Karthika Muthukumaraswamy looks at how games have been used in online journalism.
BlackBerrys, iPods and Kindles are not enough anymore. Let’s add a joystick to the expanding repertoire of tools available to news consumers.
Gaming is often overlooked as a tool for disseminating news. Online games are attempting to explain the economy through the politics of oil, educate users on disaster readiness in the context of Hurricane Katrina and, perhaps more in line with traditional video games, some are exploring the various military operations implemented in the Iraq war. In a strange likeness to fantasy sports, one game allowed people to draft their own cabinet picks for Obama’s then-new administration.
Nick Diakopoulos, a researcher at the Georgia Tech Journalism and Games Project, gives one compelling reason for the media to turn to online games: they offer a format that would wean away from the current emphasis on unusual and inopportune events, focusing instead on more process-oriented journalism. How many times do you hear about a specific incident or event that killed troops or civilians in Iraq, without any knowledge whatsoever of the military operation that caused it?
Another specific application of games is in the particular genre of investigative journalism called “interpretive” reporting. Framing it in the context of traditional interactive news stories, Adam Rice of the Games Project explains how online gaming could take these interactions a few steps further.
In 2005, The New York Times published “Class Matters,” an interactive and highly elaborate infographic detailing financial and social classes in America. The story came to the conclusion that financial classes are surprisingly stagnant in the US, often through several generations.
Rice convincingly envisions this exercise in the format of an online game with an avatar that can toggle between various parameters such as income, education, and occupation to determine his place in society.
If I were to learn the horrifying truth that I am destined to remain in the same financial class as the one I was born into, I might as well have some fun doing it!
This sort of gaming may help inspire the interest of general readers in more serious subjects, and also allow them to determine the stories’ relevance to their own lives.
Games such as Ars Regendi and Our Courts, produced by Games for Change, on the other hand, are purely educative, providing users a glimpse into the workings of legislative and legal systems respectively.
Other games, including Global Conflicts: Palestine and Latin America allow gamers to understand and interpret complex issues by planting them in the region of interest as virtual scribes with pen and paper.
These exercises take users through a series of real-life events, including bombs, explosions, and personal narratives of people present on scene.
The idea is to allow the reader to be part of the story rather than merely a passive spectator, according to Serious Games Interactive, the Danish company that developed them.
However, games such as these may run the risk of taking the “personal narrative” angle to a whole new level, thus making news one-dimensional and person-centric based on their narrative.
But as Mark Luckie reasons, not every news story can fit into the game format. Nonetheless, the ones that do can garner the kind of interest than no amount of text and pictures probably would.
Relevance and preaching
Diakopoulos points out that, perhaps, games may not be the ideal format for so-called serious journalism. Instead, what if games were used for news items that were more relevant to people in their daily lives, such as, health and financial information?
Educating youth about HIV and AIDS appears to be another useful application of videogame technology since it targets the right demographic while offering useful information.
One of the arguments against online games is that many of them tend to preach. Consumer Consequences has been accused of imposing its environmental views on people. But one might argue that no game is trying to coerce a viewer into doing anything against his will, and moreover, how different is this from the subjectivity of opinion pieces in the mainstream media?
On the other hand, some games allow people to be proactive and take action for causes they care about. For instance, the Darfur video game offers the audience ways to volunteer help, either by sending a message to their local representative or raising awareness in their communities.
More importantly, could such a game begin to counter the depth of investigative reporting that went into Jeffrey Goldberg’s account of lax security checks in last November’s issue of The Atlantic?
As much as a political game like Ars Regendi may be based on real data and realistic estimations of demographics and budgets, how much are you going to learn about the actual world by creating a fictional nation state, forming alliances, and keeping your virtual populations happy?
Also, could such games be trivializing the grave problems in the real world out there? “PeaceMaker challenges you to succeed as a leader where others have failed,” states a blurb on the home page of this online game, urging users to try and bring peace to the Middle East.
Darfur is Dying attempts to give gamers a glimpse into the life of a civilian in the troubled African region. Users pick a Darfurian avatar and forage for food and water while dodging military attacks.
While this might give an unwitting individual some idea of living conditions in Darfur, could it possibly compare with detailed investigative reports from the region, or the powerful videos here of real Darfurian refugees speaking out to the world?
Not an either-or
The point to consider here is that the two processes do not have to be mutually exclusive, and may even be complementary. Just a couple of years ago, we were wondering if the blogosphere was trivializing journalism; now, most of us, including traditional journalists, are willing to accept the fact that the two can not only live in harmony but also play off of each other.
Similarly, online games could help break down complex topics, and stimulate audience interest in the more mundane ones.
While the significance and relevance of news games is important, so is their format of delivery. MSNBC, one of the few mainstream news sites to try out this concept, has made the gross error of making the game itself unrelated to news content.
In NewsBreaker and NewsBlaster, a user tries to “clear as many bricks or bubbles” as possible while collecting news headlines that have little to do with the game itself. The problem with this approach is that such news is not only easier obtained by surfing the home page, but no more entertaining.
SexyPolitics makes it slightly more interesting by offering a virtual striptease for correct answers; however, it’s been observed that users tend to either avoid the striptease altogether to focus on the quiz, or ignore the information on account of the entertainment value.
In order to interest readers and keep them interested, news organizations should come up with ways to incorporate news in video game format without extricating the two.
Nora Paul of MediaShift aptly summarizes the challenges in harnessing the power of gaming technology to disseminate information: keeping gamers happy, while inviting non-gamers into the fold, and imparting useful information without trivializing issues of grave consequence.
The news industry might have its work cut out for it, if it should decide to take this path, but the potential advantages in luring readers, and keeping them may be huge.