Posted by: structureofnews | March 18, 2011

The Games People Play

Attended a very good seminar on computational journalism at HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre this morning, and will post more on it in the next few days.  But I wanted to first highlight some of the work one of the speakers, Nicholas Diakopoulos, is doing.  It’s about games.  More specifically, news games.

He’s been looking into how we might use data and other news inputs to create playable environments/interfaces to draw readers/users more deeply into the news experience.   It’s an area well-worth exploring – we all understand how immersive a well-designed game can be (or at least those of us who have looked up from a keyboard to discover that we’ve been playing World of Warcraft for six hours), and we should be taking lessons from game designers to build equally engrossing interfaces for our “news products.”

Nick has been experimenting with this, and done some serious research into it as well.  He’s built Salubrious Nation – in fact, several versions of it – a simple game where users try to guess the level of public health of communities around the US.  It shows you a randomly picked community and provides you some demographic data about that area, and you’re supposed to figure out how it scores on some specific measure (teen births, binge drinking, etc).

OK, so it’s not Grand Theft Auto, but there is a certain addictiveness to trying to better your score, and other people’s results.  And, depending on how you play it, you start to think through some of the possible correlations between data – do wealthier communities have higher or lower levels of diabetes, say?

Would we play with the data as much if we just were given the information in a visualization and asked to explore it?  Nick asked that question – in fact, he built several versions, and tested them to see how users would interact with the information, how much they enjoyed it, and what insights they came away with.  The results are posted here, with more thoughts from him here.

It’s an interesting paper, with some interesting conclusions:

Our evaluation shows that traditional infographics … generally outperformed the game-y designs across metrics of number of insights generated, self-reported learning and curiosity evoked, as well as enjoyment of the experience … The main contribution of our study is in showing that the primary benefit of game-y infographic designs lies with their ability to redistribute attention.

Seen from this vantage point, we have shown that game-y infographics are a mechanism to bias attention and interaction via the goals and representations embedded in the game mechanic. For instance, data sub-sets with known lower levels of intrinsic user interest might have a bias applied to them because they are editorially deemed to be of high importance. The downsides to redistributing attention are that it requires careful authorial thought on how and where attention should be directed, and in so doing it may focus attention on objects or relationships that overlook other subtleties of the data. Finally, the very nature of game mechanics draws attention away from data and to game elements such as score or time.

That makes sense: The architecture of any good game – its scoring system, the levels built into it – are intended to pull us through a reasonably well-designed narrative path.  And to a large extent, that’s what news sites and journalists want readers to have as well – a quasi-directed, quasi-free experience.

Certainly our experience with WhoRunsHK is that, while it’s a great resource to explore – and it’s possible to get very immersed in following relationships and links – it’s not an entirely natural experience to just show up to the site and start playing around.  One of our goals has to be to provide a narrative thread for users, or at least goals for users to want to achieve.  (Who is the most connected person in Hong Kong?  Find all the people who have overlapping board memberships of these key companies.  What company has the most former government ministers on its board?  So something like that.)

I recall Matt Waite mentioning at a NICAR conference sometime back that we too often build “data ghettos” where we stick a bunch of databases for people to explore, rather than find ways to integrate the information into the stories we write.  (eg, we figure out your location and insert relevant data into the story you’re reading rather than make you go and check it out in the data ghetto).

That’s a good point – and we should probably go further.  In some cases, the data is more useful than the story, and we should be designing the story – or the narrative thread, to give it another name – around the data.  And that’s what good game design should provide: The narrative experience or hook to bring us through the data and discover insights.   Just as a well-crafted story with rich characters is intended to get us to wade through lots of information and discover insights.

I knew there wass a reason those hours spent on Warcraft would come in useful one way.


  1. Thanks God wordpress is not blocked in China for the time being.
    Nick will be attending the conference in Hangzhou as well. Look forward to chat with him more here.

    Some interesting post on this topic:

    How Immersive Journalism, Games Can Increase Engagement
    It mentions the game format, and collaborations. Well, Irene, Cedric and I will use the boardgame that’s we’ve been working on to illustrate the fun of collaboration!

    Games and journalism: Now that journalism is in trouble, why not play with it?
    This is also a post as a response to Nick’s post but there is lot of game cases there.

    Georgia Tech’s blog worth following as well

    This book, I’m not sure. Have you read it?

    And finally, this lady has an idea that combines game, social media, and citizen journalism, which sounds interesting, though I don’t know how that’ll be implemented. Worth keep an eye on it.

  2. […] within all those sectors, there were another alleys to explore, from news games to automatic content production to exploiting the ubiquity of devices and data (Nick raised the […]

  3. […] building interfaces and defaults that quickly make sense to average users.  It makes the idea of news games even more compelling; the amount of information needed to get through Warcraft can be daunting, but […]

  4. […] and visual journalism among professional journalists, not to mention figuring out how to design interesting and immersive interfaces for data apps.  It’s frustrating how many journalists dismiss visualization as something to […]

  5. […] and visual journalism among professional journalists, not to mention figuring out how to design interesting and immersive interfaces for data apps.  It’s frustrating how many journalists dismiss visualization as something to […]

  6. […] people turning the page – suspense, identifiable characters, etc.  But in the fledgling field of news game design, it’s very early […]

  7. […] a good, quick read and a nice introduction to the whole field of “gamification” – a hot area that lots of people are diving […]

  8. […] And all that helps drive the ability of users to try out wild scenarios – how about recreating the first U.S. presidential election, when only landowning white men could vote? – or use it to actually model a more realistic view of turnout on election day.  Either way, it’s a step forward for us into the simulation and news games front that we hope helps users better understand the election process.  […]

  9. […] there are a lot more possible paths to explore, from plays and pop-up newsrooms to games to old-fashioned storybooks (even from journalists in jail! […]

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