Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Get AMP’d: Here’s what publishers need to know about Google’s new plan to speed up your website
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 4, 2012, 3:30 p.m.

New high score: How the NYT created its “stupid game”

Call it gamification, or just fun, but there’s journalistic value to blasting away ads, commenters, and Maureen Dowd.

When Jon Huang was younger he was the type of kid who spent his time making mods for Duke Nukem 3D. So it makes a kind of sense he’s now turned The New York Times into its own kind of shoot ’em up.

Huang was the multimedia producer behind the game embedded in the Times Magazine cover story on the addictive allure of “stupid games.” A reader stumbling on the story for the first time would see the video game feature at the top of the piece, be compelled to press the enter key, only to find they now have the ability to blast away various bits and elements of the story page itself. And it gets better: Your nondescript little ship can break outside the multimedia box and destroy all of the page, from the most-emailed stories (BOOM goes the DOWD!) to the navigational links and ads, right down to the “Inside” promo. And, to the secret delight of editors everywhere, you can finally blast away commenters with impunity.

That surprise factor, mixed with the fact that it’s the Times having a little fun, has the Internet (or at least Planet Journalism in the Twitter universe) going bananas.

“I give all the credit to the guys behind Kick Ass. They’re a really excited pair of 18-year-old twins in Sweden,” Huang told me Wednesday. “I love that’s how the Internet works these days.”

Kick Ass is the open source game that made the Times’ interactive possible. It’s essentially a bookmarklet that allows you to wreak havoc on any given site you find yourself on. It was a perfect fit for the the theme of Sam Anderson’s Sunday magazine story, which examines the rise of games like Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and others that inhibit a world very different from what we might traditionally think of as regular video games.

Huang said they knew they wanted to create a game to go along with the story, specifically something that would surprise people by letting manipulate the story itself. The game is a part of the editorial message of the story. Want to know what it’s like to play a distracting, oddly addictive, and utterly unnecessary game? Try this one, Times reader. Huang said they knew they would have an audience that might not be familiar with the world of Bejeweled, Little Wings, or Words with Friends, so in order to entice them into the story, they’d offer up a game. “This is one of those rare circumstances where we can say we’re going to do something to let readers play the article and explain the journalism in a way,” Huang said.

In the discussions over the game they wanted to also draw inspiration from classic video games like Space Invaders, Tetris, and Breakout. Huang was a fan of the game from the Swedish sensations and began working to adapt its code for the Times. One of the biggest considerations was that they had to give readers instructions on how to play, and didn’t want to destroy the sharing tools and the text of the story itself. Beyond that, it was open ended.

“Originally we thought there would be a very strong push back and people would say this is not The New York Times,” he said. “But there’s been a lot of enthusiasm” — even from advertising, he told me. You would think of all the pixels involved on a web page, the advertising would be the last thing you would want to get rid of, especially in the journalism business. But Huang said the ad staff was on board, telling the multimedia team that if they couldn’t find cooperative clients they’d run house ads.

It would be hard to categorize Huang’s work at the multimedia desk: He’s now worked on interactives for everything from photo galleries of the war in Iraq to Kate Middleton’s dress to the Radiolab audio visualizer. Huang said multimedia features have become an integral part of the storytelling process at the Times, and as a result they’re often working with different departments, from the foreign desk to the dev team, at any given time. What makes all of that work, without stepping on toes or overreaching, Huang said, is the openness to experimentation.

In the case of Anderson’s magazine story, the game will likely be another element to help garner interest in the piece ahead of the Sunday paper. Of course, whether people are actually reading it or just trying to get a new high score while evaporating Google ads is another question. Huang said he expects most people will take the time to read the story, once they finally stop playing the game.

“We didn’t really think about that. Some people probably are just going to play,” he said. “But they may not be in the mood to read anyway.”

POSTED     April 4, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Get AMP’d: Here’s what publishers need to know about Google’s new plan to speed up your website
The speed gains are very real. But do publishers want to trade in the open space of what we’ve known as the web for yet another platform they have little control over?
The Longest Shortest Time brings listeners’ voices into its podcast with a dedicated app
The app is built on WNYC tech that allows listeners to upload audio directly.
243 people disappeared on a ship in the Mediterranean; a new project from Medium aims to find them
Medium is launching an ambitious project to locate the passengers of a boat that disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea.
What to read next
What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments
Recode, Reuters, Popular Science, The Week, Mic, The Verge, and USA Today’s FTW have all shut off reader comments in the past year. Here’s how they’re all using social media to encourage reader discussion.
699Facebook woos journalists with Signal, a dashboard to gather news across Facebook and Instagram
Signal helps journalists find, source, and embed content from Facebook and Instagram.
567Facebook rolls out new tools to help reporters share their work (and choose who sees it)
Facebook is making an app that was previously only for celebrities and other public figures available to journalists with verified profiles.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Ann Arbor News
ABC News
Connecticut Mirror
The Bay Citizen
GateHouse Media
St. Louis Beacon
California Watch
Kaiser Health News