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November 11 2011

12:20

Cartoonist Prototype Tackles the Most Visible News

At a recent demo day hosted by a Georgia Tech research center, our studio showed a working prototype of the Cartoonist engine for the first time. The whiz kids at UCSC's Expressive Intelligence Studio have been working overtime on the guts of our system in order to link together our user interface, the tool that converts user input into machine-readable form, the library of action verbs that drive each game, and a playable output.

While still in incredibly rough form, we can now generate a large number of games based on a small amount of information drawn from a current event. (We've capped that output at nine games for testing.)

Generating Occupations

One of my first demonstrations of the system was to see whether it could handle the most visible news event of the past few months: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I plotted a fairly simple relationship between protesters, riot police, and public awareness. Protesters were set to "grow" public awareness, police to "attack" protesters, and public awareness to "watch" police. At this time, all of these entities are represented by colored orbs. (We just hired an artist for the project, NY freelancer Rachel Morris.) From this tiny mapping of objects and actions, the system generated nine potential games. While many of them were broken in ways that showed where more coding is needed to flesh out verbs, a few of the results showed the exciting potential of our project.

In one generated game, protesters spawned randomly along an edge of the screen. Players controlled a bubble labeled "riot police," and could move in four directions while firing projectiles at the protesters. (These could later be skinned to look like gas canisters or rubble bullets.) On the other side of the screen, a "line of sight" marker inside a bubble labeled "public awareness" followed the movements of the player/police. Whenever a new protester appeared, the public awareness bubble became larger; whenever a projectile hit a protester, that protester entity was removed from the game. It was a rudimentary, playable editorial cartoon, and I'd generated eight others with just 15 seconds of work.

Some of the logic desirable for an "OWS: Oakland" game was clearly missing, because only a fraction of our action verbs have been fully articulated in the system. One obvious exemption here is the role of embedded journalists in the documenting and relaying of such events -- and, if we'd had a good verb for these, we could easily have more than three actor types on the screen.

Something about the system, about which we had no clue whether it would work or not, stood out to me: Player control is non-arbitrarily assigned to different actor-types in each of the nine game builds. Sometimes I controlled the protesters, dodging projectiles or the tackles of police; sometimes I was the police; and sometimes I simply moved around as public awareness, my line of sight trained on the police.

The View From Everywhere

The fact that we haven't yet been able to come up with a finalized name for our project testifies to the grayness of the territory that it occupies -- for those who haven't been following the project's development, we hope to replace the name "Cartoonist" out of respect for the work of political cartoonists.

An important aspect of this platform is that it's agnostic to ideological bent, the user's professional status, and the type of journalism that it is used to convey. While it would be possible to use the system for objective, professional reportage, anyone will be free to operate and modify it. The feature noted above -- the assignment of player control to different entities in each game build -- is actually one of many powerful devices for interrogating the view from nowhere.

Coverage of Occupy Wall Street (and similar events around the world) has foregrounded the rising importance of alternative media and new forms of journalism. Participants and supporters of Occupy are wary of a mainstream media ecology that has either ignored them or subjected them to exaggerated skepticism. A story of the firing of WNYC reporter Caitlin Curran for participating in an OWS rally stands in stark contrast to firsthand coverage of arrests in Oakland by graphic journalist Susie Cagle.

While traditional forms of news media have stuck to an outmoded concept of objectivity, alternative sources have delved into and personalized the Occupy movement to great effect.

There are a number of reasons why videogames about the news lend themselves so well to editorializing. First is the amount of time and expertise required to produce them: In a market where returns on political videogames are sadly minimal, developers tend to make their work an expression of their personal opinions and passions. Second, and slightly more theoretical, is the idea of the simulation gap: It is incredibly difficult to accurately model a real-world system in a playable form, so developers will naturally pick and choose the aspects of, and problems with, that system that they personally see as relevant (consciously or unconsciously). Finally, there's the strong, expressive power of role-playing.

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Because most games work best when the player has a clearly identified role, they lend themselves to explorations of hero and anti-hero viewpoints on a story or issue. So in Occupy: The Game, players control a protester seeking to collect money and supplies while dodging tear gas and garbage, while in Clear the Park the mindset of a greedy "1%er" will be satirically explored through a mix of tycoon sim and improvised siege warfare.

Research isn't conclusive on which points-of-view and camera angles create the most empathy or opinionated-ness during play, which is why our system is open in this regard. Our expectation is that users of the Cartoonist engine will be pleasantly surprised by control schemes and POVs that they hadn't predicted when they sat down to generate their games.

September 16 2011

15:09

Why Newsgame Development Should Look to Paper Prototyping

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Although the practice might not be widely known outside game design circles, "paper prototyping" is a common pedagogical methodology in game design education. The idea behind a paper prototype is that the design for a videogame can be tested by approximating its concepts in the form of a rough, turn-based board game. That said, not enough attention has been paid to the values of paper prototyping and the digital distribution of rough, paper-based games (called "print-and-play") for journalistic purposes.

Some of the most popular game design education texts, including Tracy Fullerton's "Game Design Workshop" and Brenda Brathwaite & Ian Schreiber's "Challenges for Game Designers," dedicate many pages to the subject. There are a number of reasons why this approach is so well-regarded, even among educators who have had experience designing videogames in a large-team, industry context.

why paper prototyping works

Most ideas for videogames far outstrip the resources, time, and programming expertise available to design students. Paper prototyping means being able to test the strengths and weaknesses of a game design without any knowledge of computer programming.

Furthermore, even within a context where programmers and animators would be readily available, paper prototyping remains the fastest way to make multiple runs in the "iterative cycle" of a game's development. Iteration entails rapidly adding and discarding elements of a design in order to flesh out what works and what doesn't, what parts of the design should be emphasized and focused upon, whether the game has any obvious, game-breaking master strategies, etc.

And, finally, the practice can be used to show students who might have entered the field on the sole basis of their love of videogames how much the new medium has taken, and how much it still shares, with tabletop games.

What intrigues me most about the rough production of games on paper is that it has, until recently and in limited scope, been underdeveloped for the purposes of distributing editorial games. Of course, many of the paper prototypes developed in educational contexts end up being fleshed out into full-featured boardgames: Simon Winscombe and Nonny de la Peña presented their Three Generations, a boardgame about the California Eugenics movement of the early 1900s, at the 2011 Games for Change Festival, and James Taylor's The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, an absurdist critique of Victorian courtship, was a finalist at IndieCade 2010.

But these artifacts are singular and difficult to reproduce and distribute. Further, they attest to a long process of articulation and production. In order for a tabletop newsgame to meet the requirements of timeliness (that is, finishing production and being ready for distribution on the web while a news story is still relevant and novel), it seems like the paper prototype itself might be a promising format.

Kettling as a puzzle game

In late November of 2010, a student protest in London highlighted the inhumane treatment of young protesters through the practice of "kettling:" large cordons of police, often in riot gear, encircle a group of protesters for the purposes of transportation, dispersal, or long-term containment. The 2010 kettling incident was particularly unsettling because some groups of students were reportedly contained in excess of nine hours and denied food, water or a restroom facilities for the duration of the kettle.

In response, Stephen Lavelle (aka increpare, an ultra lo-fi indie game designer) produced the digital editorial game Kettle within three days of the event. The simple puzzle game casts players in the role of the police cordon, which can push inward from any of four sides in order to arrange a disparate group of young protesters into a tight, n x n formation. In between puzzles, rough cartoons depict the harassment of students by boorish officers ("Haha, you shat yourself" and "Guess you're going to miss class").

