Whenever people talk about games as a potential journalistic device, there is a reaction against the idea of ‘play’ as a method for communicating ‘serious’ news.
Malcolm Bradbrook’s post on the News:Rewired talk by Newsgames author Bobby Schweizer is an unusually thoughtful exploration of that reaction, where he asks whether the use of games might contribute to the wider tabloidisation of news, the key aspects of which he compares with games as follows:
- “Privileging the visual over analysis – I think this is obvious where games are concerned. Actual levels of analysis will be minimal compared to the visual elements of the game
- “Using cultural knowledge over analysis – the game will become a shared experience, just as the BBC’s One in 7bn was in October. But how many moved beyond typing in their date of birth to reading the analysis? It drove millions to the BBC site but was it for the acquisition of understanding or something to post on Facebook/Twitter?
- “Dehistoricised and fragmented versions of events – as above, how much context can you provide in a limited gaming experience?”
These are all good points, and designers of journalism games should think about them carefully, but I think there’s a danger of seeing games in isolation.
Hooking the user – and creating a market
With the BBC’s One in 7bn interactive, for example, I’d want to know how many users would have read the analysis if there was no interactive at all. Yes, many people will not have gone further than typing in their date of birth – but that doesn’t mean all of them didn’t. 10% of a lot (and that interactive attracted a huge audience) can be more than 100% of few.
What’s more, the awareness driven by that interactive creates an environment for news discussion that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Even if 90% of users (pick your own proportion, it doesn’t matter) never read the analysis directly, they are still more likely to discuss the story with others, some of whom would then be able to talk about the analysis the others missed.
Without that social context, the ‘serious’ news consumer has less opportunity to discuss what they’ve read.
News is multi-purpose
Then there’s the idea that people read the news for “acquisition of understanding”. I’m not sure how much news consumption is motivated by that, and how much by the need to be able to operate socially (discussing current events) or professionally (reacting to them) or even emotionally (being stimulated by them).
As someone who has tried various techniques to help students “acquire understanding”, I’m aware that the best method is not always to present them with facts, or a story. Sometimes it’s about creating a social environment; sometimes it’s about simulating an experience or putting people in a situation where they are faced with particular problems (all of which are techniques used by games).
Bradbrook ends with a quote from Jeremy Paxman on journalism’s “first duty” as disclosure. But if you can’t get people to listen to that disclosure then it is purposeless (aside from making the journalist feel superior). That is why journalists write stories, and not research documents. It is why they use case studies and not just statistics.
Games are another way of communicating information. Like all the other methods, they have their limitations as well as strengths. We need to be aware of these, and think about them critically, but to throw out the method entirely would be a mistake, I think.
UPDATE: Some very useful tweets from Mary Hamilton, Si Lumb, Chris Unitt and Mark Sorrell drew my attention to some very useful posts on games and storytelling more generally.
Sorrell’s post Games Good Stories Bad, for example, includes this passage:
“Games can create great stories, don’t get me wrong. But they are largely incapable oftelling great stories. Games are about interaction and agency, about choice and self-determination. One of the points made by fancy-pants French sociologist Roger Caillois when defining what a game is, was that the outcome of a game must be uncertain. The result cannot be known in advance. When you try and tell a story in a game, you must break that rule, you must make the outcome of events pre-determined.”
” A story as an entity, as a thing doesn’t exist until some event, some imagination, some narrative is constructed, relived, shared or described. It must be told. It is “story telling”, after all. Only at the point that you tell someone about that something does it become real, does it become a story. It is always from your perspective, it is always your interpretation, it is a gift you wish to share and that is how it comes to be.
“In a game you can plant narrative as discoverable, you can have cut scenes, you can have environments and situations and mechanics and toys and rules and delight and wonderful play – and in all of this you hide traditional “stories” from visual and textual creators (until read or viewed they don’t exist) and you have the emergence of events that may indeed become stories when you share with another person.”
And finally, if you just want to explore these issues in a handy diagram, there’s this infographic tweeted by Lumb:
For more background on games in journalism, see my Delicious bookmarks at http://delicious.com/paulb/gamejournalism