With the launch of its energy game Switch, Gotham Gazette this fall completed a two-year Knight Foundation-funded project to create several news games about New York City policy issues. We think we produced some good games (to view and play them go here.) And we learned a lot.

Most satisfyingly, we confirmed that for some issues, games — or perhaps “policy simulations,” just so you don’t expect Grand Theft Auto here — provide an informative and engaging way to tell a story. People who played our Garbage Game, for example, told us that it gave them a whole new appreciation of the complexity of the problem — both how difficult it is to reduce solid waste and how expensive it is to dispose of this material.

Budget games, such as Balance (or the national one, Budget Hero), also do this. They make it clear that, whatever politicians might have us believe, closing deficits means raising taxes or cutting things most of us like, such as police officers, teachers and firefighters.

Games that are more instructional, such as ours about how the budget process works, have a role to play, too. But my hunch, based on our experience, is that unless they can be made extremely entertaining, people are less likely to try those out just for the heck of it. Instead, these games can play a valuable role for a community group seeking to inform its members, say, or a civics or political science class. (This realization owes much to a talk by Alice Robison at MIT last year.)

Building Good, Low Budget Games

Creating a good game requires a lot of work, money or both. When I spoke at a conference last year, people repeatedly expressed amazement about the low budget for Gotham Gazette’s games. But for us — and for many other small news publications — the cost seemed huge. We never would have been able to do the games without Knight’s support, and even with Knight’s generosity, it often was a scramble and a struggle.

Part of this is technical: finding programmers or having one on staff. But reporting for the games is also extremely time consuming because you can’t “fudge.” So, for example, as we compared electricity savings for Switch, we had to insure they were all in the same units, covered the same period of time, and applied to the same geographical area. We could not use a mix of figures for the city and state, which is something we might do in a story.

If small organizations such as Gotham Gazette are to use games as one of their storytelling techniques, we need to create games with a long shelf life — our Garbage Game gets many hits two years after its launch — or ones that can be recycled. We are, for example, going to try to reuse Balance for the next budget cycle, by inserting new numbers. I’ve gotten some queries from others about how they could adapt this game to their locality.

Conclusion

Are games worth doing? I’d give a qualified yes. One great thing about the web is that it offers journalists so many tools for telling stories: conventional text, interactive databases, audio, video, and so on. Games are another valuable tool.

As the web matures, the key question we should ask ourselves is not, “Should we have an audio slide show or should we make a game?” Rather, we should ask, “How can we best engage and inform our readers about the topic at hand?”

And sometimes the answer will no doubt be, “Yes, let’s make a game.”