Insights into News Games through Eyetracking / Usability

    by Nora Paul
    May 5, 2008

    I’ve been terrible about blogging…it’s just not in my daily routine…so I’ve been letting others on our Knight grant team take up the slack. But now I really do have something to share that I hope spurs some comments and feedback (it will be very helpful as we grapple with these challenges.)

    I’m going to be speaking on a panel on Games and Journalism at the Games for Change conference in New York on June 5th. In coordinating the panel, the moderator asked us to send in a little bit about what our angle would be. Here’s what I wrote up…

    “I’ve been doing some eyetracking and usability research on different games that have been created for news organizations. One is Budget Hero by American Public Media / MPR. (It hasn’t launched yet.) Others are ones on the Discovery Channel, made by a former news graphics guy who is now a professor of multimedia at UNC.


    These efforts by news organizations demonstrate the real challenge for news on two fronts – game play and news / information content:

    — If you make the game too simple, gamers are bored or distainful and won’t play (or they say, “This would be fine for little kids” — and little kids aren’t a real target audience for most news sites.)
    — If you make the game too complex, non-gamers don’t get it and won’t play (and the real gamers still won’t think it is complex enough…there’s lots of “I don’t really play online games / Flash games.)
    — If you make the content too “fun”, it makes serious topics (like federal spending) seem trivalized and people really interested in the topic get huffy (one long-time MPR listener played the Budget Hero game and said “The responses to my budgets choices were insulting.”)
    — If you make the content too serious, it won’t appeal to those mostly likely to be drawn to a “game” approach to the news. There was a lot of “Well, the game is ok, I just won’t want to spend any time with this topic / I don’t know anything about this topic.” (Which is, of course, precisely, and admirably, what MPR’s trying to overcome.)

    Throw in the challenge of “objective” information presentation and you really make news gaming tough.


    The eyetracking / usability research we have been doing scares me as a news issues game grantee / developer, but has also opened up my eyes to potential ways around some of these issues. We are exploring several of these options.

    My other angle will be the need for assessment of the effectiveness of these approaches to creating an informed and engaged citizenry and the need, if they are found to be effective ways to inform, to make their creation easy enough for a newsroom to unplug one set of content and plug in new information about a new issue that people should understand deeply.”

    We have our work cut out for us…and we thank those who are boldly going forward with exploration in this area of media content development. It is a real challenge — thus the name of the grant program. ;>)

    Nora Paul

    Tagged: games eyetracking usability
    • Your comments, Nora, struck home. In the years that Gotham Gazette has been doing games — going back to 2002 — we’ve grappled with many of these issues. One reason we’ve embarked on the challenge of creating six policy or news games in the next two years is becaue we’re always looking for ways engage people in an issue who might not read an article about it. But, as you say, it’s a fine line to walk: how do you attract ne people without earning the scorn of others who will see you as “dumbing down.”

      But if one can be even partly successful at striking that elusive challenbeg, games offer a very clear beneit, to both the cognoscenti and the uninitiated. They can dramatically illustrate a problem, particularly in a somewhat dry policy area, in a way that few conventional stories can.

      When we did our Garbage Game last fall, we heard from a number of readers, particularly ones who considered themselves environmentally conscious, that the game made them appreciate the sheer volume of garbage New York produces and how difficult it is to significantly reduce our waste. Similarly a simple budget game we did when the city faced tough fiscal times in 2003, dramatized how there are few easy choices: schools, parks, police — all the services we want — cost money and lots of it. Even as seemingly pleasant a policy chore as designing a new park presents difficult decisions: How will that limited amount of space be used and for whose benefit?

      Helping readers understand the complexity of choices that confront government and society can only help advance informed public debate. Even if it only helps a little bit it seems worth doing — and doing it in a way that will engage and inform the widest array of readers.

    • Gail — I completely agree with the value of presenting information in this engaging way. And maybe it is just a problem of terminology – as it is with so many other aspects of online media.

      Maybe these should be called “interactive infographics” rather than “games” so that gamers wouldn’t have expectations for what be part of the “game play.”

      Maybe this is the new category for story forms online – ones that are delivering a lot of information about a complex issue in a way that compels, and rewards, the user to delve in deeply. If we say, “Hey, we want you to look at this interactive infographic to learn about garbage – and you can win points while going through it.” rather than “Hey, come play this game about garbage.” we might be more accurate about what we are actually delivering – and not setting us up for either high levels of expectation from gamers or disinterest by those self-professed “non-gamers.”

      It may just be semantics…but it may help in the discussion to make that distinction.

      One of the things we are going to be check

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