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Feb. 18, 2015, 11:15 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Riddle me this: How can news orgs better use games and quizzes?

A new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism examines the rise of games and quizzes in online media and how news organizations might take better advantage of them.

The New York Times’ most popular piece of content in 2013 wasn’t an article — it was, of course, its now famous dialogue quiz. The quiz, published Dec. 21 of that year, was also the paper’s third most popular story of 2014.

Similarly, the most popular story in Slate’s history was the Adele Dazeem Name Generator, built after John Travolta butchered Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars last year.

With things like crossword puzzles and comics in newspapers, fun and games have long had a spot alongside the news, but in a new report published last night by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, doctoral student Maxwell Foxman examines the place of games like the Dialect Quiz and Adele Dazeem Name Generator in modern online media.

“While games, play, and the news have a long history, we find ourselves at an exciting moment as newsmakers’ strategies and efforts to playfully engage with users are beginning to see benefits,” Foxman wrote. “For digital newsrooms already built around much of the same technology and practices of game designers, a playful approach seems particularly attractive.”

In the report, Foxman writes about the history of games and play in newsrooms, describes how games like the Dialect Quiz were built, looks at the business models and newsroom culture needed to successfully integrate games into the news, and offers tips to newsrooms on what they can do to begin to build their own games.

The full 62-page report can be found on Tow’s website (and his slides are here, but here are a few of its more notable points.

A culture of experimentation

Successful game design requires a culture that encourages experimentation and regular testing based on the needs of users and your audience. “Unlike other forms of user-centered design, play is a more continuous, reciprocal process,” Foxman writes. “In an age of perpetual beta, maybe such a playful exchange has become or should become the norm.”

As part of his reporting, Foxman spent time in the BuzzFeed newsroom, studying the playful culture that spawned quizzes like, “What State Do You Actually Belong In?” which is BuzzFeed’s most popular quiz, with more than 41 million pageviews.

BuzzFeed builds new game formats quickly and releases them internally to get feedback from across the organization before they’re released publicly. But even once it publishes a new format, BuzzFeed acknowledges that there will always be tweaks and improvements that can be made. In fact, BuzzFeed employees are encouraged to experiment and try out new formats. “You’re not going to be censured for doing something that didn’t work, because in fact you’re supposed to try to do a bunch of things that don’t work,” BuzzFeed editorial director Jack Shepherd said.

That ethos extends beyond BuzzFeed’s game team as its other editorial staffers from across its News, Buzz, and Lifestyle sections aim to create content that’s meant to be shared, “which is, by its nature, more playful than traditional journalistic output.”

Business lessons from the gaming industry

At one point, video games designed for major game consoles like PlayStation and Xbox dominated the gaming business. But as games specifically designed for smartphones have become more popular in recent years, cheaper titles like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga have diluted the market.

Sound familiar?

In response to changes to how users play video games, game makers have introduced increased advertising into traditional and mobile games. They’ve also begun relying on a freemium model, where the basic game is free to play but users can purchase add-ons inside the game to improve their game play experience. The freemium model relies on a small percentage of dedicated users who are willing to pay. Half of mobile game revenue comes from 0.15 percent of users who pay, Foxman writes.

“Content is also carefully priced — usually not too expensively — and keenly monitored, while it’s changed often to adapt to user activity,” he writes. “In other words, close attention to analytics informs and alters what and how people pay.

However, the freemium model has been criticized for not being sustainable in the longterm, Foxman writes, as users will often move onto other games. (Last week, Apple got attention for promoting “Pay Once & Play” games — that is, games that don’t try to nickel-and-dime users 99 cents at a time — in its App Store.)

Still, he writes that news organizations have much to learn from how mobile games are priced:

No two games from the same studio necessarily use the same business model. Amalgamations abound and newspaper and media companies could benefit from similar product flexibility and incessant tracking of product effectiveness. As newsrooms continue to rethink revenue strategies and news bundles, they could consider taking a page from the game industry and attempt more dynamic and fluid means of monetization, based not only on their specific brand but also specific products they release.

Advice for news organizations

In the paper, Foxman also offers advice for news organizations interested in becoming more playful or adding game formats to its online repertoire. Aside from the technical and staffing requirements of game creation, Foxman suggests a handful of ways newsrooms can attempt to change their thinking and culture.

First, he says, news organizations need to be flexible with their approach — willing to recycle ideas or come back to plans that might not have worked out the first time. Foxman quotes BuzzFeed’s Shepherd, who explained that BuzzFeed first tried quizzes in 2008 without much success, as “lists were really starting to take off so we kept quizzes quietly humming along on the back burner.”

Iteration and user testing are also critical for newsrooms, he writes. It’s important for game developers to be able to work and make changes quickly, realizing that the first edition of any type of game won’t be perfect and they’ll need to keep working and developing the product to get it right.

The bottom line, though, is that games are only worth building if people actually play them, so to that end, game designers need to think about the users above all. “Flexibility, formats, and iterations are contingent upon how users respond to particular models,” Foxman writes. “Even the best story needs to be rethought if it doesn’t live up to the expectations of its audience. Ultimately, user engagement and experience take precedent.”

Photo by David Lima Cohen used under a Creative Commons License.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2015, 11:15 a.m.
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