Posted by: structureofnews | May 25, 2011

Lessons From Tom Sawyer

What makes something fun, and something hard work?

It’s not necessarily the ease or difficulty of the task; it’s how it’s presented to us, and how we perceive it – as Tom Sawyer instinctively knew when he pitched whitewashing the fence to the other boys in the neighborhood as a privilege that only a select group would be allowed to do.  As Mark Twain noted:

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

And so it is with delving into news and information – at least up to a point, and both from a social good point of view (how can we get people more interested in issues and news) and a business point of view (how can we keep them on our site and make it an engrossing experience?)

This all comes to mind apropos of a recent conference convened by frog design about “gamification” and healthcare, and more specifically about how to use gaming principles to encourage people to do healthier things.

If that conjures up images of pop quizzes on the value of broccoli to one’s diet, or graphics-driven online calorie counters – it shouldn’t.  The idea isn’t to get masses of healthcare information into people’s heads in allegedly fun ways; it’s to tap into people’s innate desires for mastery and accomplishment to spur them into activities they wouldn’t otherwise do.

In other words, it’s less about gaming than about gaming our unconscious.

So if want people to spend more time on exercise bikes, give them a virtual world to navigate where they can slay dragons or save damsels, or whatever.  Sure, you could build a bike that offered them feedback on how many calories they were burning, or how much their life expectancy had increased, but why bother?  If the goal is to keep them on the bike, find a way to tap into their desire to slay dragons.

There’s a great powerpoint that was shown at the conference, well worth paging through, that lays out a number of classic behavior patterns that game designers can tap into.

So how does this relate to news and information?  Lots.  As we move from a purely narrative-driven method of impart information to people, and explore a much broader range of interactive sites, databases and visualizations to complement story-telling, we need to understand much better what makes people want to explore new landscapes of information – not because it’s good for them, or because they’ll learn a lot, but simply because they want to; because it’s enjoyable.

With traditional narrative, we’re very aware of the tricks that keep people turning the page – suspense, identifiable characters, etc.  But in the fledgling field of news game design, it’s very early days.

There is a real temptation, I suspect, to think about what we want people to know – and then try to dress it up with interesting bells and whistles.  If you’ve ever had to use bad children’s educational software – and with a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old, I’ve done my share – you’ll know how horribly wrong this approach can go.  But if we instead we look much more at what innate drives people have, and try to tap those instead, maybe we’ll achieve the goal in a roundabout way – they’ll explore more, and hence learn more.  (And even if they don’t learn more, at least they’ll enjoy digging into our site.)

So if we were looking at something like WhoRunsHK, for example, would we want to build in some quasi-competitive element, say to ask people to look for (and nominate) the ‘most connected’ person they could find in the database?  Or create levels of achievement that unlock progressively more datafields, but only after they mastered each preceeding level?   I honestly don’t know, but I do know that simply having a site – albeit with an attractive, engaging interface – is probably not enough to encourage people to delve deeply into it.

It’s true that there are probably some news products where we don’t have to worry about whether people enjoy the experience hugely or not.  If you’re a forex trader, and learning how to use your terminal will make you (or lose you) millions of bucks – well, you’ll learn pretty quickly how to use it well.  But that’s not an excuse to make it difficult to use; and in any case, the better the design, and the more engaging the experience, the more the trader is likely to want to use your machine, and not your competitor’s.

Ultimately, it’s about mastering this new form of story-telling – just as we learned radio story-telling, video story-telling. documentary story-telling, photo essay story-telling, and so on.  And if we can, it will be a new way of engaging readers/user/players while fulfilling an important goal of giving them more information that they need.

As Ian Bogost, a game design and Knight Challenge winner, notes:

Newsgames don’t make news easier and more palatable; that’s the negative trend the media industry has embraced for three decades, from USA Today to Twitter.

Instead, newsgames make the news harder and more complex. We shouldn’t embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, nor because they dumb down the news, but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it.


  1. […] counts as good game design isn’t all that intuitive – just as it isn’t instinctively obvious Tom Sawyer was right when he pitched his chores as a fun activity and got all the neighborhood boys clamoring […]

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