This past weekend a group of 25 game developers, academics and journalists gathered at the University of Minnesota’s Journalism Center to examine the state of newsgames. While it can be a slippery term to define, generally speaking newsgames covers a wide range of game-like experiences from puzzles to graphically-rich presentations that convey some kind of interactive news content.
The use of videogame-like narratives is one of the many promising new forms of digital storytelling that have emerged over the past 15 years. And yet for all the potential, and some extremely successful examples, newsgames have not been widely adopted by news organizations of any shape or size.
The general idea behind the gathering was to identify the reasons that newsgames have not gained more traction and brainstorm possible solutions worth exploring to move things forward.
The gathering was organized by Nora Paul, director of the Journalism Center, and Kathy Hansen, a faculty member, who have been early advocates for adopting videogames and were Knight Foundation News Challenge recipients in 2007 for their project, “Playing the News.” (See Idea Lab posts on the project here.)
The Culture Gap
The list of reasons that are inhibiting the adoption of newgames is long and complex, and include costs, concerns over complexity, uncertainty over impact, and inability to clearly monetize them. For many reasons, this is one more item to take on at a time of shrinking resources and a narrowing of capacity for any new projects. But while there was a healthy debate over whether each of these issues were or were not a factor, there did seem to be a more fundamental issue:
There remains a wide cultural gap between newsrooms and game designers.
Let me say there was not universal agreement even on this point. But that said, many at the session felt it was a fair assumption that most people in newsrooms are not likely to be gamers of any kind, particularly those in charge of newsrooms. By comparison, when thinking about new storytelling forms like video and audio, there is at least some touchstone experience from years of watching TV or listening to the radio. Games, on the other hand, are probably an alien experience. And that can lead to a lot of misperceptions about what games are, and are not.
To some degree, social media probably encountered such resistance for similar reasons. But as it’s become part of the fabric of our digital lives, it’s helped melt away those barriers. The same, now, goes for mobile which is being embraced in newsrooms as more people buy smartphones.
Why Newsgames Matter
The same kind of embrace can and should happen for newsgames. And it’s worth pausing for a moment to explain why newsgames ought to be part of every newsrooms expanding arsenal of storytelling tools, right along with video, audio, slideshows, text, social media and interactive forms like databases.
Let’s start with the misperception that videogames are for kids, or young adults. To the degree newsrooms have experimented with newsgames, it was probably with an eye toward reaching teenagers and young adults and other audiences that long ago abandoned newspapers. But let’s be clear: Thinking about the audience for newsgames in those terms is far too narrow.
That’s because at this point, the majority of people in the United States play videogames of some kind: console, browsers, on their mobile phones. If you don’t play a single game, you are part of a shrinking minority. And many of these forms of games, particularly social, mobile, and casual games have now expanded deeply into mainstream audiences of all ages.
And far from being just trivial or simply fun distractions, these games offer benefits that ought to appeal to any newsroom. The best games create deep engagement, they are intensely social, and in some cases, they show a path to new ways to think about making money from digital content. Any of those items ought to resonate with publishers.
Newsgames should be appealing to journalists as well. The very best games create an immersive experience that offer the chance for the audience (players?) to experience a story that hopefully would make them more interested and engaged. At their highest end, as Ian Bogost, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-founder of Persuasive Games (and who also got a Knight grant last year to start The Cartoonist), noted in his opening presentation last weekend, newsgames are particularly optimal for exploring and explaining topics and stories that involved complex systems, such as climate change, armed conflicts, or budget showdowns. Allowing people to experience these stories, more than just showing or telling them the information, has the potential to have enormous impact on their understanding of a topic.
If newsgames hold all of these benefits, then, what seems to be holding them back from wider adoption? Again, there was no universal agreement on an answer, but the discussions created a long list of culprits that I noted above.
How to Clear Barriers to Adoption
But how do newsgames then clear those barriers and gain wider adoption? Again, there was no single solution, but there were several areas identified for additional discussion or research:
1. Audience: There is very little information about who is playing the newsgames that have been built, and why and how they felt about the experience. Bogost noted that the problem is that so few newsgames have been developed that there may not be enough data to be meaningful. Still, gathering what little information there is on users and experiences might be a start.
2. Monetization: There was a legitimate frustration expressed among some game developers in attendance that they were being asked to monetize news content in a way that publishers haven’t traditionally asked their newsroom to make content pay. At the same time, that doesn’t change the reality that if news organizations are going to take on something new, they’re going to ask about the return on investment, either in terms of audience or revenue. So are there better ways to make money from newsgames? Among the suggestions put on the table: creating ad networks around newsgames; developing virtual goods to be sold within the games; fremium services that create opportunites to sell other goods or services in the game; rewards and deals for winners or players; launching a serious game publishing house; continue emphasizing the additional page views generated by newsgames.
3. Costs: Another way to attack the issue is lower the expense of creating newsgames, and reduce the resources involved. Among the suggestions generated here: build mini-games that fit within larger story structures; identify recurring information (i.e., crime, sports, weather) than can constantly refresh existing games; figure out what information is already being created than can be easily be repurposed; creates newsgame platforms that allow non-gamers to create newsgames.
Bogost, who was a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner for a project called The Cartoonist , is attacking this issue by creating a set of free tools to help newsrooms produce “cartoon-like current event games – the game equivalent of editorial cartoons.” Another attendee, Eric Brown, has co-founded ImpactGames, which offers just such a platform for newsrooms and is currently being used by the Reynolds Institute news site.
These are brief summaries of the various brainstorming sessions. You can see more detailed notes here. The folks at the Minnesota Journalism Center will be digesting these results to see what next steps could be taken.
Coming back to this question of cultural divides, there was again no simple solution. However, there was some agreement that there are a few immediate steps that can be taken. One of the ways that social media gained traction in newsrooms was through grassroots adoption and evangelism from users. The idea was to take a similar tact with newsgames.
The first step is identify and connect with people who have developed newsgames, or have an interest. The initial gathering point is a newsgame LinkedIn Group. But more ways to connect will come. The goal is to share ideas, lessons and promote work being done by others in the field. Despite the relatively limited number of newsgames deployed so far, many of the folks at the brainstorming session were still surprised to learn about various newsgames that were built but that they hadn’t heard about previously.
From there, folks will try to identify other journalists or people in the newsroom who do play games of some sort. The hope is that this group will begin to ask a simple question when a news story is being discussed: Is there a game we could create that would help us explain this better?