Level upLevel upLately, I’ve been reading a lot more about game mechanics in media sites. They can be addictive, even with little else compelling to offer: I get very little out of FourSquare since almost none of my friends have accounts, and of even those few none actively use it.

But I still have compulsively checked in 84 times over 32 nights, earning badges like “Explorer,” “Bender” and “Local.” I’m not even that much of a collector personality, but I imagine this age will take much advantage of those poor souls.

But fly-by-night Web 2.0 services shouldn’t be the only ones letting the games begin: As the Guardian has shown, game elements can be useful in encouraging your readers to help effectively dig through mountains of public documents.

Simon Willison, creator of the Guardian’s MP expense investigation experiment, told Nieman Journalism Lab that keeping research fun and competitive let the paper offload sorting through 170,000 documents in 80 hours by a team of 20,000 volunteers.

The Guardian’s tools were primarily a one-off occurrence, but badges in particular can help direct desirable user/reader behavior for the long haul. For example, if you have a comment section where users could moderate comments as “offensive” or “insightful”, you could offer badges like “Moderator” for users who correctly flag offensive comments x amount of times or “Guide” if they offer 20 posts marked as “insightful.”

When you launch one-time only events like the Guardian experiment, you can offer limited-time-only badges (“MP Investigator,” perhaps) that will encourage your loyal users to pile on while giving first-time visitors a reason to return.

Tech guru, manager and author Michael Lopp recounts his success using games for employee motivation, and many of the lessons could easily be applied to news orgs:

  • Understandable and repeatable: Users should understand how to get points, badges, or whatever the reward is you're offering, and ideally, they can achieve a "groove" in at least some aspects of winning those prizes.
  • Comparable: Users should be able to see how they stack up against their friends and other site users.
  • Keep tweaking: As users close in on the end state, whether that's maxed out points or 100% of the goals, keep adding new goals or end conditions to keep your most dedicated users striving.


Amy Jo Kim, co-founder of social networking game shop <a href=”http://www.shufflebrain.com/’>Shufflebrain</a>, is interviewed by Mixergy and offers up some more fundamentals:

  • Points
  • Collecting
  • Feedback
  • Exchanges
  • Customization

The whole Amy Jo Kim interview is great, as is Mixergy’s synopsis.

Finally, the Stack Overflow team, which has mastered badges-as-incentive in creating their tech answers site, warns against negative badges, no matter how well intentioned. Remember: Only reward activity that contributes to the long-term health of the site.