Fellow Knight News Challenge winner Chris O’Brien recently posted on this site about “gamifying” the news. The idea behind the  movement O’Brien is speaking of, which Brad Flora touched on in another recent Idea Lab post, involves adding incentives — pop-up achievements for tasks completed, progress bars to fill, badges to display, online leaderboards for score comparison, and virtual goods — to activities. The idea is to reward repeat patronage and reframe participation as if it’s like a playing a game.

A Brief History of Videogame Scoring

Videogames have long used scores to track player performance. In 1976, Sea Wolf took cues from pinball tables and added score keeping and a high score to incentivize multiple plays. The wildly successful Space Invaders (1978) helped popularize this method of recording expertise all over the country. Exidy’s Star Fire (1979) took this one step forward and added the ability for players to enter their initials to link a high score with a name. The high score gave players both a measurable goal to strive for and a point of performance comparison.

Achieving a good score in a game was not just a measure of how long a play session lasted, as it was possible to more efficiently earn points through various strategies. And because there were no “continues,” a high score wasn’t a measure of how many quarters were spent to participate. A good score measured understanding.

Earning a good score in Galaga is dependent upon a number of factors. A enemy diving from the formation is worth more than a stationary enemy. A diving Boss Galaga ship with two escorts is worth twice as much as with one escort. A player who has their fighter purposely captured by the tractor beam of a Boss Galaga and successfully frees it can play with two ships on screen side-by-side, doubling firepower. Having double firepower, however, means doubling the area of potential collisions with enemy ships. Racking up points in Galaga requires the player understand the rules that determine how the game is scored.

Now imagine a game like Galaga or Space Invaders with rows of enemies at the top of the screen and a space ship at the bottom firing up. Except that in this hypothetical game, the enemies don’t move. Each successfully destroyed ship earns 100 points and there is no time limit. The High Score at the top center of the screen reads 30,000. Let’s say that each enemy takes on average two seconds to kill. All that is required to get the high score in this game is to play for ten minutes (30,000/100 = 300 ships at 2 seconds each). It has all the trappings of a game — buttons, a joystick, spaceship, alien forces, and a high score — but it asks nothing of you but participation.

Gaming The News

A few months ago the Huffington Post launched a self-described “social news service” called Predict the News. As you can guess from the name, the Huffington Post’s polls are centered on sharing predictions such as, “Will Sarah Palin run for president in 2012?” To play, users sign up for an account or log in with a service like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, and respond to a question accompanying an article. Most questions are either yes or no responses like the above, or they involve selecting an option from a list of known outcomes. Points are awarded after the event has passed.

When ImpactGames launched Play the News, a prediction game we discuss at length in the Platforms chapter of Newsgames: Journalism at Play, they set out to make the act of playing informative. Making a prediction was not about choosing what kind of dress Kate Middleton would wear; it was about considering the outcomes of complex situations based on stakeholders. The game rewarded extended research and awarded points based on analytical thinking. After all, it’s much harder to guess the outcome of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict than if Apple will release a new iPad in Q1 2011.

The difference between these two prediction games should be apparent. Though they both reward players with points to be shared on an online leaderboard, Play the News addresses complex issues and getting its “high score” is based on understanding. Predict the News asks for participation and getting the “high score” is more luck than skill. Play the News is like Galaga, while Predict the News is like our hypothetical everybody-wins space shooter.

Thinking about how to use so-called game mechanics to drive user engagement is part of the business side of a news organization. But the business shouldn’t drive journalism — journalism should drive the business. Helping readers, viewers, listeners, and players understand the news should be the goal of journalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with incentivizing news reading with a scoring mechanism, but we should take care to keep journalistic values in mind when building the future apparatus of news.