Category Archives: games

Usable Transparency

The NYT has recently been doing a lot of interactive pieces for the 2008 presidential election. One of these is an interactive chart presentation of different political polls done by different organizations. This isn’t quite game-y, though it could be if there were some additional features like being able to compare one poll to another, or to try to predict a future poll based on current polls for points. Anyway, the important point here is that these visualizations are based on some simple polling data, things like # of respondents, and % in favor of each candidate. The Times is transparent about this data in 2 ways, (1) by providing a link explaining eligibility for polls to be included in the chart and (2) by providing a link to the raw database dump of the data. The eligibility link speaks to data quality issues that can arise in the collection of data, which can lead to invalid results or bias. The database dump link speaks to the ability to peer behind the graphic to the actual data used to produce it.

It’s useful to draw a distinction between data and information here, data being raw sensor readings or direct observations and information being additional context and interpretation based on data. There’s a difference in what needs to be done in terms of transparency of data (which the Time did magnificently for the interactive polling piece) and transparency of information. This is because there is a layer of contextualization and interpretation that also needs to be explicated in order to be transparent about information. This touches on issues of individual and organizational biases since interpretation itself is influenced by these outside sources. Moreover interpretation can be something encoded into mathematical equations that produce information (derived values) from the actual raw data. Consider the mean of all polls for each candidate. This is a derived value, albeit one that most people understand readily, but nonetheless which takes an interpretive stance that a mean of polling data collected under different circumstances is meaningful. As we move from simple means to more complexity, a data driven model is really nothing more than a series of complex mathematical manipulations which interpret the data into a manageable form of information.

Here’s the crux: to be transparent about information (interpretation from data), journalists need a way to be express interpretations or manipulations, mathematical though they may be, in a way that is easily understood. This has direct bearing on games for journalism since the models on which games interpret the world will be important to explicate to consumers in the spirit of transparency. The problem alas is that math is inpenetrable to many. Imagine the Times providing a 3rd link for transparency, one which shows a nasty equation on top of which a simulation is built. This is important, because even though many people won’t take the time to understand it, the people that take the time to will be able to verify or understand the model. But what about the other people? They need Usable Transparency. I like to think that a simulation game like SimCity follows the principle of usable transparency – you don’t need to understand the simulation model to be able to make decisions in the game. The manual describes in prose what to do to alleviate trash problems, create more jobs, or reduce rush hour traffic jams. I think this is a useful paradigm that would serve journalists well in thinking about transparency as it relates to games. The collection of the data is important, check. The data itself is important, check. But the mathematical model which drives a simulation is important too. I would argue for a prose description of that model which itself is footnoted with grounding equations.

The Journalism of Awareness

In The Elements of Journalism Kovach and Rosenstiel call it the “Awareness Instinct,” that basic human drive to know something about what’s going on beyond our direct experience. Sure, the gold standard for journalists is to give people the information they need to make the decisions that are important to themselves, their families, and their society, but in our attention starved culture can we settle for something less grandios? Where deep understanding and time-consuming sensemaking of an issue can’t be achieved there is still awareness; a recognition of the issue. And this awareness facilitates the human need to build common ground and community by allowing us to talk about news events with others. That is, common ground around a shared awareness of news allows us to build social connections with others in the community, to relate to others through a shared understanding. So, while some may think that merely being aware of a news event is paltry in comparison to really deeply understanding it, it does indeed carry with it great value. How do we enable awareness for news information?

Storytelling is one way to take information and make it interesting, relevant, and engaging to an audience. A way to make the significant matter to people. A way to raise awareness for a deeper issue by telling a good story. Another approach is to take raw data or information and to make it engaging through interaction. Games, information visualization, and other interactive data driven applications fit into this latter area. In this sense, the journalism of awareness can fully embrace new media as a vector for raising awareness for issues in the news, even if this new media falls short of that gold standard of journalism.

Here are some examples of what I mean by the Journalism of Awareness:

Online news quizzes of the sort found on facebook, for one, serve to raise awareness for news information. I think the quiz mechanic gets lambasted undeservingly for being “too simple” or “not interactive.” It’s raising awareness for news information without getting deep. That’s OK. If you get something wrong, you were still exposed to the quiz question and have a chance to go back afterwards and read the original news item if you care to. The downside is, if you’re not interested in news to begin with chances are you won’t go out of your way to try and complete a news quiz. The other downside is that someone has to sit there and write the questions and answers for these news quizzes: there’s a non-zero authoring cost.

Information visualization of the sort featured on Digg Labs is also a form of the journalism of awareness. These visualizations are dynamic and packed with information, but certainly don’t help you connect any dots. They’re there to provide an entry point to the information space, something that looks fun and visual to draw you in with enough of a snippet to get you interested in digging in. The upside here is that no authoring is necessary; Digg grabs the headline and first few sentences of the story as a summary automatically. There are LOTS of examples of calm, “ambient” visualizations which leave information scent in an environment to raise awareness.

Perhaps most promising for the journalism of awareness are those interactive games or applications that remediate already authored news content. This is because this opens up new avenues for engaging consumers and raising awareness for news using existing content. So for example we have the games featured on MSNBC’s NewsWare Site. While simple instantiations of classic arcade games, NewsBlaster and NewsBreaker use RSS news feeds to exposed the player of the game to pertinent headlines in the course of play. Another example of this is my own game, Audio Puzzler, a puzzle game which is played with short (~1 min) video snippets found online. The game is actually content agnostic, but when fed with news content such as video podcasts, it exposes people to the entire news video snippet in the course of solving the puzzle. These types of applications have the added benefit of engaging people who might not have otherwise been exposed to the information. This is in comparison to the quiz or info viz examples which presuppose an initial interest by the user. Perhaps in the course of playing, awareness is raised and questions spawned. That can help feed the awareness instinct and is perhaps a first step in getting people to actively engage the news.