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Stumbling into News Games

Heading into college, I was all about sports and that’s the main reason why my career path is dedicated to sports journalism. I lived football, breathed baseball, and thought about hockey in my sleep. But I also grew up in a generation where gaming is ubiquitous, so there’s always been a part of me dedicated to it.

In the early part of the fall 2013 semester, I decided to explore other areas in journalism and applied for a job with the ASU Center for Games & Impact. I was hired in late August and right away I jumped into a completely different side to journalism: news games.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into at first with the new ways of thinking about and talking about video games. It was difficult to get used to playing with the news, but slowly I have warmed up to this new concept. One of the issues that comes up with combining journalism and gaming is that the word “games” comes with a connotation of fun, and “mindless entertainment. But, as I’ve been learning since the fall, news games are so much more – interactive experiences and immersion into deep social issues.

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Arizona State students developing news games at the 2013 workshop.

The Center is at the forefront of collaborating with journalism students and professional journalists at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In the past year, we have collaborated extensively with the New Media Innovation Lab (NMIL) to explore game design for issues like military interrogation, post 9/11 veteran’s issues, and gun violence in America.

Getting Game Design Experience

Along with journalism students that work in the NMIL, I spent the fall working on a news game that centers how teachers might react to the warning signs of potential violence among their students. This game is inspired by the PBS documentary, the “Path to Violence” that traces the history of public educators’ readiness for these situations throughout the country since the Columbine tragedy. With all of the recent shootings and mass killings at schools in the past few years, it is definitely a prevalent topic in the news today.

“Path to Violence” was developed on the backbone of research and help from real world situations. Based off of that research and data that was compiled, the game creates a fictional situation in which you, playing as an English teacher in a high school, are tasked with making decisions in a potentially harmful environment.

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Wired Magazine’s Cutthroat Capitalism: The Game

Playing the news and immersing yourself in complex news issues can give audiences a better understanding of it, as opposed to just reading about it in the news issues. Instead of just reading and thinking about a subject, you’re involved in it and whatever action you make, there is a reaction that follows. It triggers a different part of the thinking process and provides more depth to a topic than just a simple article could; playing the news is just more interactive.

A well-known example of a news game on a larger scale is “Cutthroat Capitalism,” made by Scott Carney and Wired took an interesting route and provided “An Economic Analysis of the Somali Pirate Business Model.” On the site, Carney wrote a series of brief articles with included informative graphics to help readers understand how the Somali Pirates go about their plundering and destruction. To supplement the series, Wired included a game to walk readers through the process of Somali Pirates.

The purpose of the “Path to Violence” game was much like Cutthroat Capitalism’s, to supplement articles and provide a different element to coverage of an issue in news. Society can read about school shootings or watch documentaries or news specials on school shootings, but most people haven’t been walked in the shoes of a person that is involved in a school shooting.

Game Design Education for J-Schools

My experience last semester showed me how accessible game design is and after seeing some of the journalism students at Cronkite pick up game making, I believe a fuller news game program at Cronkite would be a strong complement to specialties already offered. Right now, there are print, broadcast and public relation focused majors at the Cronkite school. It’s not farfetched to say that there will be news game/digital production focused students in the future.

People say the journalism world is struggling at the onset of technology. But, in reality, it’s just evolving. In the digital age, gaming is one of the biggest hobbies around the world. Combining journalism and ways to get news through games is a topic that innovators have been experimenting with for a while now. The production of smart phones and mobile gaming has only helped the progress of this wave.

We are on the cusp of some terrific disruptive innovation happening in journalism. The Center has the right minds and contacts to make this happen, and it’s exciting to be a part of.

For more information about News Games and Game Design:

Ian Bogost wrote a book entitled “Newsgames: Journalism at Play” that details the intricacies of the subject. Buy the book here.