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Sept. 15, 2009, 9 a.m.

In Rochester, a newspaper dips into gaming to reach new young readers

When you’re a struggling metro daily trying to navigate the world of social media, it makes sense to look to allies in nontraditional places. When the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle partnered with a techies at a local grad school, it found developers enthusiastic to work with old media stalwarts — and even a few who consider ink and paper pretty interesting tech to play with.

This weekend, the D&C and the Rochester Institute of Technology launched their first big collaboration: a city-wide alternate reality game called Picture the Impossible. Its aim is to attract — and mobilize — the young urban professionals that the newspaper wants to learn how to reach.

“A hundred years ago, putting news in a newspaper caused people to take action in certain ways,” Traci Bauer, the D&C’s managing editor for content and digital platforms, told me. “That doesn’t seem to motivate people under 40. The people who write letters to the editor to newspapers aren’t people under 40, they’re people in their 60s. That’s no longer the way to get people to use information and act accordingly.”

More than 1,000 Rochesterians had registered for the game by the official launch this Saturday — three times the number Bauer had been expecting, she said. The participants, who have been divided into three teams, will compete against each other to earn money for three local charities. They’ll earn points through interactive challenges across the newspaper’s platforms, from crossword puzzles in the print paper, to scavenger hunts, to online games. “Picture the Impossible” has its own narrative storyline developed around key innovations in Rochester’s history. The game runs until the end of October, and individual challenge winners, as well as 100 top game participants, will win tickets to a final Halloween bash.

The game‘s developers hope to test a project that can cross platforms — print, online, mobile, and community. More ambitiously, they want to see how a more playful, games-based approach can be used to mobilize a community around a certain issue — something that old-school newspapers used to be able to do quite effectively.

As someone who grew up in Rochester, I know the challenge that Bauer and the other game developers are up against. Rochester is one of those towns defined by crime, urban blight, and the malaise of an American city whose glory days — the age of Kodak and Xerox — are clearly past. When a Lake Ontario ferry service ran between Rochester and Toronto a few years back, a Canadian newspaper columnist called the city “depressing” and wondered why anyone would want to visit it. The city’s proudest tourist attraction is a giant grocery store.

On the Picture the Impossible Facebook fan page, you can see evidence of the old media/new media divide this project is aimed at bridging. The game’s promotional videos include a bunch of stiff talking heads (including some of the D&C’s top brass), but also a quirky animated trailer. At the same time, a few days after the launch, the well-tended page has 800-plus fans and some very enthusiastic posts about the initial scavenger hunt.

I talked to the two project managers, Bauer and Elizabeth Lane Lawley, the director of RIT’s Lab for Social Computing, about how the project developed and the quirks — and benefits — of getting journalists and academic tech developers to work smoothly together. I’ve edited down my conversations with each of them into a quick primer of what they’ve learned so far.

How did the RIT/Democrat and Chronicle collaboration get started?

Lawley: About a year and a half ago [in February 2008], the publisher of the newspaper and the president of the university called together a meeting of a couple of people from each organization [to talk about] what can we do collaboratively that will move things forward. One of the ideas that I floated at that meeting was to try to create an alternate reality game with the newspaper as a partner. It seemed very much the direction that gaming was going, blurring boundaries between virtual and the real.

I can see why the D&C would be excited to work with tech professionals in developing new ways to reach out to their audience. But what’s the benefit to RIT in going old school and working with a newspaper?

Lawley: If you have a student building a game, getting it into the hands of hundreds of thousands of the community is not something you can typically do.

Bauer: We also have a newspaper with a really high reach…we’re able to reach more than 80 percent of the community.

Can you talk me through the process of moving from “An alternative reality game? Huh?” to the point where you had a Facebook page with a few hundred fans even before the game registration started?

Bauer: We did some research. Myself and one of the web developers on my staff went to the Games for Change conference. It really became clear that this is a way we can reach people who are not picking up the newspaper.

