Earlier this month a group of journalists, game designers, and academics gathered at the University of Minnesota for a workshop on newsgames. I was there, as was fellow Knight News Challenge winner and San Jose Mercury News tech business writer Chris O'Brien. After the event, Chris wrote a recap of the meeting here on Idea Lab. TechCrunch's Paul Carr penned a grouchy reply, and O'Brien responded in turn.
As an early advocate and creator of newsgames who has spent the last several years researching and writing about the subject, I'm encouraged to see debate flaring up on the subject. But it's important to note that there's not one sole position for or against newsgames. For my part, I can't embrace either Carr's critique or O'Brien's defense.
Carr's riposte boils down to this: If people can't process news without having it turned into a game for them, something's tragically wrong. That's not the position I advocate, of course, so it's heartening to see O'Brien respond so quickly with objection.
But O'Brien's response isn't right either. His retort amounts to: Games are an increasingly popular medium that can keep people engaged; since news doesn't seem to be doing so, why not try something that does?
He's not fundamentally wrong, of course. Games are becoming increasingly popular, and they can capture people's interest differently and sometimes more effectively than other media.
How Games Engage
But vague ideas like popularity and engagement aren't the interesting aspects of games.
In fact, there are many different sides to newsgames. My co-authors and I identify seven different approaches to the form in our book "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," including current events, infographics, documentary, literacy, puzzles, community, and platforms.
But the most interesting aspect of games in the context of news is their unique features as a medium. Games communicate differently than other media: They simulate processes rather than telling stories. For this reason, games are great at characterizing the complex behavior of systems.
While traditional methods of newsmaking like writing and broadcasting may seem more sophisticated and respectable than videogames in theory, the opposite is true in practice. In fact, the type of knee-jerk, ad hominem rejoinder and rapid-fire retort that Carr's and O'Brien's posts represent offer a superb example of precisely what's wrong with news today -- online or off. Personality and gossip reigns, while deliberation and synthesis falter.
Because complex characterizations of the dynamics underlying events and situations are already scarce in the news, to accuse games of trivializing civic engagement risks hypocrisy. But it's more than that: The forms of traditional storytelling common to written and broadcast journalism just can't get at the heart of systemic issues. They focus instead on events and individuals, not on the convoluted interconnections between global and local dynamics.
Yet, systemic issues are the most important ones for us to understand today: economics, energy, climate, health, education—all of these are big, messy systems with lots of complex interrelations. As we put it in "Newsgames": "Games offer journalists an opportunity to stop short of the final rendering of a typical news story, and instead to share the raw behaviors and dynamics that describe a situation as the journalistic content."
Intoxication with Games
Despite their recent dispute, O'Brien and Carr share something in common: an affiliation with Silicon Valley-oriented publications. Over the past year, the Valley tech sector has become intoxicated with games, particularly the runaway growth of social network games and the promise of "gamification," the application of arbitrary extrinsic rewards for desired actions on websites or smartphones.
In championing newsgames, I'm advocating something different and more sophisticated than low-effort user acquisition, blind trend-hopping, or crass incentives. It is a value completely at odds with both Carr's critique, and one that O'Brien's defense doesn't adequately capture.
Newsgames don't make news easier and more palatable; that's the negative trend the media industry has embraced for three decades, from USA Today to Twitter.
Instead, newsgames make the news harder and more complex. We shouldn't embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, nor because they dumb down the news, but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it.