Reading Is Finally Fun!

The great thing about games is that cool ones don’t get old and nobody ever tries to make you play the lame ones with them.  But what makes one game good and another bad?  This is the burning question that will be answered in a cursory fashion before moving on to other topics.  Obvious factors include gameplay, incentives, and overall value of leaderboard position.  Let’s take a closer look.

The most classic and enduring games of all are typically all gameplay, little to no reward, and no leaderboard whatsoever.  Ever filled multiple notebook pages with games of tic-tac-toe on a cross-country road trip?  How about pulled an all-nighter playing a board game predicated on fake money?  Other than a relief from epic boredom, many games offer no purse to the winner.  The fun of the game and the pride of winning is the pay-off and enough to keep people playing.  While you may remember who won the last game, or who wins most of the games, there is no actual leaderboard.  Unless you have a reputation for winning ALL of the time, you probably don’t know how your stats compare to any other player, diminishing valuable trash talking opportunities.

Gameplay is more crucial to effective gamification than powerful incentives.  In good gamification, gameplay is central, and incentives are a peripheral bonus.  Bad gamification, manifested as lifeless gameplay for appealing rewards, feels more like laboring for compensation than playing games for prizes, and will quickly lose appeal.  The archetype of highly incentivized shitty gameplay is the arcade-style claw-machine.  Gameplay is outrageously frustrating and sucks major.  With no leaderboard tracking manual dexterity via robot proxy, you REALLY have to want that fake Rolex to subject yourself to repetitive play.

In a similar vein, many classic arcade games fall into the category of being leaderboard driven.  The pride of seeing your initials, or more likely your favorite 3-letter contraction of a 4-letter word, at the top of the High Score screen often trumps graduation as the most prideful event in the lives of many young adults.  I like PacMan and Galaga and Donkey Kong as much as the next nerd, but I find their gameplay to grow monotonous extremely quickly.  A spot on the High Scores is more a badge of attrition than accomplishment.  However, there is an undeniable value attached to whooping ass, even in stupid games like Frogger, and more importantly, in people seeing that you waxed that.

Bearing these things in mind, I was surprised to read today that Mashable is launching a gamification program for reading and sharing content, called ‘Follow’.  Users are encouraged to follow each other and accumulate followers, and receive points for reading, sharing, and commenting on articles.  Without a doubt, this enriches the user experience, even for users who are not engaged with Follow, but may glean the enlightening benefits of increased commenting and sharing.  Reactions seem to be positive, but I have to wonder if a similar model could enjoy such success for a less tech-centric publication.

‘Gameplay’ in this case is extremely straightforward, if even existent, and rivals Frequent Flyer programs on the ‘gameless gamification’ leaderboard.  What is even more surprising is that the game is incentivized by badges rather than tangible, real-world swag.  Because Mashable targets an audience that is highly tech-engaged, and well versed in popular memes and other internet periphery, a Sad Keanu or David After Dentist badge is sufficient motivation for the requisite efforts.  But could the New York Times pull this off?  Would readers go for a European Financial Crisis badge or an Arab Spring badge?  The badge system seems to be native to the nerdy world of tech, and best suited for application in that sector.  What is at stake here, however, is a certain type of leaderboard position.  Amassing a gang of followers and establishing a legacy of appreciated comments yields internet credibility, a highly coveted asset among fanboys and trolls alike.

Not everything is amenable to gamification.  This may seem on the surface on the surface like a game to push reading, (the most unpopular sport), and thus drive up ad value.  However, if readership is, in fact, the metric that is being driven, it is only secondarily, by means of the supercharged V12 that is sharing; the deadly combo multiplier that guarantees a TKO (Traffic Komplete Overload).  What Mashable has done is quite sharp, slightly daring, and caters really well to their audience.  And for that, mad props.

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