Lawley: In January, Elan Lee, one of the pioneers in the field of ARGs, came out and spent two days brainstorming with us, and helped us starting shaping the ideas of what the game was like, how we could start integrating the ideas of community and history. In the spring, I asked RIT to let me teach a class, a project-oriented class that would allow mostly graduate students but a handful of handpicked undergrads, to work with me on doing the serious design of the game. Jane McGonigal, Kevin Slavin, and Alice Taylor also spent a couple of hours video-chatting with the class.

Over the summer, I hired two students full time, one to work on the server side of the game — how are we going to implement the registration database and the backend components — one to do the development of the casual web-based games. For the implementation of the front end of the website, the D&C took two of their in-house staff and made this their primary task, 60 to 70 percent of their time for the past two to three months. There are a handful of other students who took the class in the spring who have continued to be involved.

Bauer: We meet every day now and we have for the last month. Before that, we were meeting a couple times a week.

Finding money for new projects is always a central issue. Where’s the funding coming from?

Lawley: We started this with a budget of nothing. We had no funding, no advertising money, no nothing. This has been almost entirely sweat equity on the part of both organizations. [Hiring] two students was a $10,000 commitment from RIT. The D&C paid to bring in Elan Lee as a consultant. We got a $13,000 grant from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which we’ve used to do the keeping-the-lights-on charges, our commercial web hosting. Kodak has given us consumer electronics to use as weekly prizes. We’re talking with a couple different possible sponsors — local businesses or foundations. The three faculty members working at RIT have essentially devoted our summers to this without compensation. For us, this is a pilot. It’s the first time it’s been done.

Bauer: A lot of people have worked time off, on weekends, late in the night, early in the morning — this has sort of been extracurricular in a way, because we’re excited about the project.

What were some of the challenges that came up along the way?

Bauer: The different cultures, and work practices between academia and newspaper people. They work totally on an academic cycle, and their whole way of doing things is very, very, very different form the newspaper world. We were also working: We had furloughs that we had to go on, and a daily newspaper and a website that’s updated several times a day. It’s not like you shut down the newspaper to do this.

Lawley: We tend to be a little more relaxed. If it doesn’t work this way, we’ll do it that way. We tend to be a little less deadline-driven, and that’s sometimes been frustrating for them working with us. Especially over the summer — over the summer, trying to get faculty and students around during 9-to-5 hours can be really challenging.

Bauer: It was hard for each side to get used to each others’ climates and cultures. At one point early in the summer, we realized this is only going to work if we get inside each other’s world. We from the newspaper go on campus, and RIT is coming once a week to work on our office to experience the culture of the newspaper.

Other lessons learned?

Lawley: I think what would have helped us on this is to have been able to get outside support for what we’re doing — sponsorship and things like that — early in the process, so we weren’t trying to do that at the same time as we were trying to do really hard-core development. We should, earlier on, have come up with a clearer message to provide to potential advertisers and sponsors. We worked with a PR firm that said they were going to do that. One of things I learned from that is that it’s really important to have someone with a deep understanding of the game doing all the external contact. You can’t outsource that to a PR person. It really has to be a person who understands what it is we’re doing and why ‘re doing it, or it just doesn’t get response from the sponsors.

Both of you have mentioned that you’ve had a hard time crafting a quick pitch of the game to people who are outside the process. What’s been the attitude of D&C newspaper staff towards this alternate reality project?

Bauer: I haven’t heard anything negative, but I do think people are a little confused about exactly what it is, what it looks like at the end, how does it look to play it. We talked about it at staff meetings. My boss, the VP of news, is really good at motivating and kind of cheerleading about these things, and she’s very open about experimentation. But really the magic was the one-on-one, going to the photo editor and talking to her about what we wanted to do, and convincing her that her expertise was a valued part of the equation — the reporters, the photographers. The newsroom at large is a little bit — many of them are really going to have to see it to understand what it is.

You sound very optimistic about the project.

Bauer: We did this on top of layoffs, raises being eliminated — at a time when morale wasn’t the best it’s ever been. But we were still able to motivate a pretty big group of people to want to be a part of this. It was a much needed boost at a time when we were really suffering as a group just to get a newspaper and website out. At a time when your newspaper is cutting back and cutting back, you need something to motivate them, to remind them why we’re still focused on the newspaper.