While the puzzle mechanics themselves are fairly abstract, the interstitial comics provide specific details on the recent event, such as the facts that the protesters were students and that they were denied access to restrooms.

print-and-play games

Lavelle's consistent ability to produce small games rapidly and regularly is an example that should be examined and emulated by newsgame makers, but that wasn't the most interesting thing to come out of the kettling incident for me. A few months later, Paolo Pedercini called my attention to a group of satirical game designers called TerrorBull Games. At a local game jam, they'd produced a "print and play" editorial game called "Metakettle." Billed as a game "to pass the time until you're not being kettled anymore," "Metakettle" is a simple "New Games"-style cooperative physical game, requiring players to form teams of daisy chains in an effort to kettle other teams -- all from within the confines of an actual police kettle. Distributed for free as a .pdf and high-res .jpeg, it's basically a set of play instructions peppered with crude drawings and satirical one-liners.

Before 2010, TerrorBull had already developed two full-featured boardgames, a geopolitical strategy game called "War on Terror" (made in 2006, and which received quite a bit of mainstream media attention) and a send-up of corrupt banking named "Crunch" (2009). Both of those games deserve a full analysis elsewhere (and "War on Terror" is coming to the iPhone soon, a pleasant surprise that will hopefully renew its popular interest), but it's their print-and-play games that interest me most in the context of rapid newsgame development. TerrorBull came upon the idea in mid-2010, with the release of "Operation BP: Bullsh*t Plug." That game's summary comes with an explanation of their strategy:

The standards that any game idea has to reach are pretty high before we'll even consider it for publication. It has to be right in so many ways that, invariably, many smaller ideas are left on the cutting room floor. But it seems a shame to leave them there, gathering dust, so we thought we should make quick, downloadable games and give them away.

why they're persuasive

Since this isn't an in-depth analysis of any single game, it will do for now to recognize a few common features among these games that make them particularly persuasive. First, three of the five are asymmetrical. This means that players take on different roles -- not necessarily the "good guy" and the "bad guy" from the radical, leftist position of TerrorBull, but modeled on the goals and ideologies of the (real or imagined) stakeholders in a given issue.

For example, in "Mosqopoly," an "outraged" (read: conservative Christian) public seeks to raise property costs in Manhattan and tear down mosques, while "terrorist" mosque builders (read: not actually terrorists) call in favors from suicide bombers and attempt to build a 30-story mosque on Ground Zero. Roleplay generally enjoys favorable reactions from critics and players (and may be one of the defining aspects of games as a medium), but TerrorBull goes a bit further here by attempting cognitive models of stakeholders in much the same way that "Play the News" does through factoids.

Secondly, all of the games are openly agnostic. Players aren't simply making the best individual choices against a rigid game board and a roll of the dice (which would be the easiest kind of game to produce quickly), but most openly strategize in dynamic competition against each other -- which, arguably, accelerates their understanding of the conflict or news event being modeled. Further, two of the games -- Mosqopoly and Operation Bullsh*t Plug -- contain adaptations of classic puzzles from game theory that force players to gamble on extremely constrained predictions of the future actions of each other.

Finally, two of the games feature the possibility of masterful "everybody loses" end-states reminiscent of "Balance of Power's" nuclear holocaust. Both games are about oil (unsurprisingly), and the catastrophic failure of both players occurs in the event of massive leaks (though exactly how the end-state is reached varies between the games).

TerrorBull is a unique case -- their rough prototypes, released for free on a site without ads for revenue, far exceed the quality and complexity of many editorial videogames (and all of the prototype-quality videogames that I've seen on Flash game portals). Their method isn't a guaranteed one, but it shows that the combination of paper prototyping and print-and-play have the potential to make valuable contributions to ludic commentary on both breaking and ongoing issues.

The specific flavor of competitive games they make, which might be described as classic board game geekery, attest to the importance of multi-player games in a budding media ecology dominated by single-player videogames. In short, they set an example that should be followed by both students and professional newsgame designers alike.

July 27 2011

15:16

The Frightening, Real-World Strength of Channel 4's 'Sweatshop' Game

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Sweatshop is a new browser game, developed by Littleloud for Channel 4 Education, in which players fill the role of a factory floor manager in a developing nation. Taking design cues from the tower defense genre, the game tasks you with placing skilled workers and child laborers along a conveyor belt. It's also one of the most compelling and effective political games I've seen in recent years.

Orders for different kinds of garments -- including hats, shirts, bags and shoes -- come down the line, and laborers assemble these products at varying speeds according to their specialty (or lack thereof, in the case of the children). For each completed garment, the player receives a small amount of cash that is then reinvested into hiring more workers or purchasing support items such as water coolers, fans and portable toilets. Some support items increase the speed or profitability of workers within their zone of effect, while others are required to prevent their inevitable exhaustion and (later in the game) bodily harm.

Over the course of 30 stages, players are scored on the efficiency and, ultimately, character of their management decisions. This is reinforced by a trophy system, a karma meter, and a version of the classic shoulder angel/devil duo: a pitiable Child working in the factory and the comically inhumane Boss.

The Child, who is always placed on the line for free at the beginning of each stage, explains how new support items can be used to help keep workers safe. In between stages, the Child presents brief factoids on sweatshop labor around the world. The Boss harangues players at the beginning and end of each work day, only taking a break from shouting and spewing his bad-taste humor to take phone calls from the pompous fashion industry moguls who send in orders.

A full-featured political game

Littleloud and Channel 4 previously worked together on Bow Street Runner and last year's The Curfew. The latter was essentially an interactive drama that depicts the dangers of a potential future police state in the U.K., written by comics author (and game journalism alumnus) Kieron Gillen. Because The Curfew only featured mini-games tangentially related to its full-motion video acting, I didn't know what (or how much) to expect from Sweatshop. What I found was one of the most subtle and full-featured political games that I've come across in the past few years.

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For American readers who aren't exactly sure how Channel 4 works, it was the fourth state-owned broadcaster established in the United Kingdom. Channel 4 commissions all of its programming from external companies, meaning its content has often been eclectic and cutting-edge, and over the years it has established the "4" brand as a significant name in culture and entertainment. Channel 4 Education, the department that published Sweatshop, is primarily tasked with providing entertaining pedagogical content to U.K. teenagers. Each year, C4E picks themes especially relevant to contemporary teens and invites indie games developers from around the United Kingdom to a pitch session.

"Sweatshop was Littleloud's pitch for a game about the fashion industry, one of the key topics suggested by the broadcaster for its 2011 slate," said Simon Parkin, the game's designer, writer, and producer. "As young people generally have limited disposable income, they are likely to buy cheap, fashionable clothes from high street retailers who drive down their prices by employing sweatshop labor."

During the first five to ten levels of the game, play isn't particularly difficult enough to raise any obvious alarms about the unfair labor practices that become necessary evils in sweatshop economics. As Parkin explained, "There's no leap of abstraction to view workers as 'towers' working on targets when they enter their 'area of effect.'" (In fact, the pairing of theme and play here is so strong that you might not even notice that it's a tower defense game at first.)

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But that isn't the extent of the game's argument. For this early phase of Sweatshop, the factoid text bubbles at the score screen deliver most of the crucial information about sweatshop practices. If the game stopped here, it would be comparable to PETA's Mama Kills Animals; the latter doesn't actually encapsulate its social message about the inhumanity of factory farming in play itself, relying on external links and short documentary clips.

Increasingly complex

But Sweatshop is a game that, in accordance with the genre conventions of tower defense, becomes gradually more and more complex to control over time. As its play deepens, so too does its procedural rhetoric.

The first thing players will notice is that, in order to attain gold medals on each stage, they must almost constantly run the conveyor belt at double speed. At this pace, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep on top of worker fatigue and a proper mix of skilled labor for each type of garment.

