‘Newsgames’ Turns Current Events Into Games
Online “newsgames” that borrow from real-life events are helping to educate players about current events in novel ways.
Newsgames essentially transform the news into playable experiences. Just like news, they focus on real people, events and places , and they seek to explain complicated topics in clear ways. Many newsgames are online, requiring only a web browser and an Internet connection to play.
"With newsgames, people are more than just reading the news, they're actively interacting with it," said one newsgame developer, Nicholas Diakopoulos, a computer scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"They're not going to replace traditional reporting or text or images or video or other forms of media, but they can get readers to engage with information in a different way, and that could make the news more persuasive, or enable learning and insight about news information in a new way."
Newsgames can be much like news graphics, only taken to a new level. For instance, predicting the health of a community is the goal of a newsgame called Salubrious Nation, which is based on publicly available health data. To guess, say, the smoking rate in one U.S. county, players can look at communities across the nation that are similar in other ways, such as average life expectancy or poverty rate. In this way, people can begin to see links between different population factors, Diakopoulos said.
Another newsgame, called Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City, is a side-scrolling platform game where you search for your mother in the city, help out neighbors and learn about the challenges posed by the disaster by heroically confronting them.
In the controversial September 12th: A Toy World newsgame, launching missiles will scar the landscape and increase the number of terrorists through civilian casualties, while not firing them will cause terrorist numbers to stay at a default level.
Video game designer Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology explains that newsgames simulate aspects of the world instead of describing them.
Newsgames “can make players think about how the world might work and rethink the model of reality they have by interacting with the one the creator of the game has made," Diakopoulos said.
In addition to Bogost and Diakopoulos, newsgame researchers include Asi Burak, co-president of Games for Change in New York, who developed PeaceMaker, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, who helped create Playing the News, which converts the environment of a Dungeons & Dragons-type medieval adventure game, Neverwinter Nights, into a modern-day small town with people whom journalism students have to interview.
"Newsgames are a huge design space — we've barely scratched the surface of the potential here," Diakopoulos said. "There's a huge opening for entrepreneurs to come into this space."
Newsgames might also generate news of their own. By logging the interactions that players have with the game, researchers can essentially poll audiences on their knowledge and opinions.
Diakopoulos hopes to make newsgame production faster and easier.
"One of the challenges of creating games is that they're labor-intensive," he explained. "Considering the importance of timeliness when it comes to news, we'd like to figure out newsgame templates, where you can take existing news stories and with minimal modification turn them into newsgames."
The Salubrious Nation game Diakopoulos and his colleagues worked on is one example of the kind of game template that they envision. "The aim is to take any government data from sources like Data.gov and turn them into playable experiences," he said.
There always remains the possibility of tasteless newsgames, such as a first-person shooter game tied into the recent shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Tucson.
"Some issues may not be suited for games," Diakopoulos said. "Even with our work on Salubrious Nation, there were some people who questioned whether public health was appropriate to play a game about — some might be offended at guessing obesity rates by looking at poverty rates. Even though they are correlated together, some might find that correlation offensive.
“It's not a bad thing to confront people with such correlations if they exist, but framing that information as a game might be difficult."
News organizations are only starting to dabble with newsgames, with journalism-focused nonprofits such as the Knight Foundation backing their development.
"The key is finding that 'killer app,' that one newsgame experience that becomes commercially viable, that newsgame that can prove the medium can support itself," Diakopoulos said.
Diakopoulos and his colleagues will present their work on Salubrious Nation and similar newsgames in May in Vancouver, at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
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