What kind of impact has direct collaboration with tech professors and students had on the newspaper?

Bauer: It was not in our DNA to think: How can we do this different for the sake of experimentation or to make it easier next time? The Picture the Impossible site is not part of the D&C website. We tend to use the same content management systems. We totally went outside of all things D&C for this game, so it gave our in-house developers a new sandbox. And they got to do this with students at the university who have probably never picked up a newspaper. That’s nice. Our developers sit in a newsroom where it’s all about the traditional tools and this really got us out.

When I heard about the print component of the game — clues hidden on the pages, different photographs in four local editions of the paper that participants from different suburbs would have to team up in person to assemble — I assumed this was a requirement from the newspaper people, to sell more of their print product. Then you told me that it was the game developers who were most excited about the possibilities of print.

Lawley: We were thrilled at the idea that we would have this physical paper to work with. We immediately started thinking about this — what can we do with folding the page over, finding things in advertisements, have people making things out of the newspaper iteslf.

What’s RIT hoping to get out of this project in the long run?

Lawley: We see it as profit-making for RIT. We’ve developed the tool kit — we’re in a good position to come in and provide support and implementation for other newspapers, to help them come up with the game mechanics. We see it as a service thing rather than a software thing. We’re not going to sell the software. The idea is that the work we do will turn into a framework that we could implement in other cities, without the six months of development and design and sweating over the code. The D&C is a Gannett paper, and Gannett is looking carefully at what they’re doing. We see a lot of potential to expand into other Gannett markets.

So what’s the final goal of the project from the newspaper perspective?

Bauer: If this works as a way to engage an audience, then it becomes more than a game, it becomes a new set of tools that we can use for daily journalism, and, most important, for First Amendment work. In the community-based games, we’re showing that there’s an achievement based on people showing up at the same place and solving a problem together, [that] the community is going to be willing to come together if they see an achievement at the other end. This time the achievement is a lot of points, but the next time it might be to do something as a community to improve the dropout rate.

Lawley: People are starting to see that play is a very strong motivator, and that even in work environments — even in a learning environments — making something playful, and taking advantage of what we’re learning about game mechanics, can make us a lot more productive.

Is this game model something that could make money?

Lawley: There are a lot of ways we could narrow the focus, and turn it into something that would be genuinely revenue-gathering. Once we have the evidence to say who’s playing the game and how engaged they are, it’s a lot easier to turn this into something that advertisers are interested in. If we tell people to walk into the deli on the corner — we’re not selling the deli, but we are putting people inside that deli.

Won’t those who enjoyed the not-for-profit game reject a new game if it takes on a commercial focus? Bill Wasik’s written about what happened when marketing companies tried to replicate the flash mob phenomena. It was a complete flop.

Lawley: There’s balance in this. If it feels like the primary purpose of the activity or challenge is commercial [it won’t work]. If I take people on a 45-minute scavenger hunt through historical sites in downtown Rochester, and then at the very end they have to pick up their ticket from a local business — it’s perfectly reasonable.

You have over 1,000 registered players, so the game seems like it’s off to a respectable start. But what would have happened if you spent all this time developing the game, and it just didn’t catch on?

Bauer: The industry in large isn’t using new tools and they’re not experimenting at lot. There’s really this attitude, especially with the way the economy took a turn — there’s not a spirit of risk taking and innovation. There’s this fear if you fail, you’re going to be wasting a lot of money. We want to be working on projects that put new tools of engagement in the mix. [The game] could flop, it could just totally flop — but we’ve learned so much along the way about new tools, that it won’t be a waste.

We’ve learned a lot about collaboration and finding partnerships right in the community to help us to do our job. It’s not just the arrogant newspaper thinking that we have to solve all the community’s problems. RIT and the Democrat and Chronicle have been in the same community for decades and decades and have never collaborated in this way. Now it seems kind of foolish. We’ve learned to pick up the phone and go over to campus and find the resources we need.

POSTED     Sept. 15, 2009, 9 a.m.
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