Book Excerpt: Can Videogames Be Journalism?

By Niraj Chokshi

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.

Journalism comprises a set of values and skills that must be learned somehow -- it is a literacy, a set of rules for reading, writing, and critiquing a particular domain of knowledge.The first steps of journalism practice are traditionally taken in classrooms or at school newspapers, but certain qualities of videogames make them ideal supplementary media for a journalistic education. In chapter 6, we discuss literacy newsgames, those that offer direct or indirect education in how to become a good journalist, or for understanding why journalism is important to citizens and their communities.

Speaking of communities, at first blush videogames might seem to oppose cooperative action. When we think of games, from tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons to board games like chess and Risk to videogames like Super Mario Bros. and The Sims, we normally think of them as private affairs. We play games indoors, at tables or televisions or computers. Even if we play with others, it is only in small groups. And while recent innovations in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) can support many hundreds or thousands of simultaneous players at a time, those players are usually widely distributed geographically. In chapter 7, we explore new genres of community newsgames that create and nurture local populations -- often by situating games wholly or partly in the real world rather than in front of the screen.

As the technology with which news is created and disseminated changes, the very form of journalism alters itself. While the genres of newsgame just mentioned represent immediate opportunities for news organizations, many more might be developed in the future, either in response to technological shifts or as entirely new inventions. In chapter 8, we explore newsgame platforms, systems for the creation of new forms of game-based journalism that might supplement or replace current coverage in the future. In its most basic form, a platform is something that makes it easier to build other things.The newspaper itself is a platform that supports research, writing, printing, distribution, and feedback from the public. The format of the evening news is a platform that describes how to order stories in a useful or compelling way, how to integrate advertising, and how to consistently produce a televised show. Starting from familiar yet alternative platforms for news like fantasy sports, we speculate on the novel newsgaming platforms (and new applications of existing computational platforms) that might support journalism in the future. They range from the familiar to the bizarre -- what if a news organization released a documentary game "yearbook" about the changes in a local community? What if Yoshi the dinosaur from Super Mario World needed health care, and he had to buy insurance at the going rates? What if the dynamics of New York City racketeering laws could be operationalized in Grand Theft Auto? These possibilities suggest how journalists might think about what they do in new ways, instead of simply translating old media for digital distribution. It is on this note that we conclude the book, with a call to action for journalists and news organizations.

Many of the types of newsgames this book covers are already established forms. Cutthroat Capitalism matches five of the seven genres of promising newsgames just mentioned: infographics, editorial, documentary, puzzles, and platforms. Though it might not be the best possible examples of any of these individually, the amalgam shows how Wired attempted to integrate a game into actual journalistic coverage of a topic, not just to supplement a print edition with an online throwaway.

The game's connection to infographics is obvious. The article makes extensive use of information displays, and the game's map draws on the tradition of abstracted information set geographically. While the link to infographics is primarily aesthetic , the fundamental purpose of both article and game satisfies noted information designer Edward Tufte's goals for information visualization: inform the reader, reveal insights into information that would otherwise be obscured, and synthesize complicated information into a legible format.The infographic transforms raw data into visuals, while the game transforms that data into mechanics.

Wired's approach takes up documentarian goals as well. Stories about piracy off the coast of Somalia mostly enjoy coverage in the United States when events directly affect its citizenry and commerce. The seizure and subsequent standoff on the Maersk Alabama in April 2009 was notable for its violent resolution -- Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three pirates. Coverage of this incident certainly brought the issue of piracy directly to the American public's attention. But rather than pursue the issue further, the three pirate deaths and one capture provided journalistic closure: the evildoers "got what was coming to them." Cutthroat Capitalism directly challenges this tale, examining the structures of global trade that embed pirate attacks as a part of doing business.

The piracy game serves as both investigation and exposé. Its documentarian stance may not appear to take on the traditional firsthand infiltration of a global situation in progress, but it very much does: by uncovering the dynamics and injustices of an economic system. At a rudimentary level, it even provides a "day in the life" account by putting the player in the shoes of one of its actors. By taking the role of a single pirate embedded in a complex network, the player comes to understand the logic by which all other pirates in that same system operate.

Cutthroat Capitalism might not seem much like a puzzle, because newspaper puzzles take very specific forms. But if puzzles refer to simple, abstract logic games pursued for mental pleasure, then aspects of the game start to fit the bill. The negotiation phase is reminiscent of a game of probabilities like rock-paper-scissors. The player plays three cards, the computer plays three, and the outcome alters the dynamics of the negotiation. Something more complex is at work here, too: the system boasts a preexisting state, as if the player is playing his or her cards against a given (but hidden) hand. The player must then reason about the state of the freight owners, and how they might respond. This casual noodling bears a resemblance to the chess or bridge problems that often appear alongside the crossword or cryptoquip. Negotiation in Cutthroat Capitalism satisfies our desires to outwit a system by finding the optimal moves.

The relevance and interest of piracy notwithstanding, the game's journalistic significance comes from more than its content. By publishing a print story tied directly to a game, in which each is based on the same factors, Wired has shown how a periodical can integrate games into its workflow. This workflow can become a model that might enable the regular production of these kinds of artifacts through organizational, rather than technical advances. The print and digital versions tell the story in two different but complimentary ways, allowing the writers, artists, and designers to share more than just a topic. Given journalism's troubled present and uncertain future, proving the feasibility of producing new and different media artifacts is perhaps even more important a task than creating new media artifacts themselves.

All of the topics discussed in this book make a common assumption: that 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. Newsgames are not a charmed salve that will cure the ills of news organizations overnight. But they do represent a real and viable opportunity to help citizens form beliefs and make decisions.

Excerpted from Newsgames: Journalism at Play by Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer to be published by MIT Press in October 2010. Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.

Image credits (from top): Wired.com, MIT Press, Newsgaming.com

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/book-excerpt-can-videogames-be-journalism/62663/