The Boston Bombings and the Gamification of the News

All screenshots are of reddit’s Boston Update threads from the night of April 19/20, 2013

‘Gamification’, apparently, has been a key Silicon Valley buzzword for several years without fully breaking through to the mainstream. This was news to me, but it gave a word to something I was pretty sure I’d seen going on in the media coverage of last month’s bomb attacks on the Boston Marathon.

As always, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, various media battled for attention. Cutthroat journalism is as old as the industry, but an array of factors synthesised here in an interesting way. Firstly, the Boston Marathon was a digital, media event from the start. It captured greater attention for being the first major terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11, but it was also the first such attack since the mainstreaming of various forms of ‘new media’ and the ubiquity of camera-equipped mobile phones. The public and amateur media were immediately involved in the investigation, not just as spectators but ‘crowdsourcing’ law enforcement and journalism. Helping things along, the ‘story’ progressed from start (the attacks) to finish (the arrest) in just one working week, which meant constant developments and little time to lose interest.

All these factors conspired to create a hyper-competitive media ecosystem. The rush to break news translated into mistakes among professional and amateur media alike, but that same self-interest led outlets to leverage their strengths and rely on competitors to fill the gaps left by their weaknesses. There wasn’t time to independently verify. Novel information was generated continuously, and by following multiple sources, news consumers were put at the bleeding edge of the action. Individuals could follow the story in real-time while integrating themselves into the coverage through their posts, comments and tweets. The virtual crowd first helped search for the bombers, then ‘participated’ in their capture.

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It’s the professional media’s job to keep an audience informed and up to date, but why did so many amateurs devote so much time to unravelling the story? Based on anecdotal evidence as a participant and observer in that process, I’d venture that they got so involved because, after recovering from the initial horror of the attack, participation in the coverage was, well, fun. The news became a form of interactive entertainment – it became a game.

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So, what is gamification? Described in a white paper by gamification firm Bunchball:

At its root, gamification applies the mechanics of gaming to nongame activities to change people’s behaviour. When used in a business context, gamification is the process of integrating game dynamics (and game mechanics) into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign in order to drive participation and engagement.

It means exactly what it sounds like: transforming behaviours and activities into games. In its best-tested sense, gamification refers to ‘checking in’ at your local coffee shop via FourSquare, or an airline’s frequent flier program.

Its apparent success as a marketing and educational tool has prompted conversations about gamification across many fields and disciplines. Gamification proponents are fond of predicting their strategy’s eventual conquest of everything; regardless, it’s probably safe to speculate that most industries with a web presence have at least given gamification a thought.

So far, attempts or proposals to gamify the news have been fairly unconvincing. Actual examples include Mashable Follow and the short-lived Google News Badge, simple competitive ‘games’ that award badges based on articles read. These models don’t seem to have succeeded in boosting traffic or time spent on the sites.

Another approach is taken by video game consultancy Auroch Digital’s Game the News project, which produces short games based on current events. According to its website, GTN’s games are designed to help people understand and contextualise the news. However, this emphasis may make GTN’s product more of an educational tool than a gamified news source. Whether or not news consumption can be gamified thus remains an open question.

A problem for gamification in general, and gamification of the news in particular, is that developers overwhelmingly fall back on ‘the same shitty game’, as lamented by game developer Elizabeth Sampat. She continues:

Using badges and leaderboards and offering toothless points for clearly-commercial activities isn’t a magic formula that will engage anyone at any time. Demographics are different, behavior is different— things that will work to motivate users of product X will not work to motivate users of product Y. And no one is motivated by badges.

Gamification mostly produces ‘mobile-type’ games, played more often but less intensively and requiring only minimal attention. In a lot of cases, that makes sense. But news consumption requires a sustained focus – and, as such, different incentives. Of course, a massive proportion of games aren’t played for points. So, why not apply some of those other models of ‘game dynamics and mechanics’ when gamifying new industries?