My first "a-ha" moment came when I realized that I could nab a gold medal on many levels -- and minimize the amount of clicking and thinking I needed to do -- simply by covering the belt in child labor, rather than planning for and maintaining a large force of skilled workers. These workers are cheap and replaceable, meaning they also contribute to build speed and a high "money saved" score at the end of a level.

Of course, you'll still end up scoring closer to 100 percent if you replay a level many times to figure out the ideal build order for skilled workers. But why would you, if you can attain a satisfactory score with so much less effort?

The next layer of the game's rhetoric unfolds more slowly. The fact is that you can't really convey the extent of the hardships faced during a long, underpaying shift on a factory line in any medium. (You could craft a time-accurate simulation, but it would be difficult to rope many into playing it.) Instead, Sweatshop's strategy is to pull you into the antagonist's mindset; it forces you into the cold logic of sweatshop management and leaves you to reflect on your own descent into it. In the design of Sweatshop, Parkin and the others at Littleloud struck upon what Ian Bogost calls "tight coupling." According to Parkin:

It was one of those rare cases where the mechanics and the message seemed to align neatly, and once we began speaking to experts in the field of sweatshop labor it became clear that there was a huge amount of relevant content that we could bake into the game mechanics.

Baking in real-world content

Essentially, the game begins as a cartoon sketch of factory labor. You don't need to worry about worker fatigue, safety and morale. But Littleloud gradually "bakes in" more and more of this real-world content. By the end, you need to keep the floor stocked with water coolers, repairmen and fire marshals to keep your workforce alive.

And then, if you're taking the game seriously, you really start to hold it against them. You cut corners, gambling on the low odds that one or two workers outside the repairman's safety zone might harm themselves. Instead of blaming yourself for demanding too much from them, or for not planning ahead in your support item infrastructure, you get angry at your sim-workers for getting tired at the most inopportune times. It is this reduction of human beings to numbers, pesky weak flesh in the way of the profit, that is Sweatshop's frightening strength.

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Of course, not everything about Sweatshop works as well as it could. For instance: radios, fans and portable toilets all contribute in some way to worker productivity. While we can certainly see the case for radios increasing morale and fans reducing fatigue, one of the game's factoid texts explicitly critiques many sweatshops for not allowing workers to use the restroom in order to maximize productivity. The support items are so helpful that, at the end of any given level, your floor is likely to look a lot more hospitable than most actual sweatshops would be.

Of course, incongruities such as this are only a minor problem. The biggest obstacle I see is that, because it is so full-featured and modeled after commercially viable tower defense games, Sweatshop's rhetoric burns so slowly that many players might never encounter it. Even if you play to the end, it really requires a desire to attain gold medals on your part for much of its skillful mental manipulation to take effect.

That said, Sweatshop's many animated cut scenes and factual texts will arguably hit harder for the intended teenage audience than they did with me. There's not as much of a direct causal link between the game and the practice of buying cheap clothes (the stated target of the project) as one might like, but it's a huge step in the right direction for Littleloud as a studio.

Although Parkin couldn't provide details on the game's budget, he did offer a timetable for the game's production. It was pitched to Channel 4 last summer, but it didn't enter production until January. The development cycle lasted around six months with a small team of four, though other members of the studio provided ongoing support. These rough numbers attest to the thoroughness and determination of both Littleloud and Channel 4, showing what can be done when one waits until a game is fully realized before pushing it to press.

July 01 2011

13:25

When Moral Systems Miss the Point in Newsgames

In "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," we argue that the news quiz "is an incredibly simple type of game, but one that nevertheless can transmit factual information in a refreshing way." Perhaps our favorite example is an op-ed suite from The New York Times called "Turning Points, 2008 Edition," which couples a Trivial Pursuit-style question card with a series of short columns on the 2008 presidential campaign.

While I can't speak for my co-authors, I personally believe that we were being a bit generous in this assessment. The truth is that I'm tired of quizzes, and I'm not convinced that the form has intrinsic pedagogical value. In order for a quiz to actually educate, it needs to be built into a competent curriculum or wider news ecology; the quiz is a capstone, not a keystone. Some designers of quiz newsgames make no effort to integrate them into a lesson or tie them to a current event, so they usually lack context or linking to relevant news sources.

For instance, Sunshine Week's Ray of Sunshine Game quizzes its players on First Amendment rights and the Freedom of Information Act. There's a small link to Sunshine Week's website at the bottom left-hand of the screen, but there's little contextual information about why the game exists and where players are meant to pull information from in order to answer the questions.

The game begins with a general question about rights and freedoms before quickly descending into a gauntlet of FOIA esoterica.

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You'd need an encyclopedia or a law degree to know the answers to some of them off the top of your head. But answering the questions correctly doesn't really seem to be the point. On every incorrect guess, you're simply told to try another answer. Finally stumbling upon the correct choice, you're given a short blurb explaining why that answer is correct. The entire process feels backward.

Nevertheless, we recognize that there is a deeper missed opportunity in the design of most news quizzes: "to inspire players to perform more detailed analysis and synthesis of facts into information that might inform civic decisions," as we note in "Newsgames."

Adding in ethical choice

Perhaps in an effort to accomplish this goal, a few recent newsgames do something curious: They hide basic trivia questions under a layer of moral decision-making. And this might come as no surprise to those who pay attention to the discourse surrounding the "maturation" of games as a medium. It is often assumed that taking a tired design and adding some nominal amount of ethical choice -- usually in the form of binary story branches or good/neutral/evil alignment meters -- will somehow reinvigorate and edify its players.

But there's a serious problem with this easy inclusion of moral choice: Even a simple move to branch out from the standard structure of a game results in an exponential need for more content. And in a genre where budgets are often tight, cuts will likely need to be made as a result. This means less thought goes into the causal chain between choice and consequence, undercutting the very goals that the inclusion of the simple moral system hoped to attain. A half-baked moral system can have the opposite effect on people's reasoning, and can even become confounding. Let's begin with a minor example from an otherwise effective newsgame.

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In the Urban Ministries of Durham's Spent, players take the role of a single parent who has recently been put out of work. With only a thousand dollars left to your name, you've got to survive for a month without going bankrupt. Each day presents a new dilemma, threatening to rob the player of varying amounts of remaining cash. And even when you're lucky, only running into minor costs and emergencies, the constant trickle of money out of your wallet leads to a monthly net loss that feels greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, many of the more expensive choices (whether to take dental care, or pay for car insurance) come with no tangible feedback into the system.

Following the decision in the picture above, there's no later repercussion for committing a hit-and-run. Of course, the moral space here is quite complex. If you really can't afford to pay for the damages, then it's reasonable to question whether the victim of the accident might have better insurance or a healthier financial situation. And if you do leave the scene of the crime, then there should be a slight chance that the law will eventually catch up to you (perhaps based on the real-world percentage of hit-and-run cases that are resolved by local law enforcement).

The entire point of the question is to educate players about the high costs of minor accidents, but it ends up encouraging a kind of moral laxity through its de-emphasis on consequences and details external to one's wallet.

When moral lessons clash

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The most reprehensible example of a trivia question disguised as a moral choice that I've come across takes place in a game called ICED: I Can End Deportation. You play an illegal immigrant to the United States, navigating a 3D cityspace while answering myth/fact trivia and resolving choices that all of us face in real life. The point is that, for an undocumented immigrant, these choices bear the extra load of raising INS scrutiny. Buying a pirated CD from a street vendor may not be a big deal to a citizen, but players learn that it's always best for a non-citizen to avoid such foibles.

Many of the choices are banal, related to petty criminality driven by an assumed low financial status. But because there is no actual "money meter," there's no pressure to descend into moral turpitude (for example, one situation absurdly asks whether you want to pick up a gun that you find in a garbage can ... and why would you?).

