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Rethinking Gamification for Quality News

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If good game design aligns positive feedback with user objectives to create intrinsically rewarding experiences, then where has the gamification of news websites gone wrong? And, how can we rethink it, putting the user experience first?

Up till now, the "gamification" of most news websites has involved tacking on a points system, throwing in some badges and maybe a leaderboard, in an attempt to entice users to do things like comment prolifically (Huffington Post), or contribute photos and videos (CNN's iReport). The hope is that by providing positive reinforcement for these actions, users will be encouraged to become regular contributors to the reader community. And so, the gamified experience will increase their loyalty, and improve the overall quality of interaction on the site, hopefully resulting in more visits of longer durations.

That's what publishers would like to see happen anyway, and it has worked to a certain extent for some. But do these virtual rewards actually align with the objectives most readers have when they visit a quality news site? Does earning a badge actually amplify an action that is already intrinsically rewarding? Let's take a moment to rethink this dynamic from the user's standpoint, and not according to what behavior the news organization would like encourage.

Limited to Participants Only

If we look at the classic participation inequality rule-of-thumb, also known as the 90-9-1 rule, which says that 9% of a community are occasional contributors and 1% are hyper-contributors, then that leaves a whopping 90% of visitors who are not there to participate. In the words of Dr. Michael Wu, Principal Scientist of Analytics at Lithium, this 90% "read, search, navigate, and observe, but do not contribute", meaning they are not going to be "enjoying" most gamified news experiences, because these actions don't generally earn them rewards.

However, each community develops its own participation dynamics, and many now view the 90-9-1 rule as outdated, partly because participation has become so much easier, with photo uploads and commenting being everyday activities for many. A BBC Future Media study found last year that the distribution in the UK was closer to 23% passive visitors, 60% easy participators, and 17% intense participators. And yet, even by this rate, about a quarter of visitors would be left out of traditional gamification efforts aimed at rewarding participation. And this is one of the limitations of news gamification strategies today: they are often, by design, only reaching readers who are participating.

A Fundamental Reader Objective

So, let's take the case of quality news sites, like the BBC, The New York Times, The Economist, etc. If not every user goes to one of these sites to participate, is there a fundamental objective every visitor shares? Something that we can realign the game dynamics with to reach a maximum number of readers? Now, I don't have any data to back this up, but I don't think it's a great leap to say that fundamentally, reading quality news is about being better informed. So, why not align the rewards of a gamified news experience with that goal? Why not notify readers about how much better informed they are, thanks to their activity on your site? In thinking this concept through over the past few weeks, I've taken to calling it KnowledgeBase.

KnowledgeBase: A Gamified Reader Activity Hub

Just last week the Financial Times updated its iPad web app with a slew of new features, one of which was an activity hub called My FT that shows a reader stories they've recently read, ones they've "clipped", and recommendations based on their reading habits. It's another smart use of data from the FT.com team, and also a prime candidate for a little injection of game dynamics.

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Image credit: The Next Web

Imagine that the recently read column on the right got a little more detailed, where stories were grouped by topic or vertical or even country. That would allow readers to see at-a-glance what types of stories they were consuming most, which could be quite interesting in its own right. More importantly though, it would then allow us to employ a progress bar to display how much of the day's edition had already been read in each category. Progress bars are very effective tools to encourage the completion of a task, you've probably fell victim to their efficacy already on LinkedIn, when prompted to complete your profile because you're already 80% done. In this newsy context though, the progress bar would indicate how well-informed you were on the day's events in any given vertical, and here's why that could be quite powerful for readers: finishability.

A Lost Print Concept Goes Digital with Game Dynamics

The notion of finishability comes from the traditional newspaper reading experience (I first heard about it from Tom Standage, Digital Editor at The Economist), here's the basic idea: if you read an entire issue of The Economist, you have a sense of satisfaction when you finish it, largely because The Economist promises you expert analysis on major world events each week. It's an intrinsically rewarding experience to finish an edition, because that satisfaction, that sense of accomplishment, is related to self-improvement; you feel that you've made yourself a smarter person and are up-to-date on important current affairs. But with the average digital reading experience, that finishability is much less apparent (unless we're talking e-paper editions). So, what if we used game dynamics to bring that finishability to the digital news world, again aligning the rewards with the objective of being better informed?

