Functional and Cultural Tensions and Opportunities for Games in Journalism

Games and Journalism both evoke their own cultural images; the Ramen and Dorito stained gamer on one hand and the hard nosed, gum shoe journalist on the other. It’s not immediately obvious that oil and water can mix, nor am I going to argue that they should. But there are some interesting opportunities here, both for games to fill functional gaps in journalism and for games to come closer to journalism by adapting the cultural values of¬† news institutions. How can games fit into the sociology of news and journalism?

I started by reviewing “The Sociology of News” written by Michael Schudon, a sociologist at UCSD. If you haven’t read this book I would recommend it, not only for its concise definitions of terms like “news” and “journalism,” but also for its in depth description of the American culture of journalism.

Schudson claims that one of the distortions in the news that arises out of its culture is that it is “event-centered, action centered, and person-centered.” Event emphasis, for better or worse, is a characteristic I think most of us would agree predominates the news. Here’s where games can provide something more: process-oriented journalism. For instance, how does the process of the electoral college work? The news industry has often failed to provided process-oriented reporting, but games are perfectly suited to process explication. At the same time, Schudson writes, “When things are going well there seems less of a reason for a news story. The news instinct is triggered by things going badly.” Is process just boring? And if so, how can games make process more engaging for consumers? Perhaps the unusual and the “bad” news needs to be incorporated into process games.

On the other hand, perhaps what people want to know from the news isn’t process and that’s why it’s not prevalent. The brutal truth is that a majority of the useful information in the news consists of things like movie listings, restaurant reviews, weather forecasts, and local sales advertisements. This extends to “news you can use,” like reports about your health and financial investments. These are the topics and types of information that are “important” to people on a daily basis, for which they need a guide.¬† There’s a whole interesting story to tell here about the history of news and its evolution. Politics didn’t really enter into the news equation until the rise of democracies. The News was appropriated by those seeking democracy in the 18th century, and in the course of time journalism has maintained its rhetoric as the machinery that makes democracy work. But perhaps the bias that “serious” journalism needs to be about politics or public policy is unfounded and was socially constructed in a distant time. All I’m saying here is that games have a chance to go back to basics and give people what they want: the information they (really) need presented in a compelling format.

But whether or not journalists will accept games into their repertoire for telling stories is questionable. Technical and literacy issues aside, there is cultural conflict between journalism and games: News has a “prestige” aura around it. The prestige of the news organization legitimates certain forms of knowledge and amplifies stories. It provides a certification of importance. Just think back to the time when you made “the news” and were in the local paper. Somehow that paper had conferred on you an air of importance. Games may lack this prestige value because of their association with frivolity, playfulness, and general unproductivity. To break this cultural standoff would take leading news organizations accepting games into their news culture and framing them with the same aura of prestige conferred on other media.

The final point I want to make here builds off of Schudon’s observation that oftentimes a journalist’s aim in telling a story is astonishment and moral outrage rather than any deep understanding; the so called “Holy Shit!” stories that make milk come out of your nose at the breakfast table. This may also be an area where games can excel. Sure, images and videos can shock you, but what about a game that puts the player in an uncomfortable situation where their own actions shock them. I’m reminded of the PETA parody of Cooking Mama, where the player had to do all sorts of inhumane things to a Tukey in order to put Thanksgiving dinner on the table. If attention getting is part of the news culture it seems like a no-brainer that games can do this every bit as well as other media, maybe even better, albeit with perhaps more of a time investment on the part of the player.