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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.

September 14 2010

04:01

Five important mobile app findings for news orgs

A new report out today gives news organizations reasons to start thinking mobile apps (if they haven’t already). The Pew Internet and American Life Project partnered with Nielsen to survey cellphone users on their app habits, finding that about 43 percent of cellphone users have an app on their device, though only about 24 percent actually use them. With smartphone market share expected to accelerate its rapid growth, app usage is also sure to increase. Here are five data points from the Pew-Nielsen report that stood out to me as noteworthy for news organizations:

Young people like apps

Struggling to get those young consumers? They’re the single most app-friendly bunch. About 47 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they’ve downloaded an app, compared to 39 percent of 20- to 49-year-olds and just 14 percent of 50-plus. That’s important, particularly when paired with a previous Pew finding that showed that young people have taken to giving mobile donations. That’s a good mix for nonprofit news organizations. (Though even with Apple’s newly explained rules, in-app donations aren’t allowed on the iPhone.)

People who use apps consume news online

Apps could be a good way to hang onto your audience, letting them follow you onto another platform. The report surveyed app users about their online activities, revealing that they are more likely to be online news consumers than are non-app users: 90 percent of app users consume news online, compared to 75 percent of non-app users. Also, they are more likely to visit a video sharing site, 80 percent versus 66 percent.

News apps do relatively well

Sure, puzzles (36 percent), Facebook (42 percent), and Google Maps (35 percent) are wildly popular with app users, but look down the list and it’s clear that news isn’t insignificant. Asked which apps they used in the last month, 9 percent of users said CNN, 8 percent USA Today, 7 percent New York Times, and 7 percent Fox. Other local apps for food and entertainment pull in similar percentages, perhaps a good indicator for local news organizations.

People digest apps in small doses

The study found that most users who use their apps daily do so for less than 30 minutes. Asked for context, 71 percent said they use their apps when they’re alone, 53 percent while waiting for someone or something, and 36 percent while commuting. It seems like people want a few moments here and there with their apps, an environment where a good headline or a snappy lede is particularly important.

People will pay

Of all the apps downloaded in a typical month, more were paid than free. That’s good news, though the largest category, 28 percent of all downloads, was still only in the $1-$1.99 category. Another 17 percent of all downloads were in the $2-$2.99 range, 17 percent in the $3-$4.99 range, and 23 percent were $5 or more. Though small amounts, they’re still more than zero — the amount many have proven willing to pay for content on the web.

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