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.

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