For those of us working on creating “serious games,” the experience we’ve had with the “Playing the News” project might be instructive.

We are working with the Johnson Simulation Center at Pine Technical College in Pine City, MN to develop a tool that will allow journalists (read, non-techies) create engaging games built from news coverage of ongoing coverage in a community. After much to-ing and fro-ing, we think we’ve hit on a strategy for the type of utility that will work. But it has taken some “technical fortitude” to get to this point.

The JSC folks are working on what is sometimes called a “thin client” to make this happen. The “thin client” code sits on top of a widely accessible piece of software such as Flash but provides an interface that allows a user to bypass the creation technicalities as much as possible. What we are striving for is a tool that will allow journalists to call up a library of images and placeable, another library of characters and then simply input their own news content or other text and images into a “game” environment.

For instance, the topic being created by a newsroom might have to do with the issues surrounding the expansion of a light rail system in the community. The media organization has lots of copy, lots of reporters with additional materials that never made it into print or on the air, and lots of connections with experts and community members who have something to say about the issue.

The software being created by the JSC is supposed to allow the journalists to choose a set of locations and a cast of non-player characters that will interact with the “player” (news reader, viewer, etc.). Let’s say the player starts the game in the home of a neighbor at a dinner party where the topic comes up. An “oracle” appears to lay out the parameters of the topic and to suggest some ideas about how to learn more.

The player then can choose a number of locations to visit to talk to NPCs who can provide more information from a variety of perspectives. It is the information from these NPCs that the journalists have to be able to create “on the fly” from their news organization’s content. And they have to be able to do it without a lot of technical fortitude.

A company called Distil Interactive in Canada has a type of thin client product that is currently being tested. They say they are working on an “open content” model — anyone can put their own content into the system. Right now, the company has some prototype games that deal with training compliance officers to meet workplace safety requirements, for instance. The company provides the “thin client” that allows the content provider to input his/her own information using something as simple as a Word file, and provides the placeables, the “world” in which the characters exist and some of the other back-room stuff. The “thin client” software is still in development, but it holds promise.

The JSC folks are creating a similar type of “thin client” system designed to work for journalists and news content. A preview of the work so far is encouraging. But it has taken months of effort and considerable programming power to get to this point.

Creating a tool that will allow non-techies to develop engaging, interactive and sophisticated games that can be created on the fly is not a trivial task. That is probably why it hasn’t been done yet.

We hope our experience with the Knight project will provide some insight into this process as well as result in a tool that can actually be deployed in newsrooms.