Bringing journalism, impact games together at ASU

Journalism and Impact Games 

Journalists at ASU's Cronkite School participating in a newsgame design workshop in March 2013.

Journalists at ASU’s Cronkite School participating in a newsgame design workshop in March 2013.

I started 2013 with a question: What would it mean to teach journalists to design newsgames? After talking the idea over with my colleagues at the Center for Games & Impact and connecting with Retha Hill and the New Media Innovation Lab at the Cronkite School we spent the spring 2013 semester working with journalism students to teach them to design interactive narrative games, a form that seemed appropriate to storytelling in journalism. The experience from that semester lead me toward a vision that in five years there should be a newsgame designer in every newsroom. Not a “conventional” game designer with a computer science or programming background, though. Newsgame designers should be journalists who design games to explore and explain complex news issues and privilege journalism’s practice and values in design, production, and distribution. All those computational, data, multimedia, and geek journalists out there working hard to learn, use, and keep ahead of technology, we want to see them add newsgame designer to their skill set.

Starting this fall we are still working on teaching game design to journalists, but eight months into operationalizing this idea my understanding of what impact games can do for journalism has grown. Coordinating this initiative between the Center and the Cronkite School has led me to want to see j-school students graduating with a specialty in game-infused journalism. This is the first in a series of posts exploring journalism and impact games and to start I would like to share what I learned in the past few years that started me down this path: Games can raise the bar for news and newsgames are a legitimate form of news. Various organizations (media-related and otherwise) have produced newsgames (budget balancers, for example, are common). Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer wrote the book on it. And academics are leading discussion and research on platforms for newsgames.

But, we have yet to see a regular, sustainable practice of newsgame design as a part of regular journalism.

What Impact Games Do Well

At the Center for Games & Impact we explore how good games connect people, inspire real-world action, build in real data around hypothetical experiences, and allow players to take on roles way out of their comfort zones. Some examples:

  • The transmedia game World Without Oil brought people together around a social context, asking them to role-play how they would change their lives during the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. It stimulated real world change as players took action by adjusting their real-lives according to the crisis, and the game stimulated conversation and solution sharing around the world as players participated in the game across media platforms through blogging, texting, posting images, and even voicemail.
  • The online game Spent is an interactive narrative where players become a single parent trying to make it through one month on $1000. Players must make choices about their jobs (that can be labor intensive, minimum wage, and temporary), where they will live, and whether they want to purchase healthcare, and then navigate scenarios like what to do if they, or their children, get sick, can take time off, and lose access to transportation. The game builds in both social media components and information about the impact of the everyday choices players must make. It is a short, immersive, intense role-playing scenario that can create a new understanding around a common social issue in their community, prompts them to share moments from their gameplay with their personal networks, and demonstrates how data points about poverty and homelessness can be built into the experience in an interactive, understandable way.
  • Foldit asks players to “solve puzzles for science.” The online game is accessible for players of all ages and while it does not turn a player into a research scientist, the player’s action of folding proteins can lead to scientific advances in eradicating diseases and improving medication in our world. The crowd-sourced research approach means scientists have access to thousands more possible protein folding solutions than they could come up with in the same amount of time on their own, while the game simultaneously provides players with an interactive biological and chemical educational opportunity through their gameplay.
  • The Walking Dead game asks players to make moral decisions in a post-apocolyptic survival setting. Similar to Spent, players have to make tough choices about everyday life, and live with the consequences of those choices, whether positive or negative. Player decisions impact the experience of the story for the rest of the game. The Walking Dead game also includes a key innovative feature. In contrast to Spent, where real-world information about the game’s subject matter was incorporated into the game experience, The Walking Dead game shows players something that arrises from game play data itself. At the end of each episode the game’s stats screen shows the player where their decisions fell in relationship to other players. The game’s designers understood that players enjoy knowing how other players think and used player data to reveal interesting things about the people in the world around us.

Impact game designers know that serious issues and fun experiences are not mutually exclusive and, when engineered the right way, play holds the power to transform society. By paying attention to game design journalists can elevate the power of interactive storytelling for news.

Do Games Trivialize the News

When asked whether newsgames trivialize the news my response is that the risk is not in the form, it is in the approach, as is the case for any piece of journalism. Games provide a platform for audience engagement different from reading. It is not that this is more or less thoughtful, as our innovation lab director, Adam Ingram-Goble, is teaching me, it is just that we can only design for the experience. We cannot control what the player brings to it, nor what they will take away.

In any case, I am most concerned with what journalists risk by ignoring the emerging newsgame environment and the possibilities this form of storytelling can provide. My goal to develop a practice of game-infused journalism is just as much about innovating and disrupting journalism as it is about meeting audiences where they are, and responding to the fact that newsgames are being produced from within and external to journalism already. Organizations are working with journalists to hold newsgames hackathons, which is great. But, many of these projects are incidental, and groups like Auroch Digital’s Game the News (GTN) project are producing serious games and calling them newsgames, but journalists (and, importantly, the values of journalism) are not necessarily a part of their production. Apple is repeatedly rejecting newsgames and asserting what games should and should not be used for. In response to having a game rejected from the App Store, GTN modified a game’s content for inclusion.

Sure, a game designer can do this. A designer’s goals may include access for as many people as possible to play the game.

But, would a journalist do this?

This behavior has huge implications for journalists. Journalists’ goals include informing audiences, sharing stories as factually as possible, and holding accountable entities that seek to block such activities for whatever reason. By not coordinating the practice of newsgames with intention, journalism is at risk for mutations in practice, understanding, and distribution channel access.

From Newsgame Designers to a Game-Infused Journalism Practice

So, back to that crazy idea from the start of this year, I have realized that adding newsgame design to the journalist’s toolbox is only a small part of what it means to bring journalism and impact games together. In the games and learning field they know that games are an entry point for computational skills that we can take advantage of while teach j-school students digital literacy for the journalism industry. Regardless of their specialities, journalists need to speak the language of technology.

My other questions at the start of this year were: What forms of journalism translate well into games? What kinds of games and mechanics might lend themselves well to journalism? Recently, I have been excited to read more about journalists investigating the use of games like this look at the practice of newsgames in Brazil, and this piece on games for journalism. And in working with the Cronkite School to see this practice become more intentional and coordinated I see that we need journalism to own the definition of newsgames, to set out the guiding principles for the practice, and to challenge others who build serious games with the label “news”. Since realizing there is so much more value to bringing impact games to journalism I have added new questions to guide my endeavor. Questions like: What does game-infused journalism look like? How can we use the principles and best practices of digital games and learning to train the next generation of journalists, whatever their specialties might be?