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A common thread woven through our various projects in the Newsgames research group has been our subscription to the tenets of journalism. Our first endeavor was not related to games at all. We bought a stack of copies of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” book and immersed ourselves in not just the business of news but rather the practice of news. Sure, we could have seen videogames as a way to add exciting features that would draw readers to websites — and if we were an Internet startup, we probably would have — but as members of an academic institution our inclination was to understand how videogames can do journalistic work.

As we’ve described before on the Idea Lab and wrote about extensively in our book Newsgames: Journalism at Play, videogames are valuable for journalism because they don’t just describe — they demonstrate. Written stories and filmed television segments tend to focus on the who, what, where, and when of a story. It’s easy for readers and viewers to identify with these questions that position an event in the world. These questions quickly satisfy the appetite for immediacy in the 24-hour news cycle. The how and why of these stories, on the other hand, can be pushed aside either temporarily or permanently. Reporting that merely makes citizens aware of an event doesn’t seem to merit answers to these inquiries.

The How and Why

Games, on the other hand, are nothing without answers to how and why.

‘How’ governs programming the game on the designer’s end or interpreting the game on the player’s end. If someone wants to make a game about air traffic safety they need to understand the mechanisms by which air traffic controllers manage the take-off and landing of planes. If someone then wants to deftly play as an air traffic controller, they need to understand those same mechanisms as portrayed by the game’s designer. ‘How’ lets you understand the system.

‘Why’ can either be a rhetorical position taken by the designer that informs their creation or it can be how the player understands the ways that the pieces in the system interact. Food Import Folly demonstrates the difficulties of container inspection at understaffed shipping ports. Here’s a screenshot from that game:

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So if E. coli contaminated spinach was introduced into the country by a missed inspection, it’s clearly demonstrable that more port authority inspection agents might have prevented the spread of this bacteria.

Bringing in a Journalist’s Expertise

Short newsgames can’t simulate all of the conditions that may have given rise to an event, though. So what we play are not faithful recreations of the world in all its messy detail, but rather models that use the most relevant information to govern their functions. And here’s where the professional journalist’s expertise comes into play.

Let’s think about three kinds of news stories: a written article, an edited television segment, and a programmed game. The three primary acts of creating each are gathering the data, selecting and assembling the relevant information, and producing the final output.

The first two are journalistic tasks. They require the author understand the situation at hand and the desires of their constituency. Journalists synthesize the world into manageable chunks of visual and verbal models. But writing, editing, and programming? These aren’t journalistic tasks. Sure, they’re required to concretize information — and a well edited segment on the evening news is going to be more compelling than a series of loosely joined clips. But The Onion demonstrates on a daily basis that it’s entirely possible to have output that merely looks like news.

Designing a newsgame is not just about recounting the events of the day as a series of videogame tropes, nor is it about loading up a spoonful of sugar to make being aware of events of the day fun and more palatable. Designing a newsgame is about forming a model and executing on it to help people better understand a situation.

A Game About Diversity of Groceries

Last Spring, during the transition between our initial newsgames inquiry and our current Cartoonist project, a small team of us worked on a newsgame design exercise. The topic was the Buford Highway Farmers Market, an international grocery store located a few miles north of downtown Atlanta. A story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution described the changing ethnic composition of the store’s products. The diversity of the groceries represented the diversity of the foreign populations who had moved to the area in the past few decades: melting pot (or salad bowl or bouillabaisse or your other favorite analogy) personified.

We wanted to design a game that embodied the foreign population composition as a grocery store. It was a click-management game about meeting the needs of an ethnically diverse shopping population. Presented with data about population trends, the player would first buy their stock with demographics in mind and then help their shoppers find ingredients for specified dishes. In the process of playing, the players learns about the dish that is the ever-shifting local ingredients of their city flavored by all the seasonings of this extended culinary metaphor.

Concept solidified, we sought out data. Delving into the yellowed pages of United States census data pulled from a dusty library shelf, we recorded the number of foreign born or mixed-parentage individuals as a percentage of a total urban population throughout the 20th century. But the process was, unsurprisingly, not that straightforward. Different cities recorded data differently. It was not until 1960 that Seattle differentiated the many countries of Southeast Asia into their own categories. Country of origin was not recorded in any of the southern states until 1960.

Accounting for Data Gaps

So how do you make a game that accounts for giant gaps in the data? If all you wanted to do was make a game, then you could just make up the numbers and be on your merry way. But as a journalist you don’t have the luxury of making stuff up. Nor do you have the luxury of just ignoring the messiness. If you were writing a story, you could conceivably leave out the paragraph and the article would continue on. Designing a game, on the other hand, requires a whole model or else the whole thing breaks. You have to account for it somehow because it governs how the system functions. So you either transparently demonstrate the gaps or you modify the game to be about the data.

When working on the grocery store game we started with a story we thought we understood — a kind of puff piece that would easily turn into the click management game we wanted to make. But, in the process of doing research and trying to synthesize the data into something playable, we learned about the complexities of the census and were forced to incorporate this into our design.

Had the game gone into production, the result would have hopefully been a demonstration of not just the changing local population, but the recording of that population. Further research could have even delved into alternative sources of data that might have more accurately recorded the ethnic makeup.

One thing was clear, though. Creating an accurate model for a newsgames — the rules and processes that demonstrate how that system works — requires subscribing to principles of journalism as well. Drawing from Kovach and Rosenstiel, newsgame design should be truthful and transparent, strive to make the significant interesting and relevant, and subject to verification. So long as they’re accomplishing this, they can fit into the rest of the ecosystem of journalism.

> Why TechCrunch’s Paul Carr Is Wrong About Newsgames by Chris O’Brien

> War, What Is It Good For? Three Points! by Paul Carr at TechCrunch

> Why Are Newsrooms Resistant to Creating Newsgames? by Chris O’Brien

> Newsgames Can Raise the Bar for News, Not Dumb It Down by Ian Bogost