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Games are proving their appeal on news and technology sites| GuyWhoKnowsThings

What's a five-letter word for an activity that technology and media companies increasingly rely on to gain subscribers and keep them coming back?






Apple launched a series of word-focused puzzles on its subscription news service last fall. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn introduced a series of puns this spring. News sites like Morning Brew, The Washington Post, Vox Media, and The Boston Globe added new puzzles beyond the crossword and hired staff to work on the games. The publication you are reading has also invested in a collection of puzzles.

It's not all fun and games, exactly. For media companies, gaming is a way to attract new customers as their sites face declining traffic from Google, X and Meta, which have stopped emphasizing news. For technology companies with editorial offerings, puzzles are a way to attract new subscribers while also attracting existing users who may not return to apps daily.

“A publication is more than the stories it produces. It's an experience to look forward to, a pleasure,” said John Temple, a former journalist and co-founder of Amuse Labs, which sells a software platform that helps editors create puzzles. “They want to recreate for people the same satisfying experience they might have had for years doing a crossword puzzle in the newspaper.”

Adding games and puzzles has become a central element of many publishers' strategies in recent years, and momentum has picked up in recent months as Apple and LinkedIn come on board. As these news and technology companies compete for consumer attention against competitors like Netflix, Spotify and other forms of digital entertainment, others are likely to follow in their footsteps.

Many of the games are not Call of Duty-type shoot-em-ups or the next Angry Birds. They are often word or logic puzzles, which can help people feel a sense of accomplishment by flexing their intellectual muscles. For companies with editorial products, word games are also not drastically different from their core businesses.

There are early signs that the games are working. At The New York Times, new subscriptions to non-news products (including subscriptions to Games, Cooking, Wirecutter, and The Athletic) outpaced new subscriptions to the core news offering in the first quarter. (The Times does not provide figures just for game subscriptions.) Apple and LinkedIn said, without giving details, that early results were promising.

Publishers have a long history of adding games to their news offerings. For more than a century, newspapers featured word games and riddles. The New York World published the first crossword puzzle on its “Fun” page on December 21, 1913.

An exception was The Times, which was promoted as “strictly a newspaper for intelligent and thoughtful people.” That changed after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II. Times editors said that because of the intense news environment, readers might want to veer away from the relentlessly gloomy headlines. In February 1942, The Times presented his first crossword puzzlewhich became a hallmark of the newspaper.

Today, publishers and technology platforms have found the news cycle just as challenging, with the wars in Israel-Gaza and Ukraine, as well as the looming US presidential election and the culture wars surrounding it. News and technology executives have tried to provide at least some refuge, however brief, from what can seem like an endless stream of bad news.

“News and current events are often characterized by things that are intractable,” said Ross Trudeau, puzzles editor at Apple News. “Riddles are a way of saying that some of these problems have solutions, even elegant ones.”

(Mr. Trudeau comes from a true media lineage. His parents are Garry Trudeau, best known for creating the comic strip “Doonesbury,” and Jane Pauley, a television news anchor and journalist.)

The Times has had breaking games beyond its crossword puzzle. They include homemade creations like Spelling Bee, where users create as many words as possible with a handful of letters, and Connections, where people group a series of words that have a similar link. In 2022, The Times I bought Wordle, a word guessing game that was a surprise hit for its creator, who was a Reddit engineer. The game went viral when people shared their Wordle scores on social media.

Others have noticed it. Last fall, Apple introduced a daily crossword puzzle series for subscribers to Apple News+, its paid subscription service that curates articles from partner publishers. (The times left the program in 2020.) Last month, Apple introduced a spelling gameQuartiles, where users spell words based on an unordered series of fragmented word tiles.

“The more value we add to Apple News+, the more subscribers we will attract, which benefits our editorial partners,” said Lauren Kern, the editor-in-chief of Apple News. Apple has also integrated Apple News+ puzzles into Games Center, its social gaming network, allowing users to compete with friends for the best scores.

LinkedIn followed up with three puzzle games, which feature prominently on their website and mobile apps. Dan Roth, LinkedIn's executive editor, said the goal was to keep content in line with the company's “professional networking” brand, while also giving people a reason to come back regularly and participate in conversations, both public and private. as private on the site.

“One of the main goals of LinkedIn is to attract people to the site, take the knowledge they have in their heads and share it with their network,” Roth said in an interview. “Sometimes you have to prime the engine for people to start sharing, and adding games is a clear way to do that.”

The companies said their approach to creating games started with humans. Apple touted its diverse team of puzzle creators and contributors to appeal to a broader audience and said it tried to avoid crossword jargon in puzzle clues.

LinkedIn hired Paolo Pasco, a longtime crossword puzzle builder and recent Harvard graduate, as its first game editor. The Times has highlighted its gaming team for showing the often low-tech process from handwriting and creating the most popular puzzles on the site.

All of these companies are dedicated to creating new habits for consumers. This is especially true for new casual customers, whom they may bring to their apps with games but hope to keep them long enough to introduce them to other products, such as podcasts, sports, and even hard news.

“When we see subscribers engaging with both games and news in a given week, we're seeing some of the best long-term subscriber retention of that pattern,” said Jonathan Knight, gaming director at The Times. “That's why we're doing a lot of things to encourage that behavior.

People need to feel good about visiting the apps, many of the companies said, even if it's in the fleeting but satisfying moment of completing a crossword puzzle at your personal best.

“It's time well spent and you decide how it fits into your life,” Knight said. “You do a puzzle a day. Leave it and go down to the next one whenever you want. “It’s a real sense of accomplishment and people can feel good about that.”

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