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.