The situation that raised a number of alarms for me relates to domestic violence. Passing by an open window, the player sees a husband beating his wife. You have to choose whether to call the police or walk away silently. If you walk away silently, there's no increase in the level of INS activity (represented by police officers patrolling the streets for the player). But if you report the abuse, you're told that immigrants risk drawing attention to themselves by contacting the police for any reason. While in many cases, we can see how this lesson would be important, it's absurd to tie it here to the issue of domestic abuse. Why couldn't the player simply go to a payphone and report the tip anonymously?

There are so many alternative resolutions to this problem that the game simply doesn't afford, and, frankly, it's offensive to use such a charged situation when one's game system can't support the complexity of the problem.

ICED, in fact, encapsulates two of the what I would identify as the biggest mistakes in contemporary newsgame design: using 3D and relying on a quiz structure. The former decision leads to an exponential increase in cost. The latter inspires boredom over playfulness, shallow linear design over system-based thinking, and a reminder of ineffectual pedagogy.

Applying a veneer of ethical decision-making is not the best way to make a news quiz more relevant or engaging. When one's budget or design ability can't support the increase in content and causality that are part and parcel of moral systems, then they should simply be avoided.

June 14 2011

19:00

What Augmented Reality Can Do for the Media Industry

I attended the second annual Augmented Reality Event conference in Santa Clara, Calif., in May and it was ... interesting.

OK, it was a huge geekfest. The opening session was interrupted by people dressed in hazardous waste -- or maybe they were supposed to be pseudo-astronaut -- outfits, yelling about "free space," while wrapping the audience in yellow caution tape.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and free thinker best known for coining the term "virtual reality," opened his keynote speech by playing the khene, a traditional Laotian wind instrument that he says was the earliest conveyor of digital information.

Jaron Lanier at ARE 2011 from locative media on Vimeo.

But somewhere in the excitement of innovators being able to make Roger Hargreaves-style characters race across a flat surface if you hold your smartphone camera just so, were hints of what augmented reality, or AR, could do for the media industry.

Content needs to catch up

The two sessions devoted to content and AR were somewhat underwhelming, so you had to really use your imagination. Helen Papagiannis, an artist, designer, researcher and Ph.D. candidate, said content has to catch up to technology, but then she went on to show a live demonstration of making a virtual tarantula appear on her hand. Kinda cool. And Adriano Farano, a Knight Fellow at Stanford University, showed how he was able to superimpose photographs of what the university quad looked like just before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

That later got me to thinking about Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., and how some enterprising visual journalist, using AR and Microsoft's Bing maps and Photosynth technology, could virtually restore those communities for the people who live there and for future generations who won't know the towns as they used to be.

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Over in the showcase sessions, Innovega demonstrated how a special contact lens and sunglasses that look like Ray Bans (not the Geordi La Forge eyewear from Star Trek New Generation that you see in Sky Mall magazine) can project a 200-inch screen. That could almost make a transcontinental plane trip bearable. And the ladies at Clothia may have finally cracked the online clothes-buying nut with technology that not only lets you "try on" clothes, but photograph existing pieces and pair them with new ones you want to buy.

MVS Labs demonstrated a heads-up, in-car device that can display safety symbols, collision warnings, and drivers' map preferences. Maybe soon it will displace radio traffic reports with real-time warnings about upcoming delays.

Many of the speakers at ARE 2011 were keenly aware of the hype around virtual worlds and information, as well as the lack of standards. AR, after all, is still very new, and those of us who are developing in the space realize how inconvenient it is to walk around holding a Droid or an iPad to our eyes all the time. Heads-up displays and new technology such as NFC (Near-Field Communication) as well as content providers getting serious about what information users might really want in a virtual reality will help the medium mature.

May 24 2011

15:41

Three 3D Newsgames Produced Within a Week of Bin Laden Raid

In the course of researching newsgames over the past few years, we've been able to roughly categorize them into certain types, which we've previously written about on Idea Lab. These categories were based on how genres of games are able to support types of news stories. Current event games tend to be short, 2D, and built with Flash because it's easy to produce something playable quickly. Documentary games are often 3D and highly visual because they can afford longer production times.

So while it was no surprise that a number of Osama bin Laden games were released soon after the U.S. military operation that successfully located and killed the terrorist leader, it was unusual that all three of these current event games were built in three-dimensional environments. What was it about this story that had three different teams working with 3D tools to recreate the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan?

The three newsgames in question are News + Gameplay's Bin Laden Raid, Kuma Games' Kuma\War Episode #107: The Death of Osama Bin Laden, and the Counter-Strike: Source maps fy_abbottabad and de_abbottabad.

Each was released May 7 -- exactly one week after the tactical operation -- but produced under different circumstances.

Bin Laden Raid

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News + Gameplay's Jeremy Alessi and his team of two other developers coded, scripted and built models for hours on end to release their first foray into the world of newsgames. Bin Laden Raid was built using the openly available Unity authoring tool. It was likely chosen not only because of Unity's sophisticated 3D engine, but because a Unity web player plugin is available for all major browsers on Windows and Mac OS X, meaning the game doesn't have to go through a lengthy install process. Bin Laden Raid positions the player as one of the special operatives raiding the compound and tasks him with killing bin Laden and all insurgents inside the building, collecting intelligence in the form of laptops scattered throughout the complex, and finally blowing up the downed helicopter before taking off with bin Laden's body in tow.

The Death of Osama Bin Laden

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Kuma Games' interpretation of the mission is bound by the constraints of its existing platform. The Kuma\War series uses Valve's Source engine and a custom, old version of the Steam distribution platform to release downloadable episodes of its games. The Death of Osama bin Laden is a multiplayer scenario in which players can choose either side of the fight. As terrorists, players must prevent the special operations forces from completing their objectives for five minutes. As special ops, players go through the same mission points as Bin Laden Raid: kill, collect intel, blow up the helicopter, and escape. It's possible to play the episode with artificial intelligence controlling the enemy, but the AI isn't particularly sophisticated.

Counter-Strike: Source maps

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Lastly, a Counter-Strike player named Fletch released a multiplayer map for Counter-Strike: Source called fy_abbotabad. The prefix "fy" refers to "frag yard" and implies that the map is intended for traditional death-match style play. This setup in Counter-Strike usually means there are two distinct sides for the terrorists and counter-terrorists, and most combat occurs as the two sides meet in the middle. A few days later, Fletch released an updated version of the map called de_abbotabad. The prefix "de" stands for "bomb defusal" -- the classic match setup that involves counter-terrorists preventing terrorists from planting C4 explosives or defusing those bombs once they've been placed. The map has nothing to do with the operation against bin Laden's compound beyond loose similarities in its architectural layout.

When you consider these three games, reasons for building 3D environments are rather obvious. The scenario of the military operation is reminiscent of modern first-person shooters on videogame consoles. And it's not just that many games are about war. War is immensely complex. But games about war don't demonstrate this complexity. Instead, they're scripted so that the player succeeds against all odds -- often as an army of one or in a small squad. 

A fight without conflict

Jean Baudrillard argued that the Gulf War did not take place because it was a fight without conflict. Its tactical execution and televised mediation made it seem unreal to all but those who were directly involved in it. He further argued that Operation Desert Storm was a pre-written script that only needed execution to be successful. The coalition might was overpowering in both physical force and military imagery.

The Gulf War has often been called the "videogame war" because it seemed like a military simulation depicted through powerful imagery. But the bin Laden operation is even closer to a videogame: The success of the SEALs is reminiscent of superhero-like accomplishments in games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Of course, this assessment is only true knowing now the operation was successful.

