Tag Archives: What Would Google Do?

What Would Google Do: Googliness and Board Games

Cover of What Would Google Do?

What Would Google Do?

Jeff Jarvis

2009

HD30.2.J375

What Would Google Do? assumes the reader is somehow engaged in some sort of business, and encourages him or her to apply the model.  But what I thought of as I read was actually board games, my hobby.

Not to be all hipster about it, but in case someone is reading and doesn’t know: Board gaming as a hobby is not about five games that were designed before 1950, and are owned by Hasbro, and either involve random movement around a track or are Scrabble.  We have games now that are, you know, fun.  They emphasize creative mechanisms and interesting decisions. Many of my favorites involve building up economic engines, but I also like games about logistics, games about card drafting, and, well, a variety of things. Then there’s another school of games that are about immersive themes and fun social experiences (these are not really my thing, but I enjoy them once in a while). Furthermore, there are a lot more of them than people outside the hobby might assume; as of this writing, BoardGameGeek lists over 52,000 and more come out every Essen (November), Nuremburg (February/March), Origins (June) and GenCon (August).   There are long games and short games, silly fillers and “heavy” strategy games, games for children and games for adults, Euros and Ameritrash, cardboard and plastic and whatever you want.

There’s one obvious connection to the book here: this is a niche in what Jarvis calls “the mass of niches.”  That much is clear from the fact that I just spent a paragraph trying to explain what I am talking about.  There is also at least one obvious way in which it doesn’t fit:  Jarvis writes “atoms are a drag” and it’s awfully difficult to separate board games from their atoms.  Sure, there are online implementations of board games, and implementations for use with iDevices or video game consoles have been popular recently, but most gamers seem to regard them as supplemental at best because they want real-time, face to face social interaction.  Instead, we gather in a room, sometimes even at a convention far away from wherever it is we live, in order to play games with other people.

But it’s also true that gamers congregate online.  I’ve already mentioned BoardGameGeek, but it deserves a more thorough treatment.

Each game has a page which provides information about it; we’ll use Navegador, one of my current favorites and very likely the best game of 2010. Some basic bibliographic information (designer, publisher, publication date, number of players) is available there, but it goes beyond that.  Not only is it possible to see how many players the game supports in theory, but there is also a poll to help people figure out what the best number of players is.  Other features, such as language dependence, can also be voted on.  The game record also aggregates other information; there’s a space for video reviews and links to site-hosted blogs and other BGG content that concerns that particular game.  There’s also information about how a game has been rated by the site’s users and a ranking system based on that, in order to make it easier to identify the best games.  Of course, there is also a set of forums for each game.  Designers of games often frequent these forums to clarify rules questions or respond to comments.

Users can also contribute images of games. Some are straightforward and just communicate what the game looks like. Others feature creative photography, interesting game situation, or customized pieces.  This can extend far beyond the painting of miniatures. If you look at the images for Agricola, you’ll see both farmers and resource tokens sculpted from FIMO; there are also sheets of printable stickers for the less ambitious. Many gamers like to show off their customized games. Others just hope to be helpful and create player aids, rules translations and the like, and post them on BGG.

That’s what you see when you approach the site from the perspective of the games. Sometimes, it’s just as interesting to look at user profiles.  People who create accounts can rate and comment on games, and this information is available to all.  It’s also possible to record sessions of each game played, and who else was playing. There’s a lot more information that it can record, not only about games but also about yourself.  For instance, there are so-called microbadges that fit right under your avatar, describing the various things with which you may wish to be associated.  Some popular microbadges are those declaring fandom of a particular game, endorsement of a philosophy, how many children the bearer has, and so on. Some are just silly jokes—I personally sport one that says “ambiguity will get you somewhere.” So there is also a lot of potential for personalization. Anyone can design microbadges, although there is a moderation process.

Simplicity is recommended as a virtue in the book. BGG does not go in for this sort of thing; it’s a site for geeks who already care about the hobby. But when it comes to being a platform, providing personalization, giving users control, inviting a community to use it, and being smart with data (all attributes of what Jarvis calls “Googliness”), it’s excellent.

But what about the games themselves?  There’s more user input than one might think.  There are game design forums on BoardGameGeek, designer-specific conventions and games financed through Kickstarter. Game publishers, however, constitute an intermediary that doesn’t seem to be as doomed as he claims intermediaries are in general. This is not to say that they are rolling in dough, far from it, but they’re an essential part of the chain. It’s expensive to produce and distribute a board game, after all. There are print and play games, but very few gamers pay attention to them, since they represent a greater risk in terms of quality, and they don’t look as nice, at least not until everyone has one of those 3D printers that keep showing up on BoingBoing.  Still, it does feel as if anyone has a chance to become a game designer. The community is small and the publishers accessible.

So—is BGG the Google of board games? As Google is defined in the book, I think it is.

This model works very well for a community of this sort—a small community organized around a fun social activity that includes a commercial/consumer aspect and is largely composed of people who are highly wired and not very poor. I’m not sure it works as well for other kinds of communities—those with a more serious purpose, or those that involve no consumer aspect, or those whose members are on the wrong side of the digital divide.  But board games are a good example of a time when it can work well.

