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.