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Of the three games, Bin Laden Raid is the closest depiction of the rhetoric that positions the SEALs as invincible heroes. The mission presents no threat of failure. The enemies are easy to kill; you cannot be killed; and there is no time limit. All the player has to do is go through the motions to be successful. But this game only represents what happened, not what could have happened. In that way, it trivializes the accomplishments of the highly trained special ops. But it's unclear whether the reality it depicts was intended or emerged from the constraints of a quickly produced game.

Spatial reality: Recreating environments

Bin Laden Raid was most concerned with accurately recreating the layout of the compound, Alessi told me in an email exchange. In our analysis of documentary games in "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," we discuss three kinds of documentary reality: spatial, operational and procedural. Spatial reality recreates environments and architecture to develop an understanding of what it was like to be in a certain place in time. Similarly, Alessi's team took satellite images of the compound, photographs of the aftermath, and dimensions from the training model to produce their 3D rendering. "As a side note," Alessi said, "most shooter games scale interiors up by 150 percent. We did not do that here which, combined with the FOV, makes the space look cramped, but it is to scale according to the information available at the time." The game does certainly feel more cramped than the traditional first- or third-person shooter.

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The Kuma website tells a similar tale of rendering the mise-en-scene of a space:
"We are sticking to our retelling of real-world events, and that means a lot of reading and research, as well as talking with sources so we can get it right, " Mike Thompson, project lead at Kuma, explains on a post on the game company's web site. "It's not fun telling an artist to start a model over after an all-nighter because someone found a mysterious tail rotor, but that's what we do to get the job done." Kuma's episode, built with an engine used primarily to develop shooting games, looks more like a familiar first-person shooter. It doesn't have the accuracy of scale of Bin Laden Raid, but the threat of being killed during the mission better addresses the reality of the situation.

The Counter-Strike maps, on the other hand, use the layout of the compound as merely a starting point to produce something unconcerned with journalistic integrity. de_abbotabad is tabloid in nature. If players don't specifically search the current multiplayer games ongoing in CS: Source for the map, they might stumble upon a ripped-from-the-headlines scenario and try it out. But the story it tells -- counter-terrorists and terrorists engaged in a bomb defusal scenario -- is not even closely related to news reports that inspired it. The maps are not masquerading as newsgames, but for some players, a few rounds in de_abbotabad may give them a picture of what it was to be a Navy SEAL moving through the compound with the threat of violence lurking around every corner.

Beyond simple, playable Flash

Three military games set in the same 3D space released on the same day produced three different experiences. Each presents a particular reality based on its interpretation of the space. They all fall into the current event games category we described in "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," but they go even further since most of the ones we looked at for our research were simple, playable Flash games. 

The designers of these three games undertook the difficult tasks of quickly rendering a 3D world based on interpretation and conjecture. But is a spatial reality -- the accurate recreation of a place in time -- the most important part of the story? And to what extent is accuracy important? Does an exact recreation of a building provide a commensurate experience? Or is there a point in which accuracy matters less than recreating the operational reality of what it was like to be there? If so, perhaps the Counter-Strike maps, which are void of content from the story, actually represent the threat of danger, the deliberateness of movement, and the skill of execution better than the games that chose to recreate the event as it unfolded. 

The answer to these questions lies somewhere in the middle: striking a balance between modeling what happened, where it happened, and how it happened. Because events like the operation against Osama bin Laden are complicated, designers will find that recreating a building brick-for-brick or tasking the player with the mission objectives may not be the best way of telling the story after all.

Perhaps the most illustrative game, then, would involve President Obama waiting anxiously for the results of an unknown outcome. Press A to sit pensively. Press B to engage in daily activities while knowing in the back of your mind a historical military operation is unfolding.

April 20 2011

15:33

Designing a Newsgame Is an Act of Journalism

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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.

April 13 2011

15:30

Newsgames Can Raise the Bar for News, Not Dumb It Down

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 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.

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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.

March 08 2011

16:52

How to Design a Simple Newsgame Authoring Tool

Our teams at Georgia Tech and UC Santa Cruz have been working on an authoring tool that helps journalists quickly create bite-sized newsgames. The Cartoonist has been the working title for the tool because our intention is to create games akin to editorial cartoons, in terms of the amount of information being conveyed and the style of representation. But despite this small scope, the promise of this tool requires intense research and design.

Over the past half-year, we have been faced with a daunting question: How do you create something that can generate games for a seemingly endless list of topics?

Where to Begin?

We started by looking at classic arcade and Atari 2600 games and broke them down into their various components. We then asked questions about what these components mean individually and when interacting with each other. Does Pac-Man eating ghosts map to something metaphorically? Does splitting a dangerous object into two pieces in Asteroids have rhetorical implications? How do familiar game mechanics like shooting, chasing, jumping, racing, and getting power-ups parallel real-world actions?

Games are good at explaining systems and can work through processes to produce variable outcomes. A journalist might report on a story about a local business that gave a politician money in hopes of securing the passage of a beneficial ordinance. What we want is for a journalist to enter this kind of simple relationship into the tool and for it to generate a game that explains the process.

A Unique Concept

Trying to understand how the dynamics of news stories relate to the dynamics of games we found a middle ground of representation in the form of a concept map. This is a way of thinking about actors, relationships, and actions in a news event.

The story is distilled into verb relations between actor nodes while the game is distilled into mechanical relations between actor nodes. The authoring tool is able to group relations and nodes together to produce patterns of events. If one politician is receiving large donations when running for office against another politician, the tool interprets the effect of the donations on the race and makes up tasks for the player and goals to achieve in a game.

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Consider the example above. Some citizens of Rio de Janeiro are buying drugs from the gangs, who terrorize the rest of Rio's population. Citizens are demanding help from the Brazilian government, which is using the police to arrest the gangs, who are fighting back. It appears to be a complicated set of relationships that don't obviously translate into a game.

But our tool can interpret these relationships as meaningful patterns: The fear of the citizens is self-perpetuating; the government is indirectly battling the gangs by enabling the police; the gangs have the resources to fight back. Rather than take each of the bubbles piece by piece, the tool looks for groups of relationships to turn into game dynamics.

Simplifying Complexity

What actually makes this happen is far more complex than this description implies. It involves picking appropriate and compatible game mechanics (things moving around the screen, colliding with each other, competing for resources, etc.). But it has been important to have a simple layer of representation that makes it easier to think about this process in our project and discuss it with the journalists who will use it when it is completed.

Our goal is for the journalist to never have to think about how the game is being built. Instead, they focus on what they do best -- synthesizing current events -- and leave the rest to us.

February 02 2011

18:07

Why Huffington Post's 'Predict the News' Game Is No Galaga

Fellow Knight News Challenge winner Chris O'Brien recently posted on this site about "gamifying" the news. The idea behind the  movement O'Brien is speaking of, which Brad Flora touched on in another recent Idea Lab post, involves adding incentives -- pop-up achievements for tasks completed, progress bars to fill, badges to display, online leaderboards for score comparison, and virtual goods -- to activities. The idea is to reward repeat patronage and reframe participation as if it's like a playing a game.

A Brief History of Videogame Scoring

Videogames have long used scores to track player performance. In 1976, Sea Wolf took cues from pinball tables and added score keeping and a high score to incentivize multiple plays. The wildly successful Space Invaders (1978) helped popularize this method of recording expertise all over the country. Exidy's Star Fire (1979) took this one step forward and added the ability for players to enter their initials to link a high score with a name. The high score gave players both a measurable goal to strive for and a point of performance comparison.

Achieving a good score in a game was not just a measure of how long a play session lasted, as it was possible to more efficiently earn points through various strategies. And because there were no "continues," a high score wasn't a measure of how many quarters were spent to participate. A good score measured understanding.

