The Angry Birds Effect

Sep 26, 2011

I have fallen under the spell of one of the most sinister forces in the digital universe. Yes, I'm talking about Angry Birds.

I managed to avoid the birds' pull for a long time. In fact, I refused to even download the game until the rest of the world had more or less stopped incessantly talking and tweeting about it. I mean, how great could one game be?

So great, I guess, that while I was writing this column "news" broke on the internet that Angry Birds had finally infiltrated the hallowed halls of academia. A physics teacher used an infographic of the game to illustrate a problem. Part of me wonders if Mr. Hutton, my physics teacher, is behind this. He used to let us bring in bass guitars to learn about frequency and had us throwing softballs to unravel the mysteries of trajectory. It seems like something he would do. I'm sure if he could have used the clunky old games we used to play on our graphing calculators on an exam, he would have.

Alas, I am but a mere mortal, and once I caved and downloaded the game, I was quickly sucked in. Frankly, it's amazing I found the time to write this column while those poor birds are still out there looking for their eggs.

That's the thing about games, though, isn't it? They suck you in and don't let go-just ask any "World of Warcraft widow."

I'm not the only one learning my lesson about the lure of the simple but addictive game. Web publishers are starting to realize that well-executed games, used in context, can bring readers coming back day after day. I think we can safely credit Zynga with bringing on this revelation. Millions of people log in to Facebook every day to tend crops that don't really exist-and spend real money to buy fake money in order to plant more virtual crops.

Personally, I'm a fan of QRANK, a trivia game that lets you compare your scores to your friends' scores. If there's one thing I can't resist, it's the opportunity to prove how much useless trivia I have stored in my brain. Needless to say, this game is perfect for me.

If you learn only one thing from games like Angry Birds, it should be that people like diversions-and they like them even better when those diversions are integrated into sites they already visit (hence the extraordinary popularity of Zynga's Facebook games). The trick is harnessing the power of games in a way that feels organic to your site, so as not to alienate your readers. Somehow, it just doesn't seem quite right to tack Mafia Wars onto

Lucky for you a new crop of companies is popping up to bring the fruits of their labors to your sites, creating simple, in-context, engaging games that keep your readers coming back to your site day after day. Trivia games seem to be one of the best options for publishers. Think about it like Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me, only using information from your site instead of the news. Readers can score points, and maybe even win prizes, simply by answering questions correctly based on information they read on your site.

Just imagine the potential for publishers, especially niche publishers. Are you running a site about gardening? What better audience is there for one of those virtual farm games? Your readers can learn about fighting aphids in their backyard gardens and then go score points by unleashing digital ladybugs on digital pests in their digital gardens!

Don't even get me started on the opportunities for children's sites!

We have a tendency to write off games as silly or, worse, a waste of valuable time. But it's just not true. We, as publishers, have a lot to learn from gaming companies. From the simplest mobile game to the latest PlayStation masterpiece, game designers know how to capture an audience and never let go. They know how to reward users for coming back, and they have long been creating games as learning tools-just think about that hokey little wagon moving along the Oregon Trail or getting ready to ford a river in school libraries across America in the 1980s.

The truly great thing about games is that they take any number of forms: educational, recreational, informative, completely mindless, and so much more. Smart digital publishers are recognizing what a value proposition these games offer and are reaching out to companies to design an experience that works for them.