MTV, area/code turn Snark into Sport

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If you're tired of venting spleen over the misadventures of The Hills' Lauren Conrad and company into empty chat rooms and vacant message boards, it's time to celebrate. MTV and designers area/code have developed Backchannel, a social game where players earn points and status with quick wits and scattershot snark.

"It's as much fun to talk about The Hills as it is to watch The Hills," Brian Graden, president of entertainment at MTV networks music channels said yesterday over video link from Los Angeles to a conference room in Viacom's New York headquarters. "We're calling [Backchannel]...a party game for the 21st century." The network provided press an opportunity to preview the game, which launches on Monday September 15 with a new episode of The Hills.

While players watch the pseudo-reality series (on TV), they can interact with each other online, live, in what the network terms "competitive chat." Players score points by serving up the wittiest remarks when their turn comes up, as deemed by clicks from the rest of the game players. So, as you watch the show on the tube, you vie for attention in the Backchannel space online by launching barbs about the show that you hope will be clicked and voted up by other players.

While waiting for your turn as a "tagger," you score points by trying to predict which of other players' comments will attract the most clicks from the fellow gamers. When you see a comment you think will be popular and click it early, you get extra points as it gets higher and higher ranked, and becomes larger on your screen. When comments with extra popularity reach a supernova of popularity, the points get even bigger.

Heavy activity, clicking on other players' comments, is rewarded with the opportunity to tag more often. In addition to a leader board and points tracking, the ability to set custom groups of friends is in the works.

"Message boards and chat rooms are just another form of being able to converse, but in text instead of words," says Daniel Hart, general manager of MTV Digital. "[Backchannel] takes it to another level and adds social gaming to chat and text commenting."

Around 40% of 20-year-olds are using the internet while they're watching television, says area/code co-founder and managing director Kevin Slavin. area/code was previously responsible for two iterations of SharkRunners for the Discovery Channel and a Sopranos game for A&E. Backchannel attempts to wrangle the activity that goes on concerning The Hills, but isn't necessarily happening on MTV's turf.

"There's social currency, around not just watching the show but being clever about it, being clever about what you think about it, the opinion," Slavin says. "The opinions start to be as valuable as the show itself in some ways. Competitive chat is about adding a game layer, saying some comments are funnier than others, some people are more clever than others, some people have watched it with greater acuity."

The game continues through the entire half-hour block of time, and in the game we experienced users were just as apt to comment and score points on the commercials as they were the actual show, despite the fact that players in different locations were seeing different ads.

The Hills airs around a dozen times a week, and each re-airing is an opportunity to play again and earn more points, leading developers to speculate some players will work on routines and study the show to perfect their delivery for optimal scores.

MTV plans to aggregate the comments collected over a week of a rerun episode and inject those into an on-air overlay, so, for example, an hour-long Hills block will contain an initial repeat episode with top-scoring Backchannel comments laid over, a la VH1's successful Pop Up Video. The second half of the hour will be the new Hills episode, with, the network hopes, a group of new players who saw the preceding episode and are anxious to try the game.

"The right application can redefine how people interact with the content," Graden said, referring to MTV Games' smash hit Rock Band.

Slavin says while Rock Band allows you to interact with music, Backchannel does the same with television content. "What you're doing when you're playing Rock Band is you're taking media and you're playing it. This conventional media that we have starts to get a new layer on top of it."

The network also has tentative plans to deploy Backchannel for an upcoming reality show where people audition to be heiress Paris Hilton's new best friend, "almost the perfect show to do this against," says Hart.

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