Mini-Games As Bait?

    by Kathleen Hansen
    March 24, 2008

    As we work to create a news game that will engage readers, we are exploring what types of incentives we can use to meet the “gaming” expectations of hard-core players. We’ve decided to try embedding “mini-games” into the news game scenario.

    For example, a news game might create an environment where the reader is exploring the different aspects of the use of ethanol fuel. The player moves from one NPC to another to talk about the pros and cons. But before the player can talk to each of the NPCs, he or she will have to successfully complete a mini-game as an incentive to move on.

    Our top-notch graduate research assistant Fabio Berzaghi and Johnson Simulation Center game designer Jesse Crafts-Finch met recently to talk about their ideas and Fabio provided this update:


    Thursday March 20th

    Jesse from Johnson Simulation Center and I got together few days ago to figure out new ideas that could work for the mini-games plan. The basic idea is to have games that can have contents embedded into them in an easy way.

    Generally we thought about text-based content, — we haven’t considered pictures or video because they can be inconsistent, since the newsroom has to deal with resolution, formats and re-sizing. We think that some game concepts like: Qix (an old arcade, ported to consoles, with the info hiding behind the uncovered parts of the screen), Pole Position (with the info on the billboards), Space Invaders (with the text behind the enemy’s ships), checkers might work. Just to name a few.

    The next step is actually trying to play through some of these games with just a paper and pen prototype and see which ones will make it to the electronic prototype. As we go along in the project I find it harder to find a game concept that can be challenging and interesting for the player and easy to build for the newsroom. In a generalized framework, in which it is easy to plug in information based on the theme/topic, it is hard to create a unique experience. We would either fall into redundancy or extreme complexity of the tools used by the newsroom, which doesn’t want to spend too much time coding or building the game. So the main struggle is where to draw the line between possible customizations and ease of tailoring such a broad range of topics.

    Another problem that we probably haven’t considered until lately is how to deal with some serious issues that might be the topic of news coverage, for example the death penalty or abortion, in a game context. If the game is too frivolous, could it be used for such issues? Or would it be inappropriate? Or is there a game concept that could be used for such serious issues and be respectful and appropriate at the same time?

    A thought I had is that maybe certain issues need a different game frame to educate people. But to me games are associated with entertainment, so if they don’t do their job then it could just be a newspaper I am reading. Maybe games could be used to make something less dramatic.

    Along with trying to envision how can mini-games can be used effectively in the news-game, we hope to get started soon with some testing with the prototype that is being built by the Johnson Simulation Center. Stay tuned.

    Fabio Berzaghi

    Tagged: Johnson Simulation Center mini-games
    • Gail Robinson

      This project sounds very interesting. As you no doubt know, most news games out there are major undertakings. Under the terms of its Knight grant, Gotham Gazette has three to four months for each game. That’s a lot by the standards of news, but it’s a real scramble to get everything done within that time frame. So we can do a budget game — because the city does its budget on the same schedule every year– but tough to be a “Revolving Governors” game when we didn’t exactly expect Spitzer to turn up in the Mayflower Hotel. (We’re just glad we weren’t well along on an Eliot Crusader Game where the forces of reform take on entrenched Albany.)

      And its not just us. At various conferences and meetings over the past year or so, people discuss how much effort it takes to put together a game — and given that how difficult it can be to get managers to make the commitment to staff time and other resources.

      Perhaps we can all develop templates for types of games to be used, given that some kinds of policy issues (budget, planning for development) come up time and again. But would the templates and the quick turnaround be at the expense of innovation,interest and general “game-ness.”

      Keep us posted! And good luck.

    • Three tough problems: (1) the content creation conundrum – or why my $10 game seems like a $1 game. Games need multiple potential paths to be interesting, so you pay to create the content for all multiple paths, yet each player only sees one of them. (2) relevance conflict – if I am playing a racing game, and there is stuff on the billboards, what do I do – race or read? At some level I can’t do both. (3) originality, as Gail pointed out in her comment.

      I suggest you look into “alternate reality games” and in particular, World Without Oil. Wikipedia has good entries on both.

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