A Brief History of Newsgames: Combining News + Videogames

    by Bobby Schweizer
    December 14, 2010

    The [newsgames project](http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/), which this year won a [News Challenge grant](http://mediashift.org/idealab/2010/09/the-cartoonist-aims-to-bring-newsgames-to-the-masses243.html), began two and a half years ago with a single question: What is the relationship between videogames and journalism? With the help of the two dozen fellow students at Georgia Tech who’ve joined us over the past five semesters, we identified and explored seven categories of newsgames on our [class blog](http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/) and in our book, [“Newsgames: Journalism at Play”](http://www.amazon.com/Newsgames-Journalism-Play-Ian-Bogost/dp/0262014874/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291739890&sr=8-1). Below is a brief overview of the book in order to encourage people to read the findings of our research.

    1. Current Event Games

    The earliest examples of newsgames were games that editorialized about current events. Georgia Tech alumnus Gonzalo Frascas was responsible for one of the first. [Kabul Kaboom](http://ludology.typepad.com/games/kabulkaboom.html) — a game based on the Activision classic for the Atari VCS — comments on the absurdity of providing aid to a country while simultaneously bombing it. There was also [September 12th](http://www.newsgaming.com/games/index12.htm), which was an indictment of the United States’ tactical missile strikes on Middle Eastern cities. It sent the message that, rather than killing terrorists, these strikes harm innocent people and give civilians reason to take up arms. Current events games can also report on stories without an editorial line, like Wired’s [Cutthroat Capitalism](http://www.wired.com/special_multimedia/2009/cutthroatCapitalismTheGame). Additionally, just as there are news sources dedicated to celebrities and gossip, there are tabloid games like [So You Think You Can Drive, Mel?](http://www.splashworks.com/pgame.php?id=5)

    1. Infographics

    Infographics, while different on the surface from how we typically imagine games, actually have a common experience with gaming. While many infographics — like the bar charts that colorfully adorn the front page of the USA Today — are simplistic presentations of numbers, good infographics serve the purpose of making sense of complex data.

    Journalists can use infographics to guide readers through data in the same way a game guides players through rules. Like games, digital infographics enable manipulation, exploration, and variable outcomes. For example, American Public Media’s [Budget Hero](http://marketplace.publicradio.org/features/budget_hero/) gives players not only the daunting task of balancing the nation’s budget, but also forces them to do so within the constraints of self-selected goals. A balanced budget means nothing if the player fails to live up their promise to increase the salaries of public school teachers.

    1. Documentary Games

    Documentary games are a familiar form of newsgame because they resemble the historical scenarios major game developers have tackled in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. These series, of course, have little to no journalistic content, but they serve as a way of imagining the documentary game form. Some documentary games exist as spatial realities, like a [recreation of the Berlin Wall](http://newsgames.gatech.edu/blog/2009/04/berlin-wall-map-for-garys-mod.html) during the Cold War. That game produces a familiar setting in 3D, but fails to recreate the experience of living in Soviet-occupied Berlin.

    In addition to spatial realities, there are operational realities. This type of documentary game recreates the way an event unfolded. [John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission](http://newsgames.gatech.edu/blog/2009/03/kuma-war-john-kerrys-silver-star.html), by a company called KumarWar, positions the player as Senator Kerry when he was a swiftboat pilot in Vietnam. The player tries to reenact the military maneuver that earned him his Silver Star. The purpose of the game was to question the plausibility of the event, an issue that had been raised by the media during the election. A successful mission is supposed to absolve Kerry; a failure condemns him.

    Lastly, there exists the potential for a procedural reality. It is a reality that doesn’t just recreate a place or reproduce an occurrence, but operates under a set of rules and logic determined by real world events. It helps explain not only what happened, but how it happened. [PeaceMaker](http://www.peacemakergame.com/), a game about Israel and Palestine, plays out the conflict according to a set of rules that govern how each side responds to the other. In doing so, the player can experiment with different policy choices on each side, revealing the extraordinary complexity of the matter.

