Allow me to get this out of the way: newsgames are not the "gamification" of the news. Gamification is a term adopted by marketers who, in an effort to retain audience, have taken to adding points systems to products. These points have nothing to do with games and everything to do with intangible incentives for repeat patronage.
A few months ago The Huffington Post launched a "social news service" called Predict the News. As the name would imply, the website polls users on the outcome of events. Though I may think very little of online polls, I'm not fundamentally opposed to them. They serve the small (albeit inconsequential) purpose of letting people voice their opinion through quick declaration. But people like to be counted, so who am I to deny them the pleasure of checking boxes? Polls also bring people to websites where they might engage in with the news. So what's the problem?
All that The Huffington Post's polls do differently from those before it is reframe opinion as prediction. "Should Sarah Palin run for president in 2012?" becomes "Will Sarah Palin run for president in 2012?" To play, users log in with a service like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, and respond to a simple question accompanying an article. Most questions are either yes or no responses like the phrasing of the above's poll "will ______ happen?" Some polls allow users to select from a list of known outcomes. Points are awarded after the event has passed. In the grand traditional of social media integration, you can even learn the results by having @huffpost Tweet at you.
The purpose of Predict the News is clear: drive return traffic by attaching points to reading articles (where article-reading is optional). Again, like the polls, this is shallow but innocuous. The problem is that these aren't even good polls. The questions are at once overly broad and highly constricting. The related articles can't provide enough information to inform a reader's decision because the topics are total crapshoots. Yes, each has a definite outcome--President Obama will either win or lose when running for re-election--but where's the value in making that kind of prediction?
Returning to the title of this blog entry, each prediction is described by The Huffington Post as a "game." The most recent polls are advertised as "hot games." And this is where my strong feelings against gamification came into play.
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 involved reading a set of stories crafted specifically for that game and, like events in the real world, there were no easy choices.
Making a prediction was not about choosing what kind of dress Kate Middleton would wear, but 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.
Play the News was a newsgame. Predict the News is marketing-driven gamification. And that's fine, so long as the distinction is clear.
Newsgames use the properties of games and computation to provide alternative ways of thinking about a subject. Gamification throws a cursory layer of interactions related but not essential-to games (points, leaderboards, rewards) on top of existing material to incentivize participation. Newsgames attract return visitors because they are engaging and informative. Gamification attracts return visitors out of compulsion. Most importantly, and unrelated to form, newsgames should be held to journalistic standards. This is our hope, at least.
(Oh, and Kate Middleton will be wearing "Simple and Chic" and Apple won't release their new iPad until Q3.)