Newsgame Platforms

So this past weekend I had the opportunity (and pleasure) to attend a newsgames workshop at the University of Minnesota. The purpose of the gathering, which brought in academics, game designers, and journalists, was to brainstorm around the topic of newsgames. What are some of the questions that we need to address in order to make progress in this domain?

While there were discussions on everything from the business end of monetizing games, to organizational / cultural clashes, here I’m going to summarize some of the thinking we did on the medium of newsgames itself including issues of building platforms for newsgames. Platforms is, incidentally, one of the areas discussed in Newsgames: Journalism at Play by Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer.

At the top of our list was the question of how news organizations could repurpose their existing content (including text, video, audio, or data) into newsgames? There’s a huge investment in the content that’s already being produced by newsrooms. Can this form a platform for newsgames? Can we come up with new ways to take content that’s already produced and create compelling, playable experiences from the content? Once we figure out effective mappings, can we generate these content games automatically, or with minimal human involvement? Some examples of games already touching on this space are Hangman RSS, and Scoop, both of which use news headlines to produce word puzzle games. Some of my own work on Salubrious Nation has looked at how to take data sets from the likes of data.gov and turn them into playable experiences.

A recurring tension that we identified was the timeliness issue. What’s the scale and speed with which newsgames need to be developed? Certainly, there are many different types of stories that could be told with newsgames; do we need them for breaking news, or does it make more sense to make newsgames for ongoing issues and debates? Programming is simply time-consuming, and combined with editorial development, newsgames cab be pretty slow to develop. But, if we were to think of a platform or templates for newsgames that make use of recurring streams of information this could alleviate the time strain. We brainstormed some content streams that we thought would fit this model: sports data, budgets, economic indicators, natural disasters, weather, conflict / war, births / deaths, business / financial statements, movie releases, book/restaurant/other reviews, traffic, crime, comments and other user generated content, travel … and the list could go on. If we have cyclic data streams, why not create game templates that can be quickly generated based on the latest dump of that stream?

Running counter to the idea of developing a platform for newsgames was the tension between abstraction and specificity. If you build a framework (abstracting the process) what does this mean for the kinds of stories you can tell? Typically games are rich, semantically laden experiences, so if we platformatize the newsgame production process we might lose some of that nuance and richness. Let’s draw an analogy to Google maps as a platform for developing geo-stories. When those first came out they were relatively limited and you pretty much just had pink pins to indicate locations: certainly constraining to the types and richness of stories you could tell. But now you can do a lot more with Google maps: it’s more customizable, you can embed google charts, and the flexibility built into the framework allows for many different types of stories to be told. This makes me optimistic that we might yet find platforms for newsgames that vastly simplify the authoring process but still allow for a certain flexibility and nuance to the story.

These are really just a sampling of the issues and questions that were discussed at the workshop, but some that I personally thought were the most interesting. There’s a lot of work to do in this space, both designing and studying what works and what doesn’t. It’s great to have participated in the brainstorming; now it’s time to get to work.