    1. Puzzles

    Puzzles have long been a familiar form of games in the news. The crossword puzzle, originally the word cross, is over a hundred years old. In the 1920s, crossword-mania swept the United States, leading to, ironically, the New York Times condemning crosswords as a “sinful waste.”

    Puzzles have served the important purpose of [drawing people to the newspaper](http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/why-you-buy-a-particular-paper-9-426912.html). We would all like to say we first flip to the important events of the day, but in reality people open up the paper to the sports section, the comics, and the daily crossword or Sudoku.

    Puzzles tend to be void of journalistic content; however, in a world where the casual gamer has turned to Bejeweled and Facebook games, perhaps journalistic significance will bring readers back to playing the news. [The Crickler](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/crosswords/crickler/crickler.html) is a hybrid crossword-trivia game that requires players know current events. And [Scoop!](http://playscoop.com/) gets its crossword solutions from the headlines of website feeds. The relationship between the news and the puzzle is one that would do well to be rekindled.

    1. Literacy Games

    As has been explored in extensive research, games have the ability to teach. In the process of examining newsgames as learning aids, we arrived first at an obvious answer: There are of course games that teach the practice of being a journalist. Games like [Global Conflicts: Palestine](http://newsgames.gatech.edu/blog/2009/02/global-conflicts-pt-1-teaching-journalism.html) put the player in the shoes of a reporter covering the story, helping them to learn to ask the right questions and take accurate notes.

    We also came to the realization that the lesson here is not only about becoming a journalist — it can be about understanding the importance of journalism. In other examples, watchdog media help the player through games like Beyond Good & Evil and Fallout 3, and intrepid photojournalist Frank West’s survival of a zombie attack in Dead Rising means nothing without uncovering the truth behind the living dead outbreak.

    1. Community Games

    Another type of game is what we call community games — an umbrella term we came up with to describe everything from big games and scavenger hunts to alternate reality games. As the name implies, these are games to be played with and within a community. Some, like [World Without Oil](http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/), which asks players to blog and create videos about living in a world where peak oil has caused prices to skyrocket, exist entirely online.

    Others, however, like collaboration between the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle newspaper, encourage readers and players to make a connection with their local community. [Picture the Impossible](http://picturetheimpossible.com/) offered puzzles to play online, scavenger hunts in the city, and clues to riddles hidden in the pages of the printed paper. From what was reported, the game was at least moderately successful. And, more importantly, it showed a news organization willing to take a risk on something new.

    1. Platforms

    Which brings us to our final category of newsgames: Platforms. In the loosest sense, a platform is anything you build that makes it easier to build other things. Once you’ve devised the inverted pyramid structure of the news story, you don’t need to reinvent the printed format every time you want to publish.

    Platforms aren’t about building things entirely from scratch. We encourage news organizations to take a look around them to see what resources they already have available. Fantasy football does this on a weekly basis by assigning points to on-field results. It’s simple, but wildly successful.

    [Play the News](http://www.playthenewsgame.com/) turned reading into a prediction game. Each story was crafted such that it involved stakeholders and outcomes. After reading through the material and viewing supplementary media, players could predict how an event might play out. Not only did they base their game on existing material (the events of the world), but they designed it so it could be syndicated to other news outlets, which could then use the game to draw readers to their site.


    There are all sorts of tools out in the world just waiting for someone to make creative use of. Making a game doesn’t have to be about learning to program from scratch — it can be about taking advantage of things that have already been built. It can be as simple as putting a real news ticker into the Times Square of Grand Theft Auto, or, as complex as using current events to change the system dynamics of your global political strategy game, like in [Democracy 2](http://www.positech.co.uk/democracy2/).

    The variety outlined in these categories should be encouraging to journalists. What we found is that there is an amazing range of opportunities to experiment with new ideas, and we hope that news organizations are willing to try new things.

    Tagged: call of duty crosswords current events documentary games newsgames sudoku the cartoonist videogames

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