Friday, April 23, 2010

Can newspapers lure Gen Y with games?

Since its original release, The Matrix
has become a multimedia franchise.
I probably should have watched "The Matrix" the last time it was on TV. Or maybe I need to start reading comic books, particularly the superhero variety. Or perhaps I should become a gamer.

Then, apparently, I'd have a better understanding of transmedia storytelling, a phrase that has surfaced at a couple of recent journalism conferences.

First coined in the 1990s, it refers to the use of different media platforms to convey information, each contributing something to give greater context and depth to understanding the whole.

At the South by Southwest bash in March and at the American Society of News Editors annual meeting last week, the phrase came up in a kind of shorthand as gaming -- or a way to lure a younger generation to your newspaper and website through news games.

What the heck?! The scold in me, the one who embraces a daily diet of eat-your-spinach journalism, wanted nothing to do with adding sugar to make the news more palatable to Gen Y, the college-aged kids who are less likely than other generations to get their news from print.

But that's an uncharitable view.

Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., describes the light bulb that went off

for him at the session on transmedia storytelling at South by Southwest: "About 15 minutes in, Sanden Totten of Minnesota Public Radio asked the question I’d been queueing to ask: Has this been done in journalism? The speakers’ answer was no, but they thought it would work well. The hashtag discussion on Twitter blew up from there, and the journalism folks in the room caught fire."

The generation brought up on gaming is sending the user numbers for new social media like Foursquare, a smartphone location application, and FarmVille, a Facebook game, into the millions. "Imagine if newspapers in the U.S. had an audience of that size that was this loyal," says Littau.

So he tried to imagine "some sort of social gaming experience" created by a newspaper that could give context to a complex issue that unfolds so rapidly (or, conversely, over so long a period of time) that it's hard for readers to keep up: health care reform, financial industry regulation, immigration overhaul. If you hadn't been slogging right along with the latest developments in the news, you'd lose track of what was happening.

"Why not a FarmVille type of game, run in a hospital, where users have to try and actually bend the cost curve themselves lest they go bankrupt, a situation that allows them to experiment with different health care systems so they can see the cause and effect of the choices we make as a society in terms of patient coverage, costs, profits, etc?" Littau asked. (Context for making decisions in the game could come from the newspaper's own reporting.)

While Littau called these "halfway-developed ideas," they took on a fuller form at the American Society of News Editors meeting.

There, Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, helped lead a session titled "This is Serious! Developing Information Toys and News Games."

Paul, who earlier co-developed a role-playing videogame to teach journalism students practical decision-making skills, won a two-year, $250,000 Knight Foundation grant in 2007 to explore whether an online game could foster better understanding of issues in the news.

In the end, "User tests revealed games are not particularly effective for delivering serious news content in the way most news consumers want it," according to the institute. On the other hand, the research found, a game could work for lighter, feature-related fare.

"What they did discover with using games to deliver news is that if the goal is to get readers to spend time online, then the game-style format is a clear winner with an added 'fun factor' value," according to the institute.

And website visitors who linger -- like those loyal FarmVille fans -- will send up cheers at a newspaper any day.


Cathy Woodruff said...

This topic made me think about the NPR weekly news quiz program "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" and even the enduring TV program "Jeopardy."

Both of those game shows provide a bit of a fun payoff for paying attention to the news. They are entertaining and appeal our competitive sides.


Yes, mixing fun and competition have produced some winners. Here's a real example of a game I found at the GothamGazette: balance NYC's budget ( An interview with the editor at discusses how the online news site develops games. In fact, you'll see a "Games" tab in the navigation bar at the top of the website, How cool is that?