A key concept in videogame design is how to induce GameFlow – Swetser and Wyeth’s [2005] model of enjoyment in games, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s [1989] concept of ‘flow’. Swetser and Wyeth describe GameFlow as emerging from eight core elements: concentration, challenge, skills, control, clear goals, immersion, and social interaction. While points may or may not be present, the incentive is the experience itself.

‘GameFlow’ may offer a better strategy than points-based systems for engaging users in fields that require sustained attention. Recent research (along with common sense) indicates that non-mobile (i.e. PC and console) games significantly outperform mobile games in terms of ‘GameFlow’ experienced. If the objective of gamification is to keep people engaged, online, and consuming, surely it makes sense to explore beyond mobile, points-based games?

But what does all this mean in practice? In our case, specifically, can the concept of ‘GameFlow’ be applied to the news? And what does any of this have to do with Boston?

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I believe that Boston demonstrates the subtle, endogenous ‘gamification’ of the news: There were no badges to earn or points to win, but a coherent narrative arc and the nature of the media involved fostered a competitive, interactive environment that produced coverage while maintaining an intense focus on the story and immersed participants in a state of GameFlow.

The ‘game’ transcended the puzzle-solving – amateurs were playing the role, if you like, of the rookie cop, with all the speed and information and confusion that implies. The pace and comprehensiveness of the coverage fostered this dynamic: participants literally could see live scenes from multiple angles; follow the steps of the Boston police, even from across the globe, via police scanner live-streams; they were the first to hear new leaks and leads. This sense of being ‘in the action’ was cemented by social engagement at sites like reddit, where people could analyse that information within a large, informed community.

Following Swetser and Wyeth, let’s evaluate Boston in terms of GameFlow’s key criteria:

Concentration: Boston gets high marks for concentration by providing many attention-worthy stimuli from a variety of sources, while allowing participants to personally contribute or engage in line with their own interests and abilities.

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Challenge: Following from the above, challenges were self-assigned and thus matched for ‘player’ abilities. Some participants actively worked to uncover new leads, piece together information, and uncover fresh sources, while others participated ‘collectively’, or passively. The pace of the action moved quickly enough that there were few opportunities for frustration, with new challenges continuously replacing the old.

Skills: The skillset required for participation at the most basic level was intuitive, beyond an understanding of computers and social media. For this reason, players were able to jump right in; those new to communities like reddit could observe until they got the hang of things. However, as the ‘game’ progressed, skills were honed. In order to get maximum enjoyment out of the experience, participants had to assemble the best and most diverse array of media inputs, and to process and analyse new information as quickly as possible. ‘Points’, after all, were available via upvotes/downvotes, retweets, and other forms of peer recognition.

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Control: While participants had less control over the action than they would in a videogame, a videogame is scripted, whereas in Boston potential existed to ‘shape the game world’. Participants were highly aware of their influence on the investigation (sometimes overestimating it) and keen to ‘beat’ the professional media to the punch. Despite pushes within online communities to follow certain strategies (for example, scouring marathon photos for suspicious faces), participants controlled their own actions. Meanwhile, pressure from the amateur and professional media did influence law enforcement behaviour during the crisis. Notably, that pressure forced the FBI to release images of the two suspects on Thursday evening, in an attempt to stem vigilantism and to maintain control of the images and narrative, setting in motion Friday’s manhunt.

Clear goals: Goals were unambiguous at each stage. Initially, the goals were to 1. Establish what had actually happened; 2. Identify the casualties; and 3. Identify potential suspects in the bombing. As 1 & 2 were achieved and the FBI released stills of the suspected bombers, the goal changed to 4. Identifying the two men in the photos. Within a few hours, that also had been accomplished, and at this stage – the start of the manhunt – the goals progressed to 5. Piecing together what had happened (and what was happening); 6. Discovering who these two young men really were, trying to understand their histories and possible motivations (and trying to place them at the scene) and 7. Apprehending the suspects. This final goal, of course, was outside participants’ powers, but their immersion in the events made them collective stakeholders.