Earning a good score in Galaga is dependent upon a number of factors. A enemy diving from the formation is worth more than a stationary enemy. A diving Boss Galaga ship with two escorts is worth twice as much as with one escort. A player who has their fighter purposely captured by the tractor beam of a Boss Galaga and successfully frees it can play with two ships on screen side-by-side, doubling firepower. Having double firepower, however, means doubling the area of potential collisions with enemy ships. Racking up points in Galaga requires the player understand the rules that determine how the game is scored.

Now imagine a game like Galaga or Space Invaders with rows of enemies at the top of the screen and a space ship at the bottom firing up. Except that in this hypothetical game, the enemies don't move. Each successfully destroyed ship earns 100 points and there is no time limit. The High Score at the top center of the screen reads 30,000. Let's say that each enemy takes on average two seconds to kill. All that is required to get the high score in this game is to play for ten minutes (30,000/100 = 300 ships at 2 seconds each). It has all the trappings of a game -- buttons, a joystick, spaceship, alien forces, and a high score -- but it asks nothing of you but participation.

Gaming The News

A few months ago the Huffington Post launched a self-described "social news service" called Predict the News. As you can guess from the name, the Huffington Post's polls are centered on sharing predictions such as, "Will Sarah Palin run for president in 2012?" To play, users sign up for an account or log in with a service like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, and respond to a question accompanying an article. Most questions are either yes or no responses like the above, or they involve selecting an option from a list of known outcomes. Points are awarded after the event has passed.

When ImpactGames launched Play the News, a prediction game we discuss at length in the Platforms chapter of Newsgames: Journalism at Play, they set out to make the act of playing informative. Making a prediction was not about choosing what kind of dress Kate Middleton would wear; it was about considering the outcomes of complex situations based on stakeholders. The game rewarded extended research and awarded points based on analytical thinking. After all, it's much harder to guess the outcome of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict than if Apple will release a new iPad in Q1 2011.

The difference between these two prediction games should be apparent. Though they both reward players with points to be shared on an online leaderboard, Play the News addresses complex issues and getting its "high score" is based on understanding. Predict the News asks for participation and getting the "high score" is more luck than skill. Play the News is like Galaga, while Predict the News is like our hypothetical everybody-wins space shooter.

Thinking about how to use so-called game mechanics to drive user engagement is part of the business side of a news organization. But the business shouldn't drive journalism -- journalism should drive the business. Helping readers, viewers, listeners, and players understand the news should be the goal of journalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with incentivizing news reading with a scoring mechanism, but we should take care to keep journalistic values in mind when building the future apparatus of news.

January 19 2011

15:06

How Can We 'Gamify' the News Experience?

One of the biggest emerging conversations over the past year in Silicon Valley is around "gamification." Simply put, this is the idea of applying game mechanics, particularly those found in videogames, to all sorts of non-game experiences.

After following this conversation for many months, I've come to believe that over the next decade gamification will profoundly reshape the way we experience the web, to the same degree that social media and networks redefined the web last decade. To that end, I've been thinking in the broadest terms what that could and should mean for how we can reinvent digital news.

To carry this thinking forward, I'm announcing the launch of a new project: NewstopiaVille. The goal is to explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news. My hope is that by thinking as ambitiously as possible about this idea, I can accomplish two things.

First, I want to get the concept of gamification on the radar on every news organization so that it becomes a central part of their discussions as they continue to push into digital media.

Second, I want to build a prototype of a fully gamified news experience. There won't be a single solution that makes sense for every news organization. But I'm hoping to demonstrate the possibilities to inspire others to pursue their own concepts in this area.

To be clear, all I have at this point is what I think is a big idea. I don't have any funding. I don't have a demo. And I don't stand here pretending to be an expert in the realm of videogames. In fact, until fairly recently, I wouldn't have even thought of myself as a gamer. That has changed as my own kids have plunged into videogames, bringing me along with them.

Let me start by elaborating on what I see happening with gamification.

About Gamification

Even if the term is new to you, the elements are probably not. Gamification suggests features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods. Now that we live in a time where the majority of people play videogames of some kind, often many hours each week, it's fair to say that these kind of features have become widely familiar.

What has begun to change in the past year or so is the growing push to take these common elements out of the videogame experience and incorporate them into sites across the web. That's been driven in no small part by the explosive success of social games like FarmVille by Zynga. But it's also being pushed by a generation of developers raised on videogames, which have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment.

While it's easy to dismiss some of these games as trivial, in fact, they succeed because they take sophisticated approaches to tapping into fundamental human psychology. Developers use those lessons to build experiences that deliberately guide people to perform tasks and behave in specific ways.

Gamification represents a powerful intersection between videogames and social networking. Developers have seen the deep level of engagement these games create. And they have witnessed how games built around cooperative, non-competitive structures have gained a mass appeal.

That has led to a growing number of developers asking, "If I can get someone to spend hours harvesting virtual crops and feeding digital sheep, is there a way to take those same dynamics and get people to do something even more meaningful?"

Virtual Goods

Though not a gamer, I got started on this line of thinking about a year ago with the subject of virtual goods. I was staggered that people were willing to spend billions of dollars on virtual goods. In fact, I wrote about this idea last year when I asked, "Why will people spend $1 to send you a virtual beer on Facebook, but not to read a news story online?"

The reason had to do with the emotional context around those goods. But while I felt news organizations should be thinking about virtual goods, I realized that this was too limiting in isolation. The power of virtual goods comes in the context of an experience. I needed to think more broadly, and that led me into conversations about gamification.

The trap one can fall into is with gamification is to break it down into various tools and try to use a grab-bag approach. Stick a leaderboard here, a few badges there, and believe you've "gamified" your website. But used in that way, these tools will have minimal effect.

The reasons the best videogames succeed is because they offer an all-encompassing experience. They leave players with a profound sense of happiness by allowing them to accomplish a series of goals. And they tap into a central desire to do something with meaning, to be a part of something larger than yourself when you team up with others to accomplish shared goals.

Think about that: A desire to be part of something bigger, and to do tasks that are meaningful. Those are core, shared values that motivate the very best journalists I've known in the most successful newsrooms.

The concept of game mechanics is not entirely new in the context of news. I can recall several years ago talking to news executives who were fascinated with Digg and wanted to understand how game theory could help them. The problem comes with focusing too narrowly on the tools, like Digg's leaderboard. To really leverage the potential of gamification, it has to be central to the entire structure of the news experience.

CityVille Lessons

In that regard, I can imagine any number of areas where game mechanics might address some of the most important and challenging questions facing news organizations:

  • How do we improve commenting?
  • How do we get more people to participate in creation and processing of news and information?
  • How do we think differently about monetization?

Let me just give one example related to the last question. In recent weeks, I've been playing CityVille, the latest game from Zynga. The goal is to construct a city by accomplishing a series of tasks, like harvesting crops to supply stores, which then earn you coins. It's free to play and each time you begin, you have a set amount of energy that allows you to accomplish about 30 tasks. Once you run out of energy, you have a few choices.

First, you can take a break and come back later when your energy builds back up.

Second, you can ask your friends in the game to send you free gifts of energy that allow you to keep playing. This rewards you for being super social, and building up a big network of friends that you've helped accomplish other tasks.

Third, you can spend real money to purchase energy. You can do this by buying Facebook credits, or "buying" CityVille cash which you can then spend in the game to buy energy. The money and the credits are not one-to-one. So $2 of real money gets you $15 of CityVille money. This is an important psychological break that makes people feel like this is a trivial expense to feed their desire to keep playing.

Applying It to News

Think about how that could work at a news site that uses some kind of metered revenue model. Someone who is a free member gets to do 30 things: Read an article, post a comment, contribute to a news task. When they run out of credits, they could ask their network for more credits. Or, they could buy some more.

The ability to induce someone to do this would rest on the success of the larger experience a gamified site has created.

