When Moral Systems Miss the Point in Newsgames

    by Simon Ferrari
    July 1, 2011

    In “Newsgames: Journalism at Play,” we argue that the news quiz “is an incredibly simple type of game, but one that nevertheless can transmit factual information in a refreshing way.” Perhaps our favorite example is an op-ed suite from The New York Times called “Turning Points, 2008 Edition,” which couples a Trivial Pursuit-style question card with a series of short columns on the 2008 presidential campaign.

    While I can’t speak for my co-authors, I personally believe that we were being a bit generous in this assessment. The truth is that I’m tired of quizzes, and I’m not convinced that the form has intrinsic pedagogical value. In order for a quiz to actually educate, it needs to be built into a competent curriculum or wider news ecology; the quiz is a capstone, not a keystone. Some designers of quiz newsgames make no effort to integrate them into a lesson or tie them to a current event, so they usually lack context or linking to relevant news sources.

    For instance, Sunshine Week’s Ray of Sunshine Game quizzes its players on First Amendment rights and the Freedom of Information Act. There’s a small link to Sunshine Week’s website at the bottom left-hand of the screen, but there’s little contextual information about why the game exists and where players are meant to pull information from in order to answer the questions.


    The game begins with a general question about rights and freedoms before quickly descending into a gauntlet of FOIA esoterica.


    You’d need an encyclopedia or a law degree to know the answers to some of them off the top of your head. But answering the questions correctly doesn’t really seem to be the point. On every incorrect guess, you’re simply told to try another answer. Finally stumbling upon the correct choice, you’re given a short blurb explaining why that answer is correct. The entire process feels backward.


    Nevertheless, we recognize that there is a deeper missed opportunity in the design of most news quizzes: “to inspire players to perform more detailed analysis and synthesis of facts into information that might inform civic decisions,” as we note in “Newsgames.”

    Adding in ethical choice

    Perhaps in an effort to accomplish this goal, a few recent newsgames do something curious: They hide basic trivia questions under a layer of moral decision-making. And this might come as no surprise to those who pay attention to the discourse surrounding the “maturation” of games as a medium. It is often assumed that taking a tired design and adding some nominal amount of ethical choice — usually in the form of binary story branches or good/neutral/evil alignment meters — will somehow reinvigorate and edify its players.

    But there’s a serious problem with this easy inclusion of moral choice: Even a simple move to branch out from the standard structure of a game results in an exponential need for more content. And in a genre where budgets are often tight, cuts will likely need to be made as a result. This means less thought goes into the causal chain between choice and consequence, undercutting the very goals that the inclusion of the simple moral system hoped to attain. A half-baked moral system can have the opposite effect on people’s reasoning, and can even become confounding. Let’s begin with a minor example from an otherwise effective newsgame.


    In the Urban Ministries of Durham’s Spent, players take the role of a single parent who has recently been put out of work. With only a thousand dollars left to your name, you’ve got to survive for a month without going bankrupt. Each day presents a new dilemma, threatening to rob the player of varying amounts of remaining cash. And even when you’re lucky, only running into minor costs and emergencies, the constant trickle of money out of your wallet leads to a monthly net loss that feels greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, many of the more expensive choices (whether to take dental care, or pay for car insurance) come with no tangible feedback into the system.

    Following the decision in the picture above, there’s no later repercussion for committing a hit-and-run. Of course, the moral space here is quite complex. If you really can’t afford to pay for the damages, then it’s reasonable to question whether the victim of the accident might have better insurance or a healthier financial situation. And if you do leave the scene of the crime, then there should be a slight chance that the law will eventually catch up to you (perhaps based on the real-world percentage of hit-and-run cases that are resolved by local law enforcement).

    The entire point of the question is to educate players about the high costs of minor accidents, but it ends up encouraging a kind of moral laxity through its de-emphasis on consequences and details external to one’s wallet.

    When moral lessons clash


    The most reprehensible example of a trivia question disguised as a moral choice that I’ve come across takes place in a game called ICED: I Can End Deportation. You play an illegal immigrant to the United States, navigating a 3D cityspace while answering myth/fact trivia and resolving choices that all of us face in real life. The point is that, for an undocumented immigrant, these choices bear the extra load of raising INS scrutiny. Buying a pirated CD from a street vendor may not be a big deal to a citizen, but players learn that it’s always best for a non-citizen to avoid such foibles.

    Many of the choices are banal, related to petty criminality driven by an assumed low financial status. But because there is no actual “money meter,” there’s no pressure to descend into moral turpitude (for example, one situation absurdly asks whether you want to pick up a gun that you find in a garbage can … and why would you?).

    The situation that raised a number of alarms for me relates to domestic violence. Passing by an open window, the player sees a husband beating his wife. You have to choose whether to call the police or walk away silently. If you walk away silently, there’s no increase in the level of INS activity (represented by police officers patrolling the streets for the player). But if you report the abuse, you’re told that immigrants risk drawing attention to themselves by contacting the police for any reason. While in many cases, we can see how this lesson would be important, it’s absurd to tie it here to the issue of domestic abuse. Why couldn’t the player simply go to a payphone and report the tip anonymously?

    There are so many alternative resolutions to this problem that the game simply doesn’t afford, and, frankly, it’s offensive to use such a charged situation when one’s game system can’t support the complexity of the problem.

    ICED, in fact, encapsulates two of the what I would identify as the biggest mistakes in contemporary newsgame design: using 3D and relying on a quiz structure. The former decision leads to an exponential increase in cost. The latter inspires boredom over playfulness, shallow linear design over system-based thinking, and a reminder of ineffectual pedagogy.

    Applying a veneer of ethical decision-making is not the best way to make a news quiz more relevant or engaging. When one’s budget or design ability can’t support the increase in content and causality that are part and parcel of moral systems, then they should simply be avoided.

    Tagged: current events ethics and games iced news quiz newsgames ray of sunshine spent

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