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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.

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.

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.

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