Evangelizing newsgames is not just about convincing journalists that they should create and use games to express ideas and inform the public. It's also about getting journalists to recognize newsgames that are created outside of professional institutions as works in dialogue with their field. Even if a person cannot produce a game on his own, newsgames can still be shared and discussed. Expending a modest amount of effort in this capacity would go a long way toward the adoption of newsgames as a form.
Last week we wrote on our project blog about the media's reception of a German student-produced non-commercial game, 1378(km). The student intended to build a little world that addressed the issues of both the Eastern and Western halves of Germany during the Cold War. Due to be released on the 20th anniversary of the unification of Germany, it has already sparked controversy thanks to the reaction from memorial organizations and some families of those killed while trying to leave the Communist East. Like many of the other videogame controversies surrounding real world events, the groups said that 1378(km) was insensitive and the subject was not appropriate for a medium associated with play and fun.
Journalists unfamiliar with the concept of newsgames covered the story with characteristic impartiality. Articles from the BBC, CBC, Reuters, and Time look almost identical. The facts of the story are described in plain detail; stakeholders were given equal (but not ample) opportunity to explain themselves. The issue is that, while the journalists made their readers aware of the subject in question, they did nothing to explore the issues involved. Below is a trailer/teaser for the game:
None of the writers consulted with outside sources to determine the context in which the student's game exists. None of the writers asked to play an early build of the game in order to analyze the issue. The outcome of their inquiry was a report: A factual, but dreadfully boring report.
Because the game had not yet been released, the controversy surrounding it has forced its creator to push back the release by a few months. It's therefore premature to judge its integrity as a documentary game engaged in a journalistic role. But the treatment it received signaled the news media's belief that it was not -- and could not -- be a significant contribution to the historical dialogue.
Part of our duty as newsgames researchers is to explicate the newsgame's potential. Our book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, concludes with the charge that journalists should take risks and produce these kinds of games. But we underplayed the importance of asking news professionals to look for, investigate, and even scrutinize games being created by those outside of the industry.
Getting Journalists Involved
How can journalists involve themselves in this dialogue? It's easy: Play and discuss.
When we started our research, we had an idea of what a newsgame would look like (short games about recent topics in the news), and the capacity in which it would function (raising awareness while taking a stance). We did not immediately know that games could be used to do journalism, but we had an inkling and decided to take the plunge. It was by playing and discussing that we learned newsgames manifest themselves in varied forms. We now ask professional journalists to do the same.
The tool that we're currently building to help produce newsgames will not succeed without the help of professional journalists. To this end, we wish to share our knowledge, encourage discussion between journalists and newsgames producers, and promote the potential contributions of a complementary way of delivering the news.
In our book we identify seven categories of newsgames: Current event, infographic, documentary, puzzle, games for communities, games about journalism, and platforms for creating games. These are not all the possible categories, of course, but they illustrate the variety of uses and forms. Until the relationship between documentary filmmaking and journalism is demonstrated, the burgeoning potential of the historical interpretation taking place in 1378(km) lies untapped and unexplained.
We ask that journalists play newsgames and share them among each other. You don't have to be an expert in games to detail your experiences of playing and share how you feel about the material. The best way to develop expertise is to immerse oneself in examples. By doing so, journalists will be able to respond to works produced by non-professionals. They can then provide valuable feedback by highlighting the strengths of the work and making suggestions to address its weaknesses. Game designers would benefit greatly from this feedback as it would bolster their work -- and news professionals would benefit by developing an understanding of an emerging format for news content.