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What online publishers can learn from gaming

The demise of mainstream print media is now taken as gospel by many leading editors and media thinkers, while an even more radical idea — that there may not be any online future for existing newsrooms — is also being put forward. Whether or not you believe in that nightmare scenario is not important right now. What everyone in the news media does seem to agree about, is that engaging their online audiences is stupendously important.

Online publishers are still finding answers to the question: how would people like to interact with the media?

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One bold answer may come from the online gaming industry.

Badgeville, a Palo Alto-based startup, applies game mechanics and design principles to help web publishers foster community engagement. On the most basic level, this happens by rewarding users for certain behaviours -–reading one hundred finance articles, for instance – with virtual badges. Badges can be sponsored, and they can even unlock special offers and discounts.

Badgeville clients Philly.com (the online arm of The Philadelphia Inquirer) and online magazine BlackBook are rolling out their Badgeville-enabled sites soon. But what will the punters say?

Virtual rewards, of course, are a powerful phenomenon in online and console gaming. They are sought out, collected and fought for by millions of gamers every day. Collecting these rewards has become a subculture of its own in the “achievement whore” community, where the pursuit of so-called achievements on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console has become a pastime that almost supersedes the fun of playing the games themselves.

With that in mind, could the “gamification” of online engagement trivialise the content that it is intended to promote?

Of course there will be tacky and counter-productive methods of applying game design principles to media consumption. But the promise of these innovations does not hinge on manipulating the news itself. Really, it’s about acknowledging the audience, who spend their valuable time reading news and features every day, with no reward. These points or badges are a celebration of everything that the audience brings to the table.

Games, essentially, are just different combinations of challenges and rewards. What we’ve learned about virtual rewards is just the latest in a tradition that goes back far beyond the first game of Pong.

The reason games should matter to media moguls is because they come with millennia of experience in the art of challenging human desire. When you successfully engage that powerful motor, a lot of impossibles become possibles.

Gamification has been applied, very successfully, in a number of industries for varying purposes. Many of the most successful and well known social media brands have (intentionally or by accident) built powerful game mechanics into their platforms, including Digg, Twitter and even the US dating site okcupid. But to really get a feel for the potential of gamification, it helps to see what it can do outside of a computer screen.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer. She has done some pretty interesting projects in her career, but her most exciting work imprints the value systems of game worlds into the real world. For SuperBetter, she designed a game to aid her recovery from the after-effects of a serious concussion. Her quality of life had been drastically reduced by the injury, and recovery had been painfully slow. But by structuring her recovery as a game, she was able to regain almost all of the faculties she had lost with the accident.

If gaming can make you “super better”, it can help Badgeville build loyal audiences for its clients. Between “can” and “will”, however, there may be a lot of experimentation, hard work and educated guessing left to go.

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