We live in an age that offers numerous distractions, harsh competition, as well as different options on the same type of product.
So why is gamification, one of the greatest forms of interaction available, so slow to be adopted by journalists, past the point of quizzes, at a time when engaging audiences and using everything at our disposal is more important than ever?
Education and other businesses have, and continue to, embrace gamification in the last few years, while the media is still lagging behind and many side-projects turn out to be silly, little mini-games to entice the reader into their website as a time-killing approach.
The most recent and successful example of gamifcation in journalism was by Al Jazeera, a news group, that had recently turned an investigative, award-winning news piece on illegal fishing in Africa into its own educational game form.
The story on illegal fishing was an injustice that needed to be told but attracting and enlightening thousands of readers is difficult to do in investigative pieces – especially one so far from the target audience’s home. Juliana Ruhfus, Al Jazeera’s senior reporter, told us that:
“Quite a few people have reacted positively and I think the process of investigative journalism lends itself particularly well to be gamified because you have the process of evidence gathering, of collecting clues and discovery.”
Juliana also added that:
“The vast majority of people who’ve been on the interactive project that we’ve created are first time visitors to Al Jazeera, so it certainly seems that one thing we’ve managed to do is reach different audiences.”
Gamification has often shown clear evidence of success in attracting new readers that otherwise would have ignored the story or perhaps not even have visited the website in the first place.
There is also the simple fact that it brings interaction with stories to new heights while also enlightening the audience – so why is gamification such a rare occurrence in the world of journalism?
There are actually a list of potential reasons why gamification isn’t becoming a larger part of journalism, the first and perhaps most obvious being:
It is no secret that journalists, especially independent freelancers, are short on resources. Money and time is a problem every journalist faces at some point.
Even during the educational stage, budding journalists are forewarned that they will be pressed for time and will have to often work with a small amount of resources.
Creating a game is something many may want to do, but cannot due to the simple fact that it is a very demanding project to undertake that requires dedication and time.
Gamification hasn’t been experimented with enough in journalism to have a short-cut or guide to best managing these resources.
2. In good taste
A journalist is expected to be objective and tasteful. Two things gamifcation may destroy if handled haphazardly. Excluding resources this is also one of the main reasons that most stories are not gamified.
Imagine the fury that would arise if a tragedy or conflict story was turned into a game, clearly no journalist worth his salts would dare do so but sensitivity issues and complaints can arise from even the most unexpected of stories, especially when you phrase it as ‘making a game out of it’.
Although no journalist in his right mind would, as Juliana puts it:
“Take a sex trafficking story and gamify that, because that would be a bit tasteless.”
There is little doubt the public would feel as comfortable or trusting of a journalist’s skills or more importantly – common sense.
Games are not only engaging but also extremely influential. A decent journalist needs to try his best to present two sides equally as an audience is self-invested in games more so than by articles.
Even the smallest amount of extra background, interaction or involvement with a particular side in a conflict story could cause a viewer to subconsciously favor it as they are now more directly connected with the story. This is something that can clearly put objectivity at risk and means that gamifiction projects need far more fine-tuning before publication than the norm.
Juliana pointed out that a talented journalist can balance out a conflict story in game-form but also explained the importance of: “Thinking very cleverly and carefully when designing an interactive project which gamifys these elements.”
She also saw gamification of conflict stories not only as a risk but also as an opportunity to guide the player that may have assumed one side was right to the conclusion that: “There are no simple answers and you can’t simply divide people into winners and losers.”
In other words saying: ‘there is more to this conflict than meets the eyes’, something many articles cannot say with a tight word-limit or set structure.
4. The word ‘game’ itself in journalism
The word ‘game’ definitely attracts new types of audiences, especially when so many of us are gamers nowadays, but it actually has the opposite affect in the business itself, especially when pitching. Juliana explained that:
“It was the word ‘game’ that put people off. I’ve tried explaining what gamification is as a process and once you actually break down the mechanics people really get it, but it is the word – because games aren’t seen as serious. People raise their eyebrows and I was very careful when I pitched it.”