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Feedback: The speed and variety of media sources provided constant feedback for participants. Because of its collective nature, progress in the search and manhunt directly translated into perceived individual progress. Any individual misfires were corrected by the progressive nature of events.

Immersion: The almost-cinematic narrative structure to the events of April 15-19 drove immersion in the ‘story’, and it was intensified by participants’ ability to follow events in real time via a range of media sources. ‘Deep but effortless involvement’ took place during the initial search, but was most notable during the manhunt stage, with many participants following all or most of its 23 hours. Time was altered, as was the relative importance of everyday activities. For people living in greater Boston, it was the only show in town, as police shut down the entire city to expedite their search. This drastic move heightened the sense of emergency, urgency, and historicity.

Participants became viscerally and emotionally involved in the ‘game’, even developing a degree of empathy for the protagonist of the manhunt, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Much of the manhunt period was passed by digging up information on the Tsarnaev brothers, and by late afternoon a narrative had been constructed – true or not – which cast late elder brother Tamerlan as the arch-villain and Dzhokhar as the kid brother he brainwashed. Participants wanted Dzhokhar to get caught and punished, but they didn’t want him killed, deepening immersion as the story entered its denouement.

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Social interaction: The final element of GameFlow was fulfilled by the nature of the coverage. On Twitter, blogs, news sites and especially forums like reddit and 4Chan, following (and contributing to) the news was a group activity. Participants competed, cooperated, and argued; in-jokes and camaraderie emerged. This collectivity was a key part of how the experience was so ably gamified. Participants identified as part of a broader team including law enforcement officials. Milestones in the investigation and search became victories for the participants, and failures were mitigated by their collective application.

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One benefit of GameFlow-based gamification is that it lowers the bar for participation. You can ‘play the game’ passively, as I did: by following the various sources and conversations, without personally contributing. In a points-based game, passive actors are excluded – and passive actors tend to make up the majority of users.

This said, I have absolutely no idea how (or even if) this type of gamification could be applied strategically, and it seems fairly obvious that it could never be used for every story. Participants gamified the Boston case from the bottom up, and the ‘game’ was driven by achieving a participatory critical mass. Even in those big events where high numbers are likely, no single media source could provide all the tools and information needed by ‘players’. There may be some things news organisations could do to facilitate user-initiated gamification, but it’s hard for me to conceptualise how it could be actively implemented.

Still, the Boston experience suggests that the news can be gamified. Putting aside the challenges of implementation, the GameFlow model may be a better fit than the points model for other industries eyeing the gamification trend. If there is a general recognition that gaming strategies are effective at engaging users, surely it makes sense to heed Sampat and broaden the scope beyond that ‘same shitty game’?

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While the question of ethics is largely outside the scope of this post, it’s worth considering what implications gamification – top-down or bottom-up – may have for the news media more generally.  The Boston case raised several dilemmas. On multiple occasions, professional and amateur media publicly identified innocent men as suspected terrorists. Faulty leads abounded, but the information the media got right was equally problematic: with so much in the public domain, the integrity of police operations was under constant threat.

Was Boston an outlier, or are we are in the midst of a shift towards faster, collaborative, interactive but less reliable reporting? And if so, can we contain the disorder ‘gamified’ breaking news produces on the ground?

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2 thoughts on “The Boston Bombings and the Gamification of the News

  1. John Dallman says:

    This is one of those rare occasions when an SF writer pretty much anticipated a social development and got a novel out about it in time (in this case, 2010). This is Not a Game: You Gon’t Get a Scond Life by Walter Jon Williams is about a game designer who gets caught in a revolution and gets rescued by a crowd-sourced team, but the ideas are very much like this model of Gamification.

  2. Brian Turner says:

    Strangely it also remind’s me of the essay “assassination politics” by Jim Bell.

    What if someone got so wrapped up in how the ‘game’ was going they tried to manipulate it?

    Can’t say this change fills me with any great confidence.

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