Let me also pause here to make another distinction. I consider this project to be distinct from the idea of "newsgames." While there are certainly similar dynamics, I think of them as complimentary.

For me, newsgames represent a way to reinvent storytelling. It is a contained object. (Here's a broader history of newsgames.)

Gamification is about bringing game mechanics to the entire platform and experience of news and information.

These two concepts certainly can and should fit together. I've thought about this relationship as I've watched my son play his favorite online game, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures. In the game, a player creates an avatar, usually a Jedi, who wanders around the virtual world. At times, he enters various rooms where he plays more specific games, such as a snow speeder chase.

Gamification would be about shaping the entire news experience for someone. At times, as they move around that gamified news platform, perhaps there would be rooms or spaces where they enter to play more specific newsgames. That would be one of many tasks that might allow them to earn rewards, or build their reputation or earn experience points.

Getting Started

But the question, then, is where to start? As I said before, it would be a mistake to begin by focusing on the various tools, the technology, or the protocols. Figuring out which of these to use would be something that would come at the end of the design process, not at the start.

Where I want to start is by asking the larger questions that I think are critical to the success of any game: What is the goal? What is the mission? What is the experience we want people to have?

From there comes a longer list of questions about what exactly we want people to do. What are their motivations? How do we reward them? How do we keep them moving through the game? What are the levels and rewards?

Next Steps

My next step: In the coming months, I'm going to accelerate my personal research and interviewing in this area. This coming week, I'll be attending the first ever Gamification Summit in San Francisco, and next month I'll be at the Game Developer's Conference.

I'll be blogging along the way at NewstopiaVille.com to share my thoughts and to hopefully get lots of feedback. Most importantly, by making this a public discussion, I'm hoping this will bring folks forward who want to take these ideas further.

In a few months, I'll try to gather these folks together for a more focused discussion. I'm thinking this might take the form of a meetup/bar camp/or hackathon. The goal being to produce something tangible that can test some of the ideas that have been formulated, and to figure out what resources would be needed to create a real prototype or demo.

As I said, I don't pretend to have all the answers. Just a serious curiosity driven by the belief that I think this is potentially a really big idea.

If you agree, then I hope you'll help me.

December 14 2010

15:05

A Brief History of Newsgames: Combining News + Videogames

The newsgames project, which this year won a News Challenge grant, began two and a half years ago with a single question: What is the relationship between videogames and journalism? With the help of the two dozen fellow students at Georgia Tech who've joined us over the past five semesters, we identified and explored seven categories of newsgames on our class blog and in our book, "Newsgames: Journalism at Play". Below is a brief overview of the book in order to encourage people to read the findings of our research.

Current Event Games

The earliest examples of newsgames were games that editorialized about current events. Georgia Tech alumnus Gonzalo Frascas was responsible for one of the first. Kabul Kaboom -- a game based on the Activision classic for the Atari VCS -- comments on the absurdity of providing aid to a country while simultaneously bombing it. There was also September 12th, which was an indictment of the United States' tactical missile strikes on Middle Eastern cities. It sent the message that, rather than killing terrorists, these strikes harm innocent people and give civilians reason to take up arms. Current events games can also report on stories without an editorial line, like Wired's Cutthroat Capitalism. Additionally, just as there are news sources dedicated to celebrities and gossip, there are tabloid games like So You Think You Can Drive, Mel?

Infographics

Infographics, while different on the surface from how we typically imagine games, actually have a common experience with gaming. While many infographics -- like the bar charts that colorfully adorn the front page of the USA Today -- are simplistic presentations of numbers, good infographics serve the purpose of making sense of complex data.

Journalists can use infographics to guide readers through data in the same way a game guides players through rules. Like games, digital infographics enable manipulation, exploration, and variable outcomes. For example, American Public Media's Budget Hero gives players not only the daunting task of balancing the nation's budget, but also forces them to do so within the constraints of self-selected goals. A balanced budget means nothing if the player fails to live up their promise to increase the salaries of public school teachers.

Documentary Games

Documentary games are a familiar form of newsgame because they resemble the historical scenarios major game developers have tackled in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. These series, of course, have little to no journalistic content, but they serve as a way of imagining the documentary game form. Some documentary games exist as spatial realities, like a recreation of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. That game produces a familiar setting in 3D, but fails to recreate the experience of living in Soviet-occupied Berlin.

In addition to spatial realities, there are operational realities. This type of documentary game recreates the way an event unfolded. John Kerry's Silver Star Mission, by a company called Kumar\War, positions the player as Senator Kerry when he was a swiftboat pilot in Vietnam. The player tries to reenact the military maneuver that earned him his Silver Star. The purpose of the game was to question the plausibility of the event, an issue that had been raised by the media during the election. A successful mission is supposed to absolve Kerry; a failure condemns him.

Lastly, there exists the potential for a procedural reality. It is a reality that doesn't just recreate a place or reproduce an occurrence, but operates under a set of rules and logic determined by real world events. It helps explain not only what happened, but how it happened. PeaceMaker, a game about Israel and Palestine, plays out the conflict according to a set of rules that govern how each side responds to the other. In doing so, the player can experiment with different policy choices on each side, revealing the extraordinary complexity of the matter.

Puzzles

Puzzles have long been a familiar form of games in the news. The crossword puzzle, originally the word cross, is over a hundred years old. In the 1920s, crossword-mania swept the United States, leading to, ironically, the New York Times condemning crosswords as a "sinful waste."

Puzzles have served the important purpose of drawing people to the newspaper. We would all like to say we first flip to the important events of the day, but in reality people open up the paper to the sports section, the comics, and the daily crossword or Sudoku.

Puzzles tend to be void of journalistic content; however, in a world where the casual gamer has turned to Bejeweled and Facebook games, perhaps journalistic significance will bring readers back to playing the news. The Crickler is a hybrid crossword-trivia game that requires players know current events. And Scoop! gets its crossword solutions from the headlines of website feeds. The relationship between the news and the puzzle is one that would do well to be rekindled.

As has been explored in extensive research, games have the ability to teach. In the process of examining newsgames as learning aids, we arrived first at an obvious answer: There are of course games that teach the practice of being a journalist. Games like Global Conflicts: Palestine put the player in the shoes of a reporter covering the story, helping them to learn to ask the right questions and take accurate notes.

We also came to the realization that the lesson here is not only about becoming a journalist -- it can be about understanding the importance of journalism. In other examples, watchdog media help the player through games like Beyond Good & Evil and Fallout 3, and intrepid photojournalist Frank West's survival of a zombie attack in Dead Rising means nothing without uncovering the truth behind the living dead outbreak.

Community Games

Another type of game is what we call community games -- an umbrella term we came up with to describe everything from big games and scavenger hunts to alternate reality games. As the name implies, these are games to be played with and within a community. Some, like World Without Oil, which asks players to blog and create videos about living in a world where peak oil has caused prices to skyrocket, exist entirely online.

Others, however, like collaboration between the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle newspaper, encourage readers and players to make a connection with their local community. Picture the Impossible offered puzzles to play online, scavenger hunts in the city, and clues to riddles hidden in the pages of the printed paper. From what was reported, the game was at least moderately successful. And, more importantly, it showed a news organization willing to take a risk on something new.

Platforms

Which brings us to our final category of newsgames: Platforms. In the loosest sense, a platform is anything you build that makes it easier to build other things. Once you've devised the inverted pyramid structure of the news story, you don't need to reinvent the printed format every time you want to publish.

Platforms aren't about building things entirely from scratch. We encourage news organizations to take a look around them to see what resources they already have available. Fantasy football does this on a weekly basis by assigning points to on-field results. It's simple, but wildly successful.

