Posted by: structureofnews | November 11, 2011

Game Theory – and Practice

Interested in designing proteins in your spare time, for no pay? I didn’t think so.  But then I would be wrong.

More than 600,000 people have logged on to, a site where non-scientists play around with protein design for fun, recognition – and no profit.  But they’ve managed to collectively bring enough insight to bear that Foldit has managed to publish a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers, most recently in Nature, and help figure out a piece of the AIDS puzzle.  According to an NPR story, the gamers

 … figured out the structure of an important viral protein that has baffled scientists for more than a decade.

Not too shabby for a game that its co-creator describes as “Tetris on steroids.”

To be honest, it doesn’t look all that much fun.  But then again, a lot of what 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 to do them.

But news games – and how to design them – are something journalists have to get their head around as they look for ways to engage their audience – whether to get them to help in their work, as does; educate them, as something like Nick Diakopolous’ project Salubrious Nation tries to do; or simply keep them on their site longer.

It won’t be easy, at least not initially.  Some news games are still too much like eating broccoli – probably good for you, but not all that much fun.  For example, this New York Times budget interactive has good ideas behind it, but doesn’t really let you dig into the budget process; checking and unchecking a couple of boxes doesn’t really count as deep engagement.  On the other hand, give the Times credit:  They keep trying while the rest of us talk about it.

Still, the project doesn’t really teach anyone about proteins – it simply harnesses the collective brain power of the crowd: What Clay Shirky dubbed “cognitive surplus.”  That’s great, but doesn’t really fulfill journalism’s broader goal of public education.

Trying to design something in-between – a game that’s engaging yet teaches you about some important subject – is a pretty tough task, as I learned when I spent an hour brainstorming an election game project with Nick.   Just figuring out the broad parameters – should players continue to play over time, or should each game be self-contained? How much real data should it include?  How timely should it be? – is a pretty daunting exercise, never mind what the actual game mechanics are.  And even after you get through all that and build something – well, there are lots of games that fail.

Still, there are good reasons to try.  As Adam Penenberg at NYU’s journalism school recounts, his students remember more when they’re required to do more. And so, too, presumably, when readers/users interact more with the information they’ve been given.

A report from the 2006 Summit on Educational Games by the Federation of American Scientists found that students recall just 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear. If there are visuals accompanying an oral presentation, the number rises to 30%, and if they observe someone carrying out an action while explaining it, 50%. But students remember 90% “if they do the job themselves, even if only as a simulation.”

Adam has an advantage over other game designers – his students have to do what he tells them do.  The rest of us have to find a fun way to lure people into our simulations, by making them easy enough to get instant gratification when they start – but complex enough to keep them coming back and digging deeper.

It may well be that the best way of doing that is building a system that’s relatively open-ended so people can find the parts of it that attract them.  Giving people benchmarks – leaderboards, timings, etc – give them something to shoot for each time they play is one way to do that.

Or maybe even have their actions spill back into the real world.   As a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek story noted, Michael Hendrix, a Dallas-based consultant who works on the Michelle Bachmann campaign, is working to get politics into Facebook.

Hendrix’s latest Facebook project is what he refers to as “the gamification of politics.” In virtual reality games such as Facebook’s popular FarmVille, he sees a demographic frontier for Republicans in 2012.  He has written software, to be launched later this year, that will allow FarmVille players to get active in politics within the game.  Their online characters will be able to go door to door to other players’ imaginary farms, campaigning for real-life candidates and placing yard signs on their lawns.

So it’s not developing a cure for AIDS.  But it’ll likely be a critical part of how we engage with readers/users in the digital age.  And maybe it’ll lead to a partial cure for what ails the business model of journalism.


  1. […] are seeing this in the context of gamification. I don’t necessarily think it needs to be that complex or all that new. A lot can be done […]

  2. […] a good, quick read and a nice introduction to the whole field of “gamification” – a hot area that lots of people are diving […]

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