Category Archives: newsgames

Newsgames “Interview”

This past week I was asked by a reporter via email to respond to some questions for a story on newsgames published today in the Sydney Morning Herald. Here’s the story, which was a little disappointing since it’s really just a blurb and barely mentions any of the great stuff I had sent the reporter.

In the interest of transparency, and more importantly, since I had already spent some time writing out my responses, I’m publishing them here.

Reporter: What impact do you think newsgames like Gaza Shield can have?
At their best newsgames can contribute to the discourse around complex issues in a number of ways. For instance, they can put the player in a position to make decisions that have immediate impact within the game environment, or they can help the player see how individual factors contribute to a complex system or process being simulated in the game. Games can certainly serve to raise awareness for issues and to get players thinking about those issues in different ways. The communicative uniqueness of games comes through a combination of goal-orientation and interactivity, with the message often arising out of the game as a result of interaction and play over time.

Reporter: Are they merely fun or can they have an educative, informative or propaganda purpose?
All of the above. Newsgames can certainly be educational and informative and lead to a deeper understanding of an issue, or help the player to experience the issue by both being a part of it and maintaining agency in some outcome. As with any communicative medium there is also the potential for manipulation, such as through the complexity (or liberties in simplification of a game system), the types of actions enabled, and of course the visual representation and way that elements of the game are depicted.

Reporter: Do they have potential to change the way a player thinks about a particular issue? Could they be utilised by media organisations as another way of disseminating news?
Every medium utilized by the news media has its strengths and weaknesses for telling different kinds of stories. Photos are great for telling compelling visual stories easily captured in the blink of an eye; maps are needed to tell the story of the weather; video is useful for showing unfolding events in real-time; text is good for unpacking complexity and presenting rationale arguments. Games are yet another implement on the storyteller’s tool belt, with their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. The medium is still being explored and researched to better understand the range of storytelling capabilities that newsgames enable, as well as their potential to affect opinion modification.

Reporter: What are some of the recent examples of newsgames that have formed/changed opinions?
Not sure I have any recent examples of games where I could unequivocally say they had changed opinions.

Reporter: Is timeliness still a hurdle to newsgames being an effective way to disseminate news?
Yes. One of the largest challenges facing newsgames is the timeliness issue. But only if you constrain yourself to thinking of news as hard, breaking news. Breaking news is really only a fraction of the news content we consume now, with other softer variations being the bulk of news content produced and consumed. Softer news has different constraints but can still expose important newsworthy issues. “Slow burn” or “evergreen” issues afford game designers more time to refine their message, their simulation, and their interfaces to create a more compelling newsgame experience. At the same time, I think that as newsgame authoring literacy grows you’ll see the turn-around time on newsgames shrink, perhaps to the point where you could routinely see games published within 24-72 hours of an event. The other approach news organizations can take, for certain types of planned events, is to invest the time in newsgame development in anticipation of the event, so that it can be rapidly published once the event happens. With a large enough palette of newsgame scaffolds, news organizations could more rapidly publish adapted versions. Some of my own research has looked at addressing the timeliness issue by creating game-y data-visualizations where the data itself can be quickly swapped out for new or different data on a different issue.

Reporter: By logging the interactions players have with a game, could newsgames provide information on the public’s knowledge and opinions on issues like the Middle East conflict?
Yes. Designers construe games as complex systems composed of objects, relationships, and decisions that players must take on those objects and relationships. The implicit value of logged player interactions with games is to understand the nature of players’ decisions. While these decisions may indicate some stance, position, or opinion by the player, and in aggregate, about the public, it’s important to remember that decisions in games have little risk associated with them. I may choose to make a certain decision in a game simply to see how the game will react, not because I would make an analogous decision in my own real life. So, while such logged interactions will certainly provide information about the public’s knowledge and opinions on issues, such information will still need to be supplemented by traditional means of polling.

Reporter: Are there any issues that are not suited to newsgames? Can you think of any recent examples of tasteless/offensive newsgames? Have you received any complaints about Salubrious Nation?
Not all issues are well-received by all players as presentations in a game format. The aura of playfulness surrounding games can, at times, conflict with issues that demand sobriety. But this is largely a matter of taste and I suspect that as newsgames become more commonplace and mainstream this could be less of an issue. People will simply get more used to seeing complex or difficult issues presented interactively. In one of my own newsgames, Salubrious Nation, we did receive a few complaints about presenting public health as a guessing game. But these complaints were in the minority, and, in my opinion, outweighed by the benefits of exploration, engagement, and insight which the experience offers.

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.