The ‘game mechanics’ misnomer: Why gamifying the news is so challenging

Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News has launched NewsTopiaville, an interesting project that will “explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news.” The project is ambitious, interesting, and worthwhile.

But I want to clarify something about the term “game mechanics,” which I think is being misused — or at least oversimplified — in the gamification discussion. Without understanding the term’s fuller context, there’s a risk of masking the challenges of gamifying the news.

In the gamification discussion, “game mechanics” typically refers to (in O’Brien’s words) “features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods.”

These are indeed game mechanics; I would categorize them as “motivational” or “psychological” mechanics.* (UPDATE: See footnote for another definition.) They can be a big part of what makes people keep playing a video game — what makes us want to play for just five more minutes (which inevitably turns into two hours) to reach the next goal.

But motivational mechanics are not the only kind of game mechanics.

The other major bucket of game mechanics is what is typically referred to as “gameplay.”* In the recent Grand Theft Auto games, for example, gameplay mechanics include:

  • Players can explore a large area in a somewhat unordered fashion, rather than being confined to a small space and a prescribed, linear set of tasks.
  • Players can drive cars or walk around the game world.
  • Players view the game world from a “third-person” point of view, with the camera showing the player’s avatar from a vantage point above and behind the avatar (as opposed to the “first-person” point of view of the Call of Duty games, where the camera shows what the player’s avatar sees).
  • Players can punch enemies, pick up knives/bats and swing them at enemies, or pick up guns and shoot enemies.

Gameplay mechanics define a game. They are the game, the play: how you move, what you see, what you do. And while games may be fun or successful partially because of leaderboards or badges,  they’re also — I would say primarily — fun because they are games. Because of the gameplay mechanics.

Wii Sports, for example, is awesome not because of avatars, progress tracking after each game, and the like. It’s awesome at base because of the central gameplay mechanics: You bowl by making a bowling motion rather than by pressing a series of buttons! The gameplay is what makes the game fun.**

But — back to NewsTopiaville — news does not have gameplay mechanics. For most people, consuming news is not fun.

Now, the subjects, activities, and behaviors that have been targeted for gamification — personal health, online profile completion, personal energy use, local-business marketing, personal finance — generally aren’t fun, either. Like news, they lack gameplay mechanics. So the gamification discussion necessarily focuses on how motivational mechanics can be applied to these areas.

There’s clearly huge potential in applying motivational mechanics to not-fun activities. And while smart journo-folks may be able to do for news what Opower is doing for home energy use or what Foursquare is doing for patronizing local businesses, the discussion should start by fully understanding the challenges ahead.

So here’s the challenge, restated more bluntly:

For most people, consuming news is not fun. And news does not have inherent gameplay game mechanics — the core type of game mechanics that make video games fun. Given this, how can motivational game mechanics be used to make news consumption more engaging and/or to get people to consume more news?

Now I wish Chris O’Brien and everyone else in this game the best of luck, and hope I can add some useful ideas along the way.


* I’m not sure if there are formal terms for what I call motivational and gameplay game mechanics. I’d be interested to see if/how the nomenclature is formalized in Byron Reeves’ “Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete,” for example, which O’Brien cites as an ur-text on gamification.

UPDATE: This terrific Slideshare by Sebastian Deterding, “Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents,” makes the case that what I call motivational game mechanics  aren’t game mechanics so much as just “gamy patterns of feedback design.” I think I might agree, but without doing a deep dive into other gamification writings, I’m not going to update my main post to reflect this just yet. In any case, this Slideshare is a must-read if you’re interested in gamification. (Found via Marcus Bosch’s excellent gamification primer.)

** Motivational and gameplay mechanics have always been blended to varying degrees. In the original Super Mario Bros., for example, it’s fun to hit “question mark” blocks and otherwise find coins (gameplay mechanic); it’s addicting to try to collect 100 coins to get a 1-Up (motivational mechanic). In the God of War games, it’s fun to use different button combinations to kill enemies in different ways (gameplay); it’s addicting to see the number of strung-together hits displayed on-screen and try to top your last number (motivational).

While I haven’t played Zynga’s Facebook games (FarmVille, CityVille, etc.) my understanding of their genius/deviousness is that they’ve used Facebook’s social aspects to blur the line between motivational and gameplay mechanics to an unprecedented degree. Or maybe they’ve discovered that Facebook’s social aspects represent a kind of hypermotivational game mechanic.

Either way, the underlying gameplay mechanics still have to be compelling enough in order for the social-motivational mechanics to work.

13 responses to “The ‘game mechanics’ misnomer: Why gamifying the news is so challenging

  1. I heartily agree with your assessment of what gameplay mechanics are at the core and how misused the term can be. I’d also describe it as the paradigm of interaction one has with a game. By virtue of our previous experiences, we have a basic understanding of the rules and some idea of the goals based on how a game is categorized; FPS, RPG, RTS, etc.