Here's what I'm imagining: how about bringing it to your attention when you've read 75% of all The Economist's coverage on the Middle East from the past week? It doesn't have to be screamed with an auto-post to Facebook you can't figure out how to turn off, or a patronizing badge that follows you around wherever you comment. A nice little toast alert that disappears after 3 seconds would be sufficient, like the popups you see in Facebook in the top right corner. Let's imagine a simple message is triggered:

You've viewed 80% of all our Business coverage from the past week. Only 12% of our readers have also accomplished this. Here are the 5 stories you didn't get to yet =>

This notification could then lead to The Economist's KnowledgeBase hub, where readers could see what they've accomplished, and get personal recommendations for what to read next. Although we would be employing common game features here (including notifications for accomplishments, progress bars and community rankings, and missions), the experience wouldn't necessarily feel "gamey" and inauthentic for the reader, as many current gamification efforts do. This is because the game dynamics would all be related to the fundamental reader objective of being better-informed, and it would help them further enjoy, and better accomplish, this intrinsically rewarding experience of finishing a comprehensive collection of content. Emailing a photo to newsroom is not an intrinsically rewarding experience. Realizing you've read more about International Business news than 88% of Economist.com readers however, that can make you feel pretty smug.

Gaming Even Further

So, if the overall mission for KnowledgeBase players is to be better-informed, with the MY FT style hub acting as the central dashboard to map their progress, then we can develop the game layer out further by using minigames and real-world rewards. In the video game Mario Party, players progress through the board game and complete minigames. News quizzes could be the minigames for KnowledgeBase, to let readers test their own knowledge in a given vertical for different periods in time (last week's business stories, major Middle East events last month, etc). Each question could be linked to an article, presenting a fun and engaging way to breath some life into a news site's archives, and offering readers yet another way to work towards the overall goal of being better informed.

A further possibility is allowing users to keep track of their quiz performance by amassing expertise in a particular topic. This would be similar to how players increase skill levels in video games, by completing tasks and amassing experience points.
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"The Sims" game lets players earn different skill levels.
Image credit: Pimlak
So instead of 106 Athletic and 329 Cooking as we see on the right, readers might instead attain an expertise rating of 106 in Finance News and 329 in Football News, related to their performance on quizzes. As true experts emerged in the reader community, they could be of course recognized with real world rewards, such as leading and moderating a debate on their topic of expertise, or being a section editor for a day. Another reward that could be quite meaningful to readers, despite being virtual, is getting recognition in a newsletter or on the site for being a top performer of the week (which might be judged in terms of either reading habits or expertise earned, or a combination of both).

Likely Limits

One of the main challenges for gamification in a quality news context is that it can feel very juvenile, somewhat patronizing, and not at all serious. This is largely a function of the common design motifs used, with cartoon-like badges and bright, playful colors like in the above screenshot. Of course, each publication and news site has its own brand image and relationship dynamics with its reader community, so how "gamey" the whole experience feels really must be determined by each organisation, and designed accordingly. But think about it, LinkedIn using progress bars doesn't feel "gamey" does it?

With the right UI (user interface) and some very smart design, I see KnowledgeBase working well in a quality news environment, because it would resonate with a reader's primary objective of getting better-informed by encouraging activity that is already intrinsically rewarding.

Sadly, the main obstacle to realizing this concept requires a more macro shift. There is an overwhelming need today for publishers to evolve their relationships with reader data, and begin a) amassing more of it, and b) making intelligent use of it.

Other Ideas That Merit Exploration

The KnowledgeBase concept is something that has taken shape over the past few weeks, and the deeper I develop it out, the more opportunities I see. Here are some things I haven't yet worked into the basic idea that I think merit some extra brainstorming, and I invite you guys to share your ideas in the comments.

- KnowledgeBase, as I've described it above, is designed for a single site. Might it work better as a cross-site experience?
- How could more imaginative news games figure into KnowledgeBase, beyond simple quizzes?
- Could social sharing and influence be incorporating into the game design?
- What appealing ways could we visualize the data for a user's KnoweledgeBase dashboard? Maybe with a geographic map?