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July 29, 2010

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Achievement Unlocked: Dog Bitten

At the DICE 2010 conference, a guy named Jesse Schell gave a speech about bringing reward systems from gaming (achievements, trophies, etc.) into real life as a motivational system. You've probably seen it--if you haven't, you can watch it and read designer David Sirlin's comments here.

Essentially, Schell lays out a future where there's a system that awards "points" for everyday tasks, ranging from the benign (brushing your teeth, using public transit) to the insidious (buying products, taking part in marketing schemes). Sometimes these points mean something (tax breaks, discounts), and sometimes they don't (see also: XBox GamerPoints). You can argue, as Jane McGonigal does, that this can be beneficial, especially if it leads to better personal motivational tools. I tend more towards the Sirlin viewpoint--that it's essentially a dystopia, especially once the Farmville folks latch onto it.

(The reasons that I think it's inevitably dystopian, besides the obvious unease around the panopticon model, is that a reward system would inevitably be networked. And if it's networked and exploitable, you'll end up with griefers, of either the corporate spam variety or the regular 4chan kind. It's interesting, with Facebook grafting itself more and more onto the rest of the Internet, that social games have not already started using the tools of alternate reality gaming--ARGs--to pull people in anyway. Their ability to do so was probably delayed by the enormous outcry over debacles like Facebook's Beacon debacle, but it's only a matter of time.)

That said, as an online journalist, I also found the idea a little intriguing (and I'm thinking about adding it to my own sites). Because here's the thing: news websites have a funding problem, and more specifically a motivation problem. As a largely ad-funded industry, we've resorted to all kinds of user-unfriendly strategies in order to increase imperfect (but ad network-endorsed) metrics like pageviews, including artificial pagination and interstitial ads. The common thread through all these measures is that they enforce certain behaviors (view n number of pages per visit, increase time on site by x seconds) via the publishing system, against the reader's will. It feels dishonest--from many points of view, it is dishonest. And journalism, as much or more than any other profession, can't survive the impression of dishonesty.

An achievement system, while obviously manipulative, is not dishonest. The rules for each achievement are laid out ahead of time--that's what makes them work--as are the rewards that accompany them. It doesn't have to be mandatory: I rarely complete all achievements for an XBox game, although I know people who do. More importantly, an achievement system is a way of suggesting cultural norms or desired behavior: the achievements for Mirror's Edge, for example, reward players for stringing together several of the game's movement combos. Half Life 2 encourages players to use the Gravity Gun and the environment in creative ways. You can beat either one without getting these achievements, but these rewards signal ways that the designers would like you to approach the journey.

And journalism--along with almost all Big Content providers--is struggling with the problems of establishing cultural norms. This includes the debate over allowing comments (with some papers attempting paid, non-anonymous comment sections in order to clean things up), user-generated content (CNN's iReport, various search-driven reporting schemes), and at heart, the position and perception of a newspaper in its community, whatever that might be. It's not your local paper anymore, necessarily. So what is it to you? Why do you care? Why come back?

Achievements might kill multiple birds with one stone. They provide a way to moderate users (similar to Slashdot's karma) and segregate access based on demonstrated good behavior. They create a relationship between readers and their reading material. They link well with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. And most importantly, they give people a reason to spend time on the site--one that's transparently artificial, a little goofy, and can be aligned with the editorial vision of the organization (and not just with the will of advertisers). You'd have several categories of achievements, each intended to drive a particular aspect of site use: social networking, content consumption, community engagement, and random amusements.

Here's a shallow sampling of possible News Achievements I could see (try to imagine the unlocked blip before each one):

  • Renaissance Reader: read three articles from each main section in one day.
  • Soapbox Derby Winner: have ten comments "starred" by the editorial staff.
  • Gone Viral: share four articles via the social networking widget.
  • Fear and Loathing: Read ten articles from the Travel section.
  • Capstone of the Inverted Pyramid: read an article from start to finish.
  • News Cycle: accumulate 24 hours of time on the site.
  • Your Civic Duty: take part in one of the site's daily surveys.
  • Stop the Presses!: submit a correction that's subsequently accepted and issued by the editors.
  • Daily Routine: visit the site every workday for a month.
  • Citizen Journalism: have user-generated content published on the front page, or used as the basis of a story.
  • Extra, Extra! #N in an infinite series: each week, a staffer writes a completely arbitrary, random achievement--something weird or funny in the vein of a scavenger hunt, using several stories in the paper as clues.

Is this a little ridiculous? Sure. But is it better than a lot of our existing strategies for adapting journalism to the online world? I think it might be. Despite the changes in the news landscape, we still tend to think of our audiences as passive eyeballs that we need to forcibly direct. The most effective Internet media sites, I suspect, will be the ones that treat their audiences as willing participants. And while not everyone has noble intentions, the news is not the worst place to start leveraging the psychological lessons of gaming.

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