Travoltify Your Site: NYT, Time & Slate

John Travolta

  • Gamification – Definition & Stats
  • Travolta Misstep Turns Laser Toward Successful Game Strategies
  • Historical News Games & Becoming Carlos Danger
  • All Aboard the Game Train
  • True HA IaaS Cloud to Serve Games

The New York Times revealed in 2014 that content gamification had resulted in unprecedented traffic for three major news sites: the Times, Slate, and Time. The word Travoltify was coined by the NYT that day, a truly proud moment in journalism history – but this trait is exciting in many ways since it utilizes the Web’s interactive potential.

Gamification – Definition & Stats

According to the Engagement Alliance, gamification is a technological approach that uses the structure and mentality of games out of the traditional game scenario in order to “engage users and to solve problems”, adding that it “leverages game design, loyalty program design and behavioral economics to create the optimal context for behavior change and successful outcomes.”

Analyst firm statistics are strong for the gamification market: M2 Research forecast that it would hit $2.8 billion by 2016, while Markets & Markets predicted that it would achieve $5.5 billion by 2018.

Travolta Misstep Turns Laser Toward Successful Game Strategies

Sure, John Travolta may not be used to speaking in public… Oh wait, he’s an actor. It’s no wonder that everyone pounced on Travolta when he walked onstage at the 2014 Academy Awards completely unprepared, not knowing how to pronounce the name of singer Idina Menzel. Like Dan Quayle with potato (or is it potatoe?) before him, Travolta’s snafu was ultimately responsible for an incredibly widely shared Slate feature.

Similarly effective and also record-breaking were a Time game called “How Much Time Have You Wasted on Facebook?” and a quiz/map combo from the Times called “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk.”

The Time Facebook game was the biggest attention-getter ever for the magazine, sparking 3.8 million unique visits in the 30 days following its release (January 2014). The NYT interactive feature, which tells you where you live in the United States based on how you refer to a group of people in the second person, was accessed and emailed more than anything else on its site in 2013 (posted in December). Finally, the Slate game, which would mangle your name in a similar manner to what Travolta did with Menzel’s, scored the highest traffic ever seen by Slate in 18 years online – 9.5 million unique visitors in its first 48 hours (March 2014).

Slate editor David Plotz told the Times that while the Travolta game made him feel “ambivalent” and “bemused” for outperforming the site’s more sophisticated content, it highlighted the diverse expectations of its users. “Readers will go high or low with us,” he said. “It was off the news and it was fun and shareable. All publications are aspiring to that direct connection to their audience.”

Historical News Games & Becoming Carlos Danger

Connection between games and the news has a long history. Everyone is familiar with the unapologetically impossible New York Times crossword puzzle, which has appeared in the print edition since 1942. Many hard-copy papers feature sudoku and acrostics, as well as comics.

What’s remarkable about the Internet is the interactive potential, which gives steroids to people’s ability to design games in compelling and user-friendly formats. What’s especially simple about the idea of Travoltification, said the Times’ Leslie Kaufman, is that you’re simply allowing people to put themselves into an entertaining context. “If users can put their own name and information into a template and come out with an amusing answer,” she suggested, “it often prompts them to share it with others through social media, contributing to the holy grail of virality.”

Quizzes (whether on their own or incorporated into broader games) have been around for years on the Internet. In fact, the Slate feature was a knockoff of its previous effort that allowed users to create assumed names in the spirit of Carlos Danger (which arrived soon after it was revealed that Anthony Weiner had used that name when he hired ladies of the night). Quizzes, like games, allow everyone to inject themselves into the news, in a way.

All Aboard the Game Train

Time actually has had its own dedicated “digital interactive graphics editor,” essentially another name for a news gamification director, since 2013. Schlock-peddlers are onboard as well, with BuzzFeed adding a quiz template to its click-bait formula in 2012.

The question for journalism companies that take themselves seriously is in what way to make news and games distinct so the entire enterprise doesn’t become a vague sort of infotainment mechanism. Plenty of media sites have realized how much traffic quizzes, regardless of their news value, can generate. Since traffic is critical for sites to bring in revenue, we end up with stupid quizzes such as letting you know which Downtown Abbey character is the most similar to you (mine is Lady Sybil Crawley, because we are both strikingly attractive).

Nonetheless, interactive games don’t have to be pointless, argued news gamification author Ian Bogost. “The really interesting thing about games is they can depict how things work and systemic issues that underlay stories, that we can look at in another way,” he said.

An example is Dollars for Docs on the nonprofit ProPublica site, which allows you to find out if your physician is receiving payments from drug manufacturers (2010 release, 7 million views to date).

True HA IaaS Cloud to Serve Games

Have you gamified your site, or have you reviewed your gamification strategy lately?

If so, you obviously want your site to be fast. Cloud can often be faster than supercomputers, but you need the right networking technology and architectural design – InfiniBand and distributed storage. Superb’s Cloud gives you true 100% high-availability to optimize the viral potential of your game.

By Kent Roberts

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