporters than other social media tools. “It’s not that an article will have a value attached to it. It won’t be: ‘1,000 people liked this article and 10,000 people didn’t'…It’s really a tool on the publisher level and not the reporter level,” Greenbaum said.

Greenbaum and Branin also noted that the information gained from the points-and-trophies strategy could be used to direct traffic to stories that might otherwise languish unread. Philly.com might create a special badge for people who read, say, land use and development articles, or other worthy reporting that doesn’t tend to draw a lot of eyeballs.

For his part, Duggan noted that implementing a Badgeville reward system won’t fix sites with bad content or no community. A news organization needs a certain amount of community already in place for the points and trophies to have an impact. Philly.com is using Badgeville to build on what they already have; last month, that was roughly 6 million unique visitors, 76 million page views, and nearly 70,000 comments. They will be watching how the system affects the outcome of the complex algorithm they use to measure engagement. (Right now, that equation spits out a score of 73/100 for sports content engagement on philly.com, and only about 30/100 engagement for news.)

On the other hand, Duggan said, “Right or wrong, it’s just how it is. Facebook and Twitter have transactionalized your relationship with content.” In a world where content is shared freely, and articles sleep into the stream and disappear, news sites need something to “suck people back” to their home pages, Duggan said. “If you don’t have a magnet to keep people there, you’re dead.”

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