October 18, 2007

A nutritious game

Every time your browser loads a page that has an advertisement on it, the server out there on the internet that hosts the page registers a page hit, one of the metrics used to determine how much an advertiser pays the page's owner for publishing that ad. Here's a site that turns page hits into advertising dollars into grains of rice to feed hungry people.

If lots and lots of people visit freerice.com, the page hits pile up. The advertisers at the free rice site have been persuaded to fork over the equivalent of a few extra grains of rice for each additional page hit registered by the participants in the site's vocabulary quiz, who, if my experience is any measure, will click and click and click away at the suggested definitions, piling up the page hits and the grains of rice for hungry people, until running out of words after thirty minutes or so. Any site that can sustain the presence of an individual reader for thirty minutes at a stretch is a marvel in this age, prized by advertisers for the good chance that their pitch will be noticed if repeated over and over as the page hits mount.

I ran into the site by way of languagehat, who pointed to a Metafilter thread where freerice.com had been discussed, and mentioned that he'd reached the score of fifty.

As you get words right, you move up to higher levels; the highest is Level 50, and I've managed to stay there for fairly long periods... but then they stump me with a word like nisus (yes, I should have studied harder in Latin class) and I drop back down.

After about twenty-five minutes I was able to reach Level 50, staying there just long enough to click on the wrong definition of the very next word and falling immediately back down to Level 49. But still, even if it was an outlier I took some pleasure in reaching at least once that territory where languagehat roams so freely, and at some point in the twenty-five minutes I realized that would be the goal, to get to Level 50 and see how long I last and stop.

The quiz is straightforward: a word is served up with four possible meanings. The participant clicks on the suspected meaning and moves on to the next page, where the choice is scored, and a further word offered up. With a series of correct answers the participant ascends to the next level until Level 50 is reached. With a wrong answer, the participant is demoted to a lower level. The quiz words are given in ascending order of obscurity, with Level 50 containing words that are almost never reached for and Level 51 presumably containing words that are never encountered at all.

Anyhow, I played the quiz simultaneously in two browser windows. I did middling in the right hand window, where I started off with a bad go and took some time getting back up into the 40's, though in the process found that I was actually accumulating a lot more rice for hungry people in that quiz than in the quiz in the left-hand browser, where I was relatively error free and rose through the levels without a lot of backtracking. Every time I fell from and then regained Level 43 in the right-hand window the slog back up to 43 was rewarded with its additional grains of rice, so that by the time I reached Level 50 in the quiz on my left I had actually managed to accumulate 50% more rice for hungry people in the quiz on my right, 1200 grains or so to 800 something.

This is a curious result. I failed more often in the right hand window, but that quiz was more productive. Because I took a much longer path to Level 48 it required many more correct answers to get there than it did to reach Level 48 in the left-hand quiz, and as the correct answers accumulated on the right, so did the grains of rice for hungry people.

Say you may test your vocabulary against however many words you can evaluate in thirty minutes time but must stop play if you fall from Level 50 (judging by languagehat's experience, you will). With best play, how many grains of rice can you accumulate for hungry people?

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