Google Getting Gamey

Lots of folks in the lab have been looking into gamification of news as a means of increasing user engagement. If I’m honest, I have to say I don’t really approve – news reading is its own reward. The game mechanisms people have been looking to adopt have emerged from the online gaming world where time spent playing equals profit for the publisher. These tools are designed to keep people doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do. They’re tied in with the gaming addiction we associate most with slot machines. Do we really want kids reading news in the same way that old ladies sit robotically pumping quarters in sleazy Vegas casinos?

Never-the-less, the biggest name on the Internet has just released Google News Badges, a basic form of gamification for news reading. Worldwide response so far has been muted. It’s not exactly a game changing development – I’m certain every single suggestion from the lab on this topic is considerably more interesting. To be fair, I can’t see anyone putting in hours of mindless clicking just to chase that Ultimate badge. It’s more about advertising your interests. But it’s also about brand lock-in.

As RSS syndicators go, Google Reader is rubbish. It’s ugly and awkward and old-fashioned, telling me I have 1000 unread stories on BBC News like Usenet readers used to, back in the day (I remember when Facebook were ‘nowt but fields and a megabyte of bandwidth would keep you going for a month.) Even the Android app for it is rubbish, beaten into touch by the likes of Pulse. If you do start using these badges, any news you read outside GOOG’s domain won’t be counted. Will this be enough to hold otherwise restless readers?

Not all gamification is evil. It can simply be a recognition of an achievement. A highly rated comment can be recognition of an insightful contribution. Or it can be a reward for being the first person to assert a popular opinion. Gaming works best when it rewards the user for what they create rather than what they do. Games should not pay by the hour. Getting gaming right is difficult and it can only work if it is done for it’s own sake. When there’s a ulterior motive at work, gaming is inherently evil. Don’t be evil.

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