    Instead of motivational mechanics, I’d rather see the application of gameplay translated for different media types. Tools on the web continue to ramp up, providing fundamentally different experiences than the text-based legacy we have for most news sites today. News products should focus on the core gameplay of their medium. Audio producers should differentiate themselves at a fundamental level from video content and likewise for text-based orgs. This would be analogous to the genres I mentioned above.

    Thus when one enters a next gen news product, they know exactly what paradigm they are setting themselves up for. Perhaps then, news consumers will feel more affinity with the content itself rather than an artificial motivator like badges or scoreboards.


  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jeremy.

    Could you expand a little bit on what you mean by the “core gameplay” of news? If I understand it right, then the analogy for current news products would be: FPS/RPG/RTS is to video games as crime briefs/investigative journalism/election horse race coverage is to news. Is that what you’re getting at?

    • Another way to look at it would be to think about the basic value proposition a game has. As a player, you know exactly what to expect from starting an interaction with a certain game-type. Many of the big industry flops have been from games which lack a core identity, leaving the average gamer a bit perplexed.

      The news could be the seen the same way. Understanding what a user gains from specific interaction with a certain kind of media experience would be key. So, more what I’m trying to say is news orgs should stick to their key strengths and build experiences for users which match those strengths. No matter if the core experience – or gameplay – is visual, audio, or whatever, the vehicle of delivery should match the content type.

      Make more sense?

      • I guess the problem, at least for newspapers, is that news consumers did/do know exactly what to expect from starting an interaction with a certain news-type. And, to a large degree over the past decade (though of course there are dozens of facets to circulation declines), what those consumers expect seems to be something that they don’t like or that they don’t like enough to pay for. (See this, or Matt Thompson’s posts about context, or any number of other hypotheses for why this is the case.)

        To put it another way, video game players know what to expect from a first-person shooter or a role-playing game — and many gamers keep buying FPSes because they know that what they expect of the game will be fun for them.

        News consumers know what to expect from a crime brief, or a political horse-race story — and many people keep avoiding (or at least don’t want to pay for) these and other stories because they know that what they expect of the stories will not be fun, interesting, relevant or otherwise worth the cost (in time or money) for them. Overcoming those negative expectations is part of the big challenge.

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  4. Josh:

    Thanks for thoughtful explanation and weighing in the suggestions I’ve made. As I noted in my original post, I’m relative novice to this area, and still learning the nuances and distinctions and terminology. So your clarification is helpful.

    If you can continue to think about this (and I hope you do), I want to encourage to think more broadly than just the potential for news. As a person whose background is in newspapers, I think people think of our mission too narrowly by just focusing on the journalism, those I think that can lend itself to game-like devices to encourage more and different engagement with our audience.

    But there’s also our relationship to local merchants, our roles in getting people involved in the community, etc., that I think can be part of this discussion. And it’s I’d like to explore this as a broader experience or platform. This is what I’m still trying to work through by answering the big question: What is should the overall mission be for the audience on a gamified news platform?

    Further thoughts are welcome.

    • Thanks, Chris. As far as I can tell, even the VCs and experts in this area don’t always seem to make those clarifying distinctions.

      I definitely agree that exploring the broader question/potential/platform is important. Of course, the challenge there is whether news orgs could catch up to Foursquare, Groupon, and other companies that are already building motivational mechanics into products/services that overlap with what a gamified news platform’s broader mission would involve.

      • I think it’s early days for this stuff. I haven’t been all that impressed with Foursquare, despite its numbers and user growth. I think checkins have limited appeal, and they haven’t done enough to give folks like me real value behind the badges.

        Groupon, on the other hand, is a monster. The best we can do is partner and cross our fingers.

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  7. Interesting article. You can see this “gamification” everywhere nowadays, every element of life has to have some way of “totting up” or “earning points”. For the vast majority of these little games, the veneer is very thin and it doesn’t take long to realise that the points you are totting up are worthless and vacuous. The feeling I get when I think about the gamification of news is that people seem to want the chance to interact with the news. Traditional news papers were a relatively static medium, if you wanted to “get involved” you had to be one of the types who wrote into The Times on a Sunday afternoon to be bigoted and ill informed. By introducing gameplay mechanics (or motivational mechanics) into something so traditionally dry as news you bring the reader far closer to the story.

    It is encouraging, however, to note that gamification can increase interest and accessibility of news in such a way. As long as it is implemented with enthusiasm, thoughfulness and in a way which is both genre savvy and personal; it can only be a good thing.

  8. Arising alongside video game development in the 1980s, the term gameplay was used solely within the context of video or computer games , though now its popularity has begun to see use in the description of other, more traditional, game forms. Generally, gameplay is considered to be the overall experience of playing a video game excluding factors like graphics and sound. Game mechanics, on the other hand, is the sets of rules in a game that are intended to produce an enjoyable gaming experience. Academic discussions tend to favor terms like game mechanics specifically to avoid gameplay since the latter term is too vague.