Why Journalists Should Develop Video Games

    by Paul Grabowicz
    February 6, 2008

    When I describe our Remembering 7th Street video game project to journalists, I often get a puzzled look.

    Why is a journalism school doing a video game? How does video game storytelling square with the craft of journalism or the mission of news organizations? Aren’t video games about entertainment, not news?

    The pat answer to such questions is that kids are increasingly using game platforms to consume information, and news organizations need to embrace games if they’re going to reach young people.


    For me personally, a video game also was a way to tell a more engaging story about the history of Oakland’s 7th Street jazz and blues club scene, something I’d written about as a reporter at the Oakland Tribune.

    I had been frustrated by the limitations of a print story to really give people a sense of what 7th Street was like. Creating a virtual world replica of 7th Street offered the opportunity for people to actually experience the music scene in a way that no other media form could approach.

    Since we’ve been working on the project, I’ve also come to believe that video games can help news organizations and journalists break down some of the barriers we’ve erected between ourselves and the communities we serve.


    Every community in America has a 7th Street – some aspect of its heritage or history that has been lost and could be brought back to life in a video game. Since we started the 7th Street project, we’ve learned about similar jazz and blues club scenes in cities all across the country – from Detroit and Houston to Newark and the Bronx.

    A newspaper or other local news organization needs to be more than just a pipeline for informing people about current news and events. It also should provide context for people to understand their community and its history.

    A video game can do that, by letting people re-live the history of their communities and understand not just what’s happening today but what came before.

    In the case of Oakland’s 7th Street, there are a number of revitalization projects now being proposed for the area. Understanding how that community once thrived, and especially how a succession of ill-fated development projects led to its demise, could help inform decisions about issues now in the news.

    For individual journalists, video game storytelling also challenges our traditional notions about being detached, third-person, objective observers who produce stories for passive consumption by readers and viewers.

    A video game reverses that relationship – the story must be written from the perspective of the player, and the story unfolds according to what the player decides to do. A game in which you try to impose on the player a rigid linear narrative is doomed to failure.

    This doesn’t mean the journalist’s role as storyteller goes away – you’re still constructing the game world and shaping the play that exists within it.

    But you have to tailor that to the player’s experience and what might interest or engage them. You have to see the story through their eyes, something from which journalists could surely benefit.

    Tagged: entertainment games history remembering 7th street video games
    • Fantastic idea, Paul. But is there any particular reason your students are using the architecture department’s proprietary software rather than a freely and widely available VR platform such as Second Life?

    • Steve –

      We considered Second Life as a platform when we started the project a couple of years back. Here’s an earlier posting I did to this weblog that explains why we decided not to go with Second Life:



    • Thanks, Paul. Those are good reasons, especially the fact that kids can’t access adult SL. I suspect the building tools have improved, but I haven’t had any firsthand experience at that. I did a piece in November about a group of folks who built a virtual Portland in Second Life. It looks amazingly like the real Portland, and, in fact, several visitors are former Portlanders who are homesick and just want to hang out. Here’s a link to the story:

      Virtual Portland is wide open

    • Paul Grabowicz

      Thanks for the link to your story, Steve.

      I think Second Life is a good option for people who want to re-create cities or neighborhoods as virtual worlds, because it’s very accessible and the tools are pretty easy to use.

      So I’m not against it as an option, and I hope the lessons we’re learning in developing our virtual world and video game can be applied by others to whatever game or VR platform they choose.

    • I heard the NPR piece about this project driving home last night and was very intrigued. We’ve used a video game, Civilization III, in history classes at Kimball Union Academy with great success. Seems to me this would be a wonderful way to get students excited about pieces of neighborhood history and teach at the same time. As a blues lover, I am particularly glad someone is trying to teach about this very important part of Oakland’s history.

      As for Second Life, because of bandwidth constraints it would be difficult to implement it’s use at our school. I imagine most public schools have it blocked.

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