Games as Informal Sources

How are people interacting in news games? What kinds of decisions are they making? And what game elements and relationships are players most interested in? These are the types of questions that an observant journalist might answer, or at least pose, if they began to think of games as informal sources of information.

In their 2004 textbook, Behind the Message: Information Strategies for Communicators, Kathleen Hansen and Nora Paul write, “Informal sources include observations about audiences, messages, and the environment in which the communicator operates, as well as networks of supervisors, colleages, clients, neighbors, and friends the communicator deals with every day.”

We would posit that news games (or other forms of interactive multimedia) could function as a valuable addition to the journalist’s toolbelt of information gathering capabilities if they were properly intrumented to gather observations of user behavior. Case in point is American Public Media’s Budget Game, a complex simulation asking users to manage the US federal budget by selecting different policy options ranging from taxation to defense and the environment. In the process of play, the game elicits a set of policy priorities from the user, leading to an understanding of the depth, complexity, and tradeoffs of remaining true to your ideological beliefs while also maintaining a realistic air. After decisions are made, the budget is simulated out to 2028¬† and you get a sense for the impacts of your decisions over time. You can also see how many other people played the same sets of decisions as you did and if you input some basic demographic data you can even start comparing your decisions to others.

The implications of the APM Budget Game as a journalistic tool, an informal sources, are interesting. On the backend, we can imagine a journalist looking at the aggregate decision data taken from players of the game and looking for trends or correlations between sets of decisions. Do 80% of players decide to roll back Bush’s tax breaks? Are those same players in a middle income tax bracket? Also, what is the ordering of the decisions made in the game? Perhaps this could lead to some insights into how players view the importance of some of the issues at stake. Interesting trend or correlation? The journalist can capitalize on it and write a follow-up story.

It’s well known that online journalism operations (e.g. the NY Times) have analytics departments that do data-mining on pages to understand both demographics and how users flow through news pages. But what about an interactives-analytics group that data-mines on the logged behavioral response to games and other interactive graphics? This type of mentality could also lead to different types of game designs since the goal would be both the user experience as well as the “exhaust”, the data that could be collected, from that user experience. How to design such an interactive experience that also produces something interesting for the reseacher / journalist?

Clearly games as informal sources are not going to replace other forms of sources for journalists. Interviews of scholars or reliance on institutional reports produce different types of insights compared to the observation of online behavior. But this could be yet another way to probe at the audience and understand what is most relevant to them.