In our research on newsgames, we proselytize the power of videogames to model events in the world small and big, simple and complex. But there is, of course, a discrepancy between the values we espouse and newsgames that get made. Making games is difficult. As researchers, we critique them to encourage certain practices and discourage others. But it’s just as important to understand what people actually make and why.

One aspect we’ve largely ignored is the videogame as a form supposedly imbued with identifiable qualities. Games have become objects in the popular imagination to be referenced with little regard for what actually makes them a game. “Game” stands in for competition, strategy, chance, or for the most basic interpretations of what familiar games represent. Their unique qualities — things like processes, interaction, play and variation — aren’t as important as the rhetorical positioning of the artifact as a game. Really, all that matters in many of these cases is that it looks like a game.

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One of our fellow researchers, Chris DeLeon, wrote about assumed interaction in a post on ReClark Gable’s “Stop Smoking” Breakout image. A paddle that looks like a cigarette sits at the bottom on the image; a square has a ghosting trail that gives it the illusion of velocity; and a pair of lungs is composed of bricks resembling those of the early Atari VCS game. We can look at this still image and infer from its familiar form how we might interact with it. As a result, we can make a claim about implied procedural rhetoric of the image: smoking slowly chips away at your lungs. Playing DeLeon’s implementation of the game, it becomes apparent where this implied rhetoric breaks down.

Idea trumps implementation

But it doesn’t really matter because the game is merely symbolic. The idea of a game is more important than the implementation of the game. Often this idea is based on our familiarity with the form of a game, which is why there are so many Pac-Man, Pong, and Space Invaders newsgames. The public has a basic literacy of these old games that abstracts the mechanics: Chase stuff, bounce a thing back and forth, shoot something.

MK12 ZeroFilm NYC Open from MK12 on Vimeo.

A metaphor of the unequal distribution of wealth and power is the basis of an animated game of Pong. The game begins by the two paddles scoring on each other. Then the right paddle scores a couple of times in a row. But rather than making a comeback, the left paddle seems incapable of saving the ball. At first it misses just barely, but the video speeds up time such that the right paddle scores over and over. The right paddle slowly gets bigger and bigger, and the left paddle is effectively incapacitated. But then the left paddle gets a new partner — and another, and another. It’s demonstrated that only a mass of paddles is able to overcome the giant dominating right paddle.

The Pong metaphor in this example is finely curated. Would it work as a playable game? Absolutely. It would take fine-tuning, of course, but we can imagine the control of the left paddle being taken away from us. We can imagine a swarm of paddles swooping in at the last moment to help us out. And because we can imagine how the game might function if we were playing it, a video of Pong works well enough.

a basic understanding of board games

It’s not just videogames that work as referents. Board games are also objects we might have a basic understanding of without actually playing. This 2008 political cartoon by Daryl Cagle of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama playing different games on the same board is immediately identifiable. Checkers is a simple game; chess is complex. Any nuance of how the games operate is thrown out the window in favor of their juxtaposition.

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Roll-and-Move board games provide a simple platform for expressing content. Unlike games that require strategic play, board games like Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, and Life usually come down to the luck of the die and the squares on the board. These games also put most of the information on the board to be viewed simultaneously. Surprises may be hidden in a pile of Chance cards, but everybody playing knows the current state of the game.

The image Occupy USA by William Banzai of the Village Voice works not because it maps to the mechanics of Monopoly, but because it’s able to display a lot of content in the context of a game about money. It doesn’t need to be a game — it just needs to look like a game.

does interaction matter?

So, it’s kind of silly, then, that the Guardian’s Christmas Winners and Losers and NPR’s Occupy America: The Commemorative games are actually interactive. In an odd turn, they fail to live up to their static potential as mere referents. Being able to roll and move is incidental to both experiences. In the Guardian’s game, moving the token and rolling to find out the financial status of various companies makes the information more difficult to get at.

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Occupy America has the illusion of interaction mattering, but the little descriptions that would often be found on the board or on an accompanying card are quite obtuse. Reaching Austin, the game tells me, “Stop to listen to registered nurse talk about health care reform. Pitch a tent!” But in Honolulu I failed to produce my identification for police and am told, “Sorry, no tent.” There’s no indication as to why you succeed in some places and fail in others. Again, this game is just a fancy way of dressing up links to news stories around the country.

But both of these interactive pieces want to be games because they believe the world to be game-like. “Regardless of the outcome, the protests have often resembled (The Game of) Life. And Risk. And Candyland and other games,” describes Linton Weeks of Occupy Wall Street. And the Monopoly aesthetic, divorced from the rules of the game, has become visual rhetoric in its own right.

What comes to mind when someone says the word “game” to you? You might think of tag or baseball. Maybe poker or Scene It? Or perhaps you immediately go digital and conjure images of Angry Birds, Gears of War, and Pong. Whatever the case, you have an idea of a prototypical game that exhibits certain qualities.

The newsgames research group has a particular set of properties we think make for powerful, informative and illustrative models of the world. Newsgames: Journalism at Play promotes those ideas. But it’s worth stepping back and examining the thought processes that have informed other takes on how games make meaning.