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Virtual world of gaming holds real lessons for content strategy


Why didn’t newspapers invent Groupon?” was a question that got Tweeters excited at the recent INMA World Congress, starting a debate on creativity in newspaper companies that ran parallel to the official programme.

Facebook, Google, Angry Birds, YouTube — these were all quickly identified as major game-changers that newspapers should have had the technological and content understanding to embrace early on, but instead just stood by wringing their hands.

There was a sense of frustration, but also determination by the Tweeters. “Same reason railroad companies didn’t invent air travel,” was one response. And from there the discussion quickly started to identify the early themes of the conference — the urgent need for cultural change in our industry, for entrepreneurialism, and for putting money behind opportunities that drive audience participation and engagement.

The gap between newspapers’ understanding of what is going on at the cutting edge of content engagement and where our businesses need to be positioning themselves had been brought home to me just a few weeks earlier.

After sitting through one of those group meetings that makes you feel that watching paint dry could be a more productive use of two hours (ironically, it was on the topic of how we engage our readers in content), I came home to cuddle on the couch with my youngest son Charlie. (He still lets me do that occasionally, and after some meetings, you really need a hug.)

Charlie is a typical 12-year-old. It’s not just computers that have been part of his life since birth, but Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation. The kid can type my credit card details using a gaming console faster than I can read them out loud (and that’s quite a talent).

Every couple of months, we have a conversation where he tells me the latest game that’s out and why he absolutely, positively, desperately needs it. And usually I cave in. (Hey, like I have a choice ... the kid knows my credit card details.)

Since we connected the Xbox 360 to the Internet, he’s been using it to catch up with friends from his old school, playing games together virtually, his headset on like Madonna, whooping and leaping off the couch at regular intervals. Originally we just thought it was nice that they were still in touch. Ah, parents!

But then I realised that I was watching them strategise over attacks, plan and execute the taking-out of alien forces, and build and create the tools needed to carry out their battle plans. They may not have been in the same room or wearing the same school uniform anymore, but they were extremely connected. Hell, they were a tight unit — albeit a virtual one.

And whenever it went horribly wrong, unlike the kid playing solo who would throw a tantrum, I’d watch and hear them rethink as a group, restart and try again. This, I thought, was a major leap in how kids are interacting and connecting with gaming. At the time I thought “Wow!”

But then Charlie showed me his “world.”

Charlie loves this one particular game so much that he used the tools to build his own battlefield. It is a beautiful mountainous place inspired by a holiday we had in New Zealand, with waterfalls, pines and steep cliffs. He had built a base for his troops and identified the number of soldiers and ammunition he needed. He had ensured that they were all strategically positioned based on what he understood about his enemy and how it attacked him.

He also had carefully created and hidden key support vehicles, armour and teleporters to get his people in and out of positions quickly in ways that would both protect them from further fire and maximise their attacking ability.

It took him many, many hours to create this alternative reality (if only he spent half the time doing homework) and he uploaded it to show his friends. They’d played in it for days, testing and refining it. And then, because it was so good, one of his friends uploaded it centrally where the game makers could see it and other players could vote on whether it should become part of the game overall.

It was accepted, and that was one of my son’s proudest days. Kids all over the world can now play in his space. That sure beats the hell out of Lego.

And it really got me thinking. At World Congress, we admired newspapers that were setting up their own Groupons and wondering how we could get our heads into that kind of space.

But the space is so much bigger. The space we need to be positioning ourselves is not sitting in a room thinking, “How do we get people to engage more with our content?” The space we need to leap to right now is, “How do we create content businesses that are so connected to our readers and users that they don’t just want to be part of the conversation — they want to be creating entire new worlds that take what we’ve created and drive it even further?”

We have to get to a space where we realise that it’s not about how clever we have to be, but about how we harness the cleverness of the community around us and incorporate that into our businesses. Most of all we have to not be afraid to let that go wherever it leads, even if we can’t visualise it just yet.

It’s not just the content — it’s the context of our audience. And we always used to be good at context, right?

Larry Kramer, the author of C-Scape, told World Congress attendees that “entrepreneurs see what can be done, where big corporations see only what can’t be done.”

We need to take the blinkers off because the next big thing won’t be something incremental that we control as we roll through our business. It will be in the mind of a 12-year-old devoting hundreds of hours to playing in our space in ways that we never dreamed possible.

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