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April 20 2011


Designing a Newsgame Is an Act of Journalism

elements of journalism book.jpg

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:

food import folly.jpg

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.

February 18 2011


How an Atlanta Ice Skater Made a Viral Video Go Worldwide

Every city has at least one iconic street. New York has Broadway. Los Angeles has Sunset Boulevard. Chicago has Lake Shore Drive. Atlanta? It has Peachtree Street.

And one frozen night in early January, within blocks of the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote "Gone with the Wind," Peachtree became more than a street -- an urban rebel christened it as an ice rink.

Peachtree St. Ice Rink in Midtown from A.Nendel on Vimeo.

There's an old saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. An Atlanta man named Andrew Nendel decided that when life gives you ice, go skating.

Videos of Nendel zipping up and down Peachtree between 11th and 14th Streets in Midtown Atlanta have received more than 200,000 hits and have been televised worldwide.

The Back Story

The Southern city that's been known to grind to a halt at a half-inch of snow got several inches Sunday night, January 9. A sheet of ice topped things off on Monday. Icy roads shut down schools and businesses for almost a week.

At about 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, videographer and web developer Brian Danin and his wife Valerie were out walking near their Midtown loft.

"We kept saying, 'if only we had ice skates!'" he recalls. Then they saw Nendel. "Wow -- there's somebody actually with ice skates," Danin said.

This was the "money shot" of the city's worst winter storm in 15 years right in front of him. Even though Danin didn't have the gear he's accustomed to, he had his Droid X smartphone.

"It was one of those ironic moments," Danin said. So he held the camera still, braced himself against a street lamp, held his breath, followed the action, and then posted the result on YouTube.

"I knew while I was taking the video, 'Wow -- this is really cool,'" Danin recalls.

The Viral Effect

But he had no idea how popular it would become. "On a different one of my YouTube channels, I have 85 videos," Danin says. "This one video beat the other channel entirely within about four days. My mother-in-law from Colorado called saying she saw it on the news there."

Nendel, the skater, handed his pocket video recorder to a security guard and uploaded the result to Facebook, Vimeo and CNN iReport.

"I never expected this video to go viral or become so widespread throughout the news community," Nendel told me via email. "I just made the video for myself to document the night I ice skated on a major road in Atlanta." But when he woke up the next day, it was everywhere. Media outlets all over the world picked up the clip.

"My video has gone international!!!! Hello Canada, UK, and Holland," Nendel tweeted jubilantly.

CNN Student News anchor Carl Azuz closed his January 13 newscast with it, saying, "Of everyone who's ever passed through the middle of downtown Atlanta, this guy's gotta be one of the only people ever to do it on ice skates."

First Time Skating in Years

Nendel, who said his schedule was too tight for a phone interview, put enough info online to paint a picture of how the night developed. He hadn't ice skated in years, but kept his skates because he wants to get back to playing hockey and maybe coach. The storm gave him an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"When walking home I came up with the crazy idea of ice skating on the road in Midtown from 11th to 14th street," Nendel wrote on Vimeo. "The thickness of the ice on the street was just like a pond back home in Indiana and seemed perfect. I skated for about an hour while people walking by took video and drivers on the street were just confused."

People's comments summed up their delight. "Just awesome...saw this on the news the other day -- something bright in the doom-and-gloom-and-oh-no-we're-out-of-milk-and-bread news broadcasts that have been going on," posted one admirer.

"Would you skate over my way and bring me a few things i'm running low on...I still can't get to a store and I'm out of coffee and half & half," joked another.

The video became emblematic of the pressure on the city and the state to clear the roads and get things back to normal.

"I was a little surprised how long it took to get plows out on the road," Danin says, adding that, "the first plows I saw come down Peachtree Street were Tuesday evening." He saw the first one near midnight and snapped a photo -- almost 24 hours after Nendel's ice capade.

Nendel was surprised at how long it took as well. "After the video was posted and then viewed by many via local news, Peachtree Street in front on my building was cleared within two days," he says. "The rest of the street though took a bit longer."

Clearing the Street

That Thursday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed met with reporters at the now-cleared intersection of Peachtree and 14th -- part of what had been Nendel's public ice rink -- to say the city had ramped up snow removal efforts.

What did Nendel think of that?

"I honestly didn't think much about it, due to the video being made just for fun and not to promote some awareness of the road situation in Atlanta," he says. "I believe the Mayor handled the press situation well and the town did what they could with what they had readily available. My big complaint about the roads is all the mounds of dirt and sand now left in the street not being cleared."

Nendel's website says he works in ambient and guerrilla media, social media, design, interactive marketing, design consultation and print media. It also says Kelly Leak, a character from the movie "The Bad News Bears," was his childhood hero.

"Kelly Leak was a rebel, the cool kid, a secret loner, and knew how to get the ladies," Nendel's website says. "I look back today and still want to be that rebel I grew up admiring so much."

And has skating Peachtree brought him closer to that goal?

"Now that I'm one step closer with the rebel cool points earned by this stunt I feel this is only the beginning to the completion of my dream," Nendel says. "So keep an eye open at all times cause you will never know what I might try next."

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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September 21 2010


Media Law Conference for Journalists, Bloggers and Other Digital Media

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University are co‐hosting a conference on September 25, 2010 in Atlanta entitled "Media Law in the Digital Age: The Rules Have Changed, Have You?" Designed for journalists, bloggers, and lawyers who work with media clients, the conference will be an opportunity to learn first‐hand the latest legal developments and to get your questions answered by experts in the field.

The program will bring together legal practitioners, journalists, and academics to discuss the latest legal issues facing online media ventures. Topics will include: libel law, copyright law, newsgathering law, and advertising law, as well as the legal issues arising from news aggregation, managing online communities, and business law considerations for start‐up online media organizations. Small‐group workshops will focus on strategies for accessing government information and understanding legal terms in content licenses, freelancer contracts, and website terms of service and privacy policies.

If you need personalized legal assistance before or after the conference, contact the Online Media Legal Network, a free legal referral network for independent online media administered by the Citizen Media Law Project at the Berkman Center.

Please visit the conference website for more information or to register.

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