The gaming industry is set in the world of imagination while journalism is set in the word of facts, but both focus on creatvity. Gamification is not the same as video games despite what many may think, this negative reaction to the word game is something left over by the previous generation at a time when gaming was just a cute hobby, mainly for kids but we have since, moved on.
5. Assumptions by the public
People quite simply have the wrong idea of what journalism gamification is. It is separate from traditional gaming and there is no win or lose, only goals to work towards or accomplishments to earn.
It uses something akin to positive reinforcement, not focused on competition with others (although that is a form of gamification in other businesses with different goals to us
It is meant to supplement current journalism, not replace or be the next big platform like social media. It is an opportunity to get those ‘boring’, complicated or deepest of stories into the light in an engaging and understandable manner or present a story from a different angle.
Another assumption is that it is a gimmicky way to beg for views, which in some bad cases, it is, but just as Al Jazeera demonstrated through good game design: it can be used to teach the audience of important stories that they normally would have skipped over for the more punchy and brief articles or worse – celebrity gossip.
If done correctly, gamification can lead society back on course by bringing interest back to these important, albeit sometimes dull, stories over relying only on quick and short updates that online news seems to be heading towards and back to a healthier balance of depth with the option of brevity.
6. The image of professionalism
As previously mentioned, the word game ‘raises eyebrows.’ Gaming has come a long way, as a form of art creating it and a sport playing it but there are always those that look down on it. Sees it as a kid’s time killer with no place in the professional world.
Journalism has an important role in society with both influence and a responsibility- journalists are often held to account when things go wrong so many think the risk is not worth the reward in a new minefield that can harm their credibility in both appearance and application.
They think a news site with its own game section may not come off as professional while any mistakes done, which often happens in the media, would look so much worse if done in game-form.
7. The need to form a sector to handle gamification and set guidelines
Juliana said: “I think the problem is that you need a much larger team, programmers (obviously), designers and so on.”
With no permanent journalistic team created to oversee or manage gamification in journalism it clearly will not grow as fast as it did in education or even social media, and more importantly the above problems such as objectivity or managing resources will continue to loom over the shoulders of journalists.
It becomes difficult for those dreaming about creating a gamification project as they have different needs and considerations to take into account but no existing guidelines to rely on, meaning the research on gamification is done from scratch each time between each news organization.
Social media is a good example of this as even today big news groups are still reforming and hiring teams to better manage and monitor social media, some are still trying to perfect their entire digital team – despite it existing in journalism for several years now.
Gamification in journalism is in desperate need of such a group or for existing groups that could set guidelines to these projects as gamification can do as much harm as good, depending on who does it.
News is quick, what was interesting last week is dead the next. Gamification has a hurdle we, as journalists, will struggle to surpass. Games can’t be made over-night so, already, journalists are instantly put off the idea of gamification considering time is of the essence.
Projects need to be on-going, be very high in public interest or have the ability to progress over time to merit being gamified.
Al Jazeera’s illegal fishing story for example is an on-going problem meant to raise awareness and this is a big reason as to why very few stories are opened to be gamified but those that are, are opened to being truly engaged with.
There are also those that quite simply hold on to tradition, perhaps based on the basic human fear of change. Juliana said:
“You often have two groups of news gathers. You have one group that is really pushing boundaries and are really engaged where media is heading, such as Paul Bradshaw, and I think that group gets gamification immediately. Than you get one group that just doesn’t get it”.
One of the strangest reasons to avoid gamification is tradition, considering the field is an ever-moving business and just like the news they handle, journalists need to always look for the next big thing in their industry.
Imagine if social media continued to be avoided a few years ago because it was different, broke with tradition and there were several cases of un-professionalism by journalists on it (that costs a few jobs here and there) – but look how far it has brought journalism today.
The positives clearly outweighed the negatives in the end. As Juliana bluntly put it:
“We, as ‘serious’ journalists, if we don’t move with it then the other side wins, the low-brow content will win. We have to adapt, so we don’t die.”
My interview with Juliana is availalble here:
Featured image: Al Jazeera’s gamified project’s symbol
Third image courtesy of David Tran