Play the News turned reading into a prediction game. Each story was crafted such that it involved stakeholders and outcomes. After reading through the material and viewing supplementary media, players could predict how an event might play out. Not only did they base their game on existing material (the events of the world), but they designed it so it could be syndicated to other news outlets, which could then use the game to draw readers to their site.

There are all sorts of tools out in the world just waiting for someone to make creative use of. Making a game doesn't have to be about learning to program from scratch -- it can be about taking advantage of things that have already been built. It can be as simple as putting a real news ticker into the Times Square of Grand Theft Auto, or, as complex as using current events to change the system dynamics of your global political strategy game, like in Democracy 2.

The variety outlined in these categories should be encouraging to journalists. What we found is that there is an amazing range of opportunities to experiment with new ideas, and we hope that news organizations are willing to try new things.

November 10 2010

18:31

Understanding How Political Cartoons Intersect with Newsgames

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.

Removing Passion

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.

October 21 2010

17:09

Journalists Should Play and Discuss Newsgames Like 1378(km)

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.

1378(km)

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.

September 02 2010

16:21

The Cartoonist Aims to Bring Newsgames to the Masses

The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of "newsgames" -- videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Early Newsgames

Our project strives to enhance the online viability of local newspapers and to lower the technical barrier required to produce videogames with editorial intent. We see it as as an extension of, rather than a replacement for, the tradition of editorial cartooning. The creator of the earliest newsgames, Gonzalo Frasca, was the first to describe his work as "playable political cartoons." The French-language history and geography textbooks Frasca encountered in high school featured many cartoons drawn by an artist from Le Monde, and they were, according to him, all that made civics education bearable.

By now, anyone studying or working in journalism understands the great loss to news revenue caused by the shift of classifieds to online sources such as Craigslist and eBay. It is our contention that the abandonment of staff cartoonists at many papers -- a tragic and highly visible symptom of overall budget cuts during the recent recession -- represents a similarly vital loss, though of a different kind. For over a century, editorial cartoons drew attention to issues of local importance and generated a sense of regional pride. Their contribution to the wellbeing of local papers has never been easily quantifiable, but it's clear that they've always served a pivotal role in maintaining product loyalty and funneling readers toward the rest of the paper.

Appeal of Puzzles

Games accomplish a similar goal: Studies by the New York Times, the London Times, and a number of local papers showed that a significant percentage of their readerships bought the paper primarily for the puzzles. Although the crossword retains its loyalists, and despite the advent of Sudoku having ushered in a new generation of puzzlers, the rise in popularity of online web game portals represents yet another threat to the growth and retention of news readerships.

The new online news media require a new form of game, one that draws from the accessibility of arcade games and the capability of videogames to present an editorial opinion. Indeed, The Cartoonist has uses far beyond interactive cartoons, and as a result we will be changing the final product's name to reflect its broad potential. More on that as things progress.

Once it is fully developed, our studios will work with local reporters, columnists, and cartoonists in Atlanta and Santa Cruz to introduce them to the authoring system. Later, we'll make the tool and its source code available to everyone, from veteran cartoonists, to indie game developers, to citizen journalists. Until then, we'll be publishing findings, problems, and points of interest twice a month on this blog, along with other articles on our own Newsgames and Expressive Intelligence Studio websites. We look forward to your questions, comments, and continued support.

16:21

The Cartoonist Aims to Bring Newsgames to the Masses

The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of "newsgames" -- videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Early Newsgames

Our project strives to enhance the online viability of local newspapers and to lower the technical barrier required to produce videogames with editorial intent. We see it as as an extension of, rather than a replacement for, the tradition of editorial cartooning. The creator of the earliest newsgames, Gonzalo Frasca, was the first to describe his work as "playable political cartoons." The French-language history and geography textbooks Frasca encountered in high school featured many cartoons drawn by an artist from Le Monde, and they were, according to him, all that made civics education bearable.

By now, anyone studying or working in journalism understands the great loss to news revenue caused by the shift of classifieds to online sources such as Craigslist and eBay. It is our contention that the abandonment of staff cartoonists at many papers -- a tragic and highly visible symptom of overall budget cuts during the recent recession -- represents a similarly vital loss, though of a different kind. For over a century, editorial cartoons drew attention to issues of local importance and generated a sense of regional pride. Their contribution to the wellbeing of local papers has never been easily quantifiable, but it's clear that they've always served a pivotal role in maintaining product loyalty and funneling readers toward the rest of the paper.

Appeal of Puzzles

Games accomplish a similar goal: Studies by the New York Times, the London Times, and a number of local papers showed that a significant percentage of their readerships bought the paper primarily for the puzzles. Although the crossword retains its loyalists, and despite the advent of Sudoku having ushered in a new generation of puzzlers, the rise in popularity of online web game portals represents yet another threat to the growth and retention of news readerships.

The new online news media require a new form of game, one that draws from the accessibility of arcade games and the capability of videogames to present an editorial opinion. Indeed, The Cartoonist has uses far beyond interactive cartoons, and as a result we will be changing the final product's name to reflect its broad potential. More on that as things progress.

Once it is fully developed, our studios will work with local reporters, columnists, and cartoonists in Atlanta and Santa Cruz to introduce them to the authoring system. Later, we'll make the tool and its source code available to everyone, from veteran cartoonists, to indie game developers, to citizen journalists. Until then, we'll be publishing findings, problems, and points of interest twice a month on this blog, along with other articles on our own Newsgames and Expressive Intelligence Studio websites. We look forward to your questions, comments, and continued support.

December 02 2009

15:30

How Gotham Gazette Used Games as Storytelling Devices

With the launch of its energy game Switch, Garbage Game, for example, told us that it gave them a whole new appreciation of the complexity of the problem -- both how difficult it is to reduce solid waste and how expensive it is to dispose of this material.

Budget games, such as Balance (or the national one, Budget Hero), also do this. They make it clear that, whatever politicians might have us believe, closing deficits means raising taxes or cutting things most of us like, such as police officers, teachers and firefighters.

Games that are more instructional, such as ours about how the budget process works, have a role to play, too. But my hunch, based on our experience, is that unless they can be made extremely entertaining, people are less likely to try those out just for the heck of it. Instead, these games can play a valuable role for a community group seeking to inform its members, say, or a civics or political science class. (This realization owes much to a talk by Alice Robison at MIT last year.)

Building Good, Low Budget Games

Creating a good game requires a lot of work, money or both. When I spoke at a conference last year, people repeatedly expressed amazement about the low budget for Gotham Gazette's games. But for us -- and for many other small news publications -- the cost seemed huge. We never would have been able to do the games without Knight's support, and even with Knight's generosity, it often was a scramble and a struggle.

Part of this is technical: finding programmers or having one on staff. But reporting for the games is also extremely time consuming because you can't "fudge." So, for example, as we compared electricity savings for Switch, we had to insure they were all in the same units, covered the same period of time, and applied to the same geographical area. We could not use a mix of figures for the city and state, which is something we might do in a story.

If small organizations such as Gotham Gazette are to use games as one of their storytelling techniques, we need to create games with a long shelf life -- our Garbage Game gets many hits two years after its launch -- or ones that can be recycled. We are, for example, going to try to reuse Balance for the next budget cycle, by inserting new numbers. I've gotten some queries from others about how they could adapt this game to their locality.

Conclusion

Are games worth doing? I'd give a qualified yes. One great thing about the web is that it offers journalists so many tools for telling stories: conventional text, interactive databases, audio, video, and so on. Games are another valuable tool.

As the web matures, the key question we should ask ourselves is not, "Should we have an audio slide show or should we make a game?" Rather, we should ask, "How can we best engage and inform our readers about the topic at hand?"

And sometimes the answer will no doubt be, "Yes, let's make a game."

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