We are midway through the semester and the newsgames project studio at Georgia Tech is running at full steam. Newsgames: Journalism at Play, a survey of the field of newsgames by project director Ian Bogost, graduate assistant Simon Ferrari, and myself, is out and is available online and in bookstores.
We've spent the semester breaking down popular arcade and Atari games to find relevant structures for game generation, and identifying elements of meaning that we're calling "micro-rhetorics." Each student has also sought out related topics for analysis and critique on our research studio blog, which we update two to three times a week. Recently we've covered Soviet arcade machines, a game about the Chilean miner rescue, and the online migration of political cartoonists.
A few weeks ago, Mike Mikula, editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, paid our studio a visit. He shared a number of insights from his profession and fielded our questions about how we should go about interacting with other cartoonists and local newspaper editors.
Life of an Editorial Cartoonist
Every workday begins with Mikula spending hours (sometimes even half the day) doing research. He has a subscription to a number of papers and he reads them all over breakfast. Then he peruses blogs after sending his kids off to school, sifting through everything from The Huffington Post to TMZ. He draws inspiration from whatever catches his eye, following his time-honed instinctual humor and playing off the work of colleagues. The typical turnaround for one of his traditional cartoons is a day.
We were particularly interested in the interactive work Mikula did for CNN. His "poll cartoons" present users with a cue frame that invokes the issue at hand, typically posing a direct question. Users then vote on one of three choices: A liberal choice, a conservative one, and a toss-up drawn from celebrity news or other tabloid sources. Usually, the resulting frame shares many of the formal elements of the cue frame, and users can see how many people voted for each of the choices. Comparing the three result frames conjures many of the pleasures of hypertext fiction, without the accompanying anxiety that the user might have "missed" alternative paths.
Mikula explained that the exercise of making these interactive cartoons allowed him to tackle events from multiple perspectives, something that cartoonists usually aren't able to do. The poll cartoons also allow Mikula to transcend party lines and appeal to both major constituencies, despite his left-leaning views.
We also looked at a few variations on the animated political cartoon, a form being refined by Mikula and other cartoonists such as Ann Telnaes. Telnaes, the second woman to win the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, makes motion cartoons for the Washington Post. Many of these are minimally animated, but they combine traditional panel techniques with poignant editing to great effect. Mikula said many cartoonists are struggling to adopt new technologies, such as Flash, to expand their digital work. The time required to refine new techniques and produce the additional material is daunting, but the results definitely seem to be catching the eye of some news media sources.
One of the most intriguing suggestions from Mikula was that we learn to separate our passions from our interests. He explained that there are a number of political issues that he personally feels strongly about, but he avoids making cartoons about them in order to ensure he doesn't come off as a skipping record. This is actually a fairly uncommon practice in the design of newsgames, where personal issues tend to drive creation. Perhaps this passion is necessary for maintaining the persistence and teamwork required to make a game, but the expediting features of the Cartoonist project may be a way to bring interest and passion back to a healthy balance.
It meant a lot to us that Mikula was willing to visit and consult on our project, despite the fact that some cartoonists see it as a potential threat to their business. He was genuinely interested in the hurdles we were facing and finding out where our research might best be directed. By figuring out how humorists like Mikula scope out topics and find angles of attack, we'll be able to refine the user interface for our tool. We're welcoming more local cartoonists and AAEC members to the studio in the coming months in an effort to learn from them and figure out how to help them develop interactive work through our tool.