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What Would Google Do: Is this really the economic model?

Cover of What Would Google Do?

What Would Google Do?

Jeff Jarvis

2009

HD30.2.J375

I read this book as part of a two-part series on social media and the future of the internet, along with Siva Vaidhaynathan’s The Googlization of Everything, so expect some posts on that one after I’m done with this.

In this post, I wanted to focus on the economic model that Jarvis describes (“The Google Economy”). It’s heavily based on targeted advertising.  He describes Google’s keyword auctions, which allow companies to bid on words that will trigger the appearance of ads that they would like to run.  Websites allow the ads to run next to their content, in exchange for payments from Google, and under ideal circumstances, the people who visit the website click through the ads and then proceed to buy whatever it is the companies are selling.  This is a simplification of a simplification; Jarvis has attempted to explain it in a clear and accessible manner and I’m just summarizing for this post, so obviously there is more to it than that.

There were two basic problems I had with this.

The first problem is this: a model that claims the internet runs on AdSense and Googlejuice is certainly incomplete. Many of the sites where I spend my time rely at least partly on donations, which, oddly aren’t addressed in the book at all.  Maybe I’m anomalous here, but quite a few of the sites I use on the internet rely on donations as an important part of being able to stay online. Some examples: Wikipedia, Board Game Geek (center of the board gaming world online), actual online games Kingdom of Loathing, feminist blogs like Shakesville (which have good reasons to avoid AdSense), and just about every podcast I listen to (let’s say The Spiel as an example, since they are having a pledge drive).

Shakesville is an interesting example.  It’s an excellent feminist blog; rigorous, accepting, entertaining and earnest by turns, and full of a large amount of content every day.  It’s run mainly by Melissa McEwan, who, I understand, is a full-time blogger.  I can see no other way that a blog of this volume and quality could be produced.  However, Shakesville does not run AdSense.  After all, there is an inherent problem with keyword-based advertising in such a context.  The contributors to the site spend a lot of time writing about things that they consider toxic in the culture, because pointing out these things is important to their mission.  For instance, McEwan often writes about fat hatred and body policing and why these things are a problem for the women and men who are surrounded by them day after day.  AdSense is likely to respond with ads for diets.  By using services that target keywords, sites may attract advertising for companies they explicitly do not support, and in this case, advertising that may cause actual psychological harm to some of their readership.  So there are no ads on Shakesville, only a donate button and a post every two months reminding readers that supporting the blog is an important thing to do.  The problem with donations is that they’re very frequently insufficient.  I strongly suspect that there are other blogs and cultural productions of all sort on the internet that find this to be a problem.

In his book, Jarvis describes “virtuous circles,” which involve people put things on the internet for free, consumers see them, advertisers advertise, and without having to resort to scarcity pricing, everyone ends up making more money than before. But we don’t always get that. Sometimes, what we get is people who work for free and, well, that’s all really, they just work for free, or for unsustainably small amounts of money.

In some cases that’s fine. There are lots of little hobby activities on the internet that people do in their spare time without wanting or needing to be paid. There are also, however, some types of speech that are important, and that require further time investment than spare time allows.  Of course, people can decide they’d like to work for free if they wish.  But sometimes those people are doing things that are important and if they could get paid, it would be a lot easier for them to keep doing it.  The internet’s provided them with a way to publish their thoughts and that is great—but it hasn’t provided them with any way of making money from it.

(I seem to have convinced myself to donate. Curiously, between the time I wrote this post and the time I posted it, she put up a donation post–it didn’t inspire this, just a little coincidence.)

The second problem may be partially attributed to my ignorance of economics, but it boils down to a simple question: how are the advertisers getting paid?  Where is all this money coming from?

There’s an idea in the book that many websites are funded by ads from Google. Thus, they can offer their content without charging the reader.  It is the advertisers, not the consumers, who provide the money.  The consumers are happy because they realize that they can enjoy a lot of information, entertainment and services without having to pay.  The advertisers are happy because they are getting the attention of people who may be interested in their products.

But somewhere in this chain, someone has to pay for something.  If they don’t, the advertisers realize that their money is being wasted and stop buying keywords, Google is left without a major source of revenue and bad things happen.  So… do people click through ads, and if so, do they buy things?  There are a lot of times in my life when I don’t want to buy anything, and I spend a lot of that time on the internet.

There are some activities that naturally lend themselves to commercial content. I mentioned gaming earlier.  People who look at board game sites on the internet buy a lot of board games (in some cases, a lot of board games) and are often on the lookout for the hot new thing. There’s a natural opportunity for advertising because people are interested in buying stuff.  However, this is very far from covering all the speech that may be made on the internet.  Consider the example above, or really any type of political speech (for example: anti-consumerism!).  Or consider things people make on the internet for artistic or entertainment purposes.  These are often supported by merchandising; I have no idea how successfully.  But for these sorts of content, it’s difficult to imagine the ad-supported model working well, because when I want to read creative stuff on the web, I don’t want to click over to another website and buy whatever it is they are selling. I just want to read creative stuff on the web. If people come out with them as books, I’ll buy them then…

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