Book Excerpt: Can Videogames Be Journalism?

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Cuthroat Game.pngIn July, 2009, Wired magazine waded into the ongoing coverage of Somalian pirate raids with an eight-page visual feature called "Cutthroat Capitalism." The piece was accompanied by an online game, which, besides being fun to play, also served a journalistic purpose, writes videogame professor Dr. Ian Bogost in a new book on gaming as journalism.

"A smart player will rarely fail--and that is the strongest rhetorical point presented in the negotiation process," he writes. "If a ship can be captured, its hostages and cargo are always worth something." In other words, the game helps to make the economic incentives of pirate raids crystal clear.

In Newsgames: Journalism at Play, which will be published this October, Dr. Bogost and his fellow authors elaborate on that idea -- that videogames can and have been used to deliver news and distill complicated topics for readers.

"Games allow us to address systems instead of stories," Dr. Bogost said in an interview. And, in some ways, they can offer more depth. People often search for simple answers to broad topics like the Gulf oil spill or the 2008 financial crisis, but in reality both were the result of a confluence of failures and events. Games can help to convey that complexity. "In particular, they can offer this experience of how something works rather than a description of key events and players," Dr. Bogost says.

Like charts and other infographics, they are yet another tool for conveying information. As with any other tool, journalists have to know what purpose videogames serve in order to use them effectively. And that's what Dr. Bogost seeks to explain with his new book, which he hopes will serve as a guide for journalists and readers alike on how games have and can be used to explain the news.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Newsgames: Journalism at Play, in which Dr. Bogost outlines the topics of the subsequent chapters.

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Newsgames: Journalism at Play

Given the financial state of journalism today, everyone knows that a change is coming. Newspaper advertising revenue was down nearly 30 percent in 2009. Some papers, especially smaller ones, have had to cut staff or shut down completely. Community bloggers and big city newspaper publishers may not agree on the best format for news, but they do agree that digital media will play an important role in its future. Yet, most of the discourse about the way news and computers go together has focused on translations of existing approaches to journalism for the Web.

For that matter, despite the differences in popularity and accessibility afforded by Web publication, much journalism practice remains the same online. Online news sites large and small still publish written stories similar to those inked onto newsprint. They upload video segments like those broadcast for television. They stream monologues and interviews like those sent over the radio airwaves. The tools that make the creation and dissemination of news possible have become more simple and widespread, but the process remains almost identical: stories still have to be written and edited, films shot and cut, audio recorded and uplinked.

But as Cutthroat Capitalism suggests, there is something different about videogames. Unlike stories written for newsprint or programs edited for television, videogames are computer software rather than a digitized form of earlier media. Games display text, images, sounds, and video, but they also do much more: games simulate how things work by constructing models that people can interact with, a capacity Bogost has given the name procedural rhetoric.This is a type of experience irreducible to any other, earlier medium.

For this reason it is necessary to understand the uses of games in the news, both new and old, on different terms. This book offers an introduction to newsgames, a term that names a broad body of work produced at the intersection of videogames and journalism. In the chapters that follow, we explore the ways games have been used in the news from past to present, covering the different applications, methods, and styles of newsgames. We also make projections and suggestions for how newsgames might be applied to journalistic practice now and in the future. Each chapter takes up one key genre of newsgames. Some will feel like adaptations of traditional news content, while others take the first steps into unfamiliar terrain.

In 2003, Uruguayan game studio Powerful Robot released a game called September 12th, about the war on terror.Its lead designer Gonzalo Frasca envisioned short, quickly produced, and widely distributed newsgames about current events, the subject of chapter 2. Editorial games like September 12th offer the videogame equivalent of columns and editorial cartoons, conveying an opinion with the goal of persuading players to agree with embedded bias--or at least to consider an issue in a different light. Other forms have emerged as well, from tabloid games that offer a cruder form of opinion to reportage games that strive to reproduce the unvarnished goals and style of daily news coverage. This chapter also covers the many issues that arise when creating current event games, including timeliness, accessibility, and editorial line. Creators of these games typically strive to release such a game while the story it covers is still relevant, a challenge that increases with the depth of the simulation and the complexity of the event.

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Chapter 3 explores infographic newsgames. Visual matter has long done journalistic work by visually representing data and thus synthesizing information. At the start of the twentieth century, larger newspapers began integrating visual representations of data into papers to help the reader draw connections between complex networks of information and events. The resulting "information graphics" come in many formats, from the traditional forms of pie chart, line graph, data map, and diagram to more experimental forms produced for digital consumption. The adaptation of infographics into computational forms has broadened their scope in addition to changing their methods of authorship. As digital infographics mature and become more interactive, they are becoming more like games. Players can explore information to find surprising new revelations, engage with processes that depict how information arises or interacts, reconfigure information to replay possible scenarios, or experiment with information for the simple enjoyment of play itself. Some infographics might take the form of proper games, while others are merely gamelike, adopting some of the conventions and sensations of games.

Current event games cover isolated stories in a short and accessible way, but longer, more detailed treatments of the news are also possible. In chapter 4 we present documentary newsgames, titles that engage broader historical and current events in a manner similar to documentary photography, cinema, and investigative reporting. Usually larger in scale and scope, these games offer experiences of newsworthy events, something impossible to capture in print or broadcast news. In the case of past events, they recreate times, spaces, and systems that one can otherwise only understand from archival film footage or imagination. We discuss different types of documentary games, including those that recreate the setting and progression of particular events and those that attempt to create procedural (rule-based) accounts of the logics of social and political situations.

Serious news coverage notwithstanding, it's worth remembering that games have been a part of the news for almost a century, since the first "word-cross" puzzles appeared in the New York Sunday World in 1913.By the 1920s, the crossword was a sensation, becoming so popular that it even incited a moral panic. When the New York Times finally revised the form and made it more "literate" at the end of World War II, the public was sold. Since then, many newspaper readers look forward to the puzzles as a joyous and intellectually engaging part of the day. Puzzles have not always carried news content, but experiments such as editorial crosswords and news quizzes have tried to do so. The past, present, and future uses of such puzzle newsgames are covered in chapter 5, from digital adaptations of traditional news puzzles and quizzes to the popular online casual games that represent both a threat to and an opportunity for news publishers.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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