Posted by: structureofnews | January 10, 2012

Systems and Stories

Just finished reading Newsgames: Journalism at Play, by Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer – a pretty comprehensive survey of the field and good exploration of areas newsrooms might explore, from simulations to quick puzzles to ways of making money at it.   (It’s amazing how much reading you can get done when there’s not much else to do on a beach in Thailand.)

It’s a good, quick read and a nice introduction to the whole field of “gamification” – a hot area that lots of people are diving into.

I won’t attempt to summarize it but there are a couple of interesting points the book raises that are worth highlighting.

The first is that, beyond the notion of building more engaging interfaces that will draw readers/users into our content, is that games – at least some games – can offer real insights into content that stories just aren’t as well suited to provide.

In particular, they note that simulations, by virtue of their ability to let users “live” through a situation – and replay it many times, each time slightly differently – allow for much more understanding of how systems work, be it government budget processes or the incentives driving Somali pirates.

That latter example is in fact the subject of a game, Cutthroat Capitalism, that Wired published in 2009, as a companion to a story about piracy; the story addressed the issue from the point of view of the shippers who are getting their vessels and crews hijacked, while the game puts players in the position of a pirate trying to make money.

Journalists… think of their work in terms of people, events, locations, moments, motivations.  They craft ledes and choose images to draw readers or viewers into a specific individual’s plight, and then they move from the particular to the general.

But as we have shown, games are better at depicting the general than they are at the particular.  Cutthroat Capitalism addresses the economics of Somali piracy, not the tale of a particular pirate of freight captain.

Try the game out – it’s not exactly Doom or World of Warcraft, but there’s a certain addictiveness to it; and more importantly, it really does help you understand why pirates act the way they do.  It shows the system works, as opposed to a story about a specific example.

And that’s the broader point: It isn’t just that the game increases the stickiness of the story – it’s that it explains things in a way that the story never could.   It isn’t simply an adjunct to the story; it’s a different way of communicating information and insight.

…journalism can and will embrace new modes of thinking about news in addition to new modes of production.  Rather than just tack-on a games desk or hire an occasional developer on contract, we contend that newsgames will offer valuable contributions only when they are embraced as a viable method of practicing journalism – albeit a different kind of journalism than newspapers, television and Web pages offer.

Not that most newsrooms can afford the kind of time this one obviously took to build; but that’s part of another insight that the book provides.  Which is that newsrooms could invest in larger-scale simulations – about the locality or area of interest that they cover – that allow them to quickly build modules that embrace new information so that they can keep the game current.

A election simulation, for example, could take a real-time feed from polls or primary results so that it’s kept as up-to-date as possible.  A budget simulation could take in data from actual budget negotiations.

True, picking the right topic, and having a updatable/scalable platform aren’t easy things to do.  Or cheap.  But there is – in theory at least – some real money there.  The book notes that casual games were a $2.25 billion business in 2007, with 20% annual growth rates.  That looks pretty good to a business whose business model is collapsing around it.

Or maybe there’s even a good simulation around that – and we could see if embracing games makes economic sense….


  1. […] includes the media industry, where games are an occasional byproduct of the general news production. Often that has to do with huge production costs per game and the time it takes to really make it […]

  2. […] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } – Today, 10:54 […]

  3. […] analysis of data last year in the revamped Polling Explorer, we’ve now ventured into the news games […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: