A Brief Introduction to Newsgames

Can video games be used to tell the news?

When the Financial Times released The Uber Game in 2017, the game immediately gained widespread popularity with more than 360,000 visits, rising up the ranks as the paper’s most popular interactive piece of the year. David Blood, the game’s lead developer, said that the average time spent on the page was about 20 minutes, which was substantially longer than what most Financial Times interactives tend to receive, according to Blood. The Uber Game was so successful that the Financial Times built a second newsgame, Dodging Trump’s Tariffs, earlier this year.

What are newsgames?

Newsgames are a branch of “serious games,” or games that are built with purposes other than pure entertainment. While newsgames have been around since as early as 2001, the development of these games themselves is still far from becoming a mainstay of journalistic storytelling. The Financial Times’ interest in games is part of a resurgence in the popularity and development of newsgames. This genre of games utilizes journalistic principles to inform users about topics related to the news by walking them through the context of complex situations or systems that are difficult to explain without experiencing firsthand. Newsgames published within the past few years include Vox’s Scholarship Tycoon, ABC’s The Amazon Race, and Bloomberg’s American Mall Game.

The Financial Times
The Uber Game was one of the Financial Times’ most popular interactives in the year of 2017, and continues to be popular today.

Why build newsgames?

Although newsgames are far from being considered an established news format, like video or audio, games that have been developed so far show great potential in doing so. Existing newsgames have demonstrated the capacity to reach out to new audiences, explain complicated systems effectively, and put players in someone else’s shoes.

The Uber Game’s success demonstrates the potential for newsgames to bring new audiences to existing publications. Kotaku UK, a popular gaming site, published an article about the game, allowing the Financial Times to reach audiences that may not typically be interested in reading the news. In addition, the game was even used as an educational resource by Next Gen Personal Finance, a non-profit dedicated to helping young adults manage their finances, according to Robin Kwong, head of digital delivery at The Financial Times.

Sisi Wei, Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, has said that newsgames are particularly effective in explaining complicated systems effectively because they have the capacity to guide players through a problem that consists of a system with multiple parts.

“Not all stories are good candidates for games, but a lot of different types can be,” Wei said. “The one that’s easiest to talk about is a story that has some kind of systemic problem that you want to talk about. There are multiple parts going on, and you need to understand a whole system.”

In her 2013 game Heartsaver, Sisi walks users through the complexity of hospital quality care and proximity near New York City. The player is tasked with saving the lives of locals suffering with heart attacks by transporting them to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, many of the residents die either because of any combination of the following factors: a) you didn’t get to them in time b) the nearest hospital was too far away c) the quality of the hospital was not adequate enough to ensure survival. By allowing players to experience the complexity of an event through an interactive game, Wei helps readers understand the challenges ambulance drivers may face in certain situations.

ProPublica
Heartsaver walks players through the difficulty of saving lives in the New York City hospital system

In addition, games have the capacity to allow players to see events from a first person point of view. The Uber Game does a good job of putting players in the shoes of an Uber driver, and many other socially driven games make use of a similar first-person perspective to drive a narrative through the player’s choices. For example, Spent, an online game created in 2011 by the ad agency McKinney for non-profit Urban Ministries of Durham, was built to foster awareness about poverty and homelessness. In Spent, the player must make decisions on a tight budget, often choosing between buying their mother the crucial medication she needs or paying their own bills. The player’s choices have a profound impact on the outcome of the game, and the nuances of this form of non-linear storytelling may create a more memorable, empathetic experience for players than an article or video.

“The goal of a game is to have a person participate in some decision making,” Wei said. “Ultimately, a really good value of games as storytelling is that it allows people to deal with the consequences. It allows them to build empathy for someone who actually has to make those decisions in their life.”

How effective are newsgames as storytelling mediums?

While newsgames have several affordances, measuring the success of a newsgame beyond the number of plays can be difficult. Although providing a first person perspective can create a more empathetic experience, it comes along with its own set of limitations. At the end of the day, a game is still a simulation and cannot replace a real-life experience. Games may be effective in explaining complex systems often because they simplify them so that the player has an easier time grasping a broad explanation of a concept.

“You have to remember that no matter how well-made, well-crafted, and well-written a game is, it’s never a substitute for anything,” Kinsey Erickson, a student fellow at the Knight Lab who specializes in game development, said. “It’s a glimpse into one perspective into an issue, or a couple of people’s perspective.”

When creating a game, a developer must present a player with a certain objective. Rebecca Poulson, the Knight Lab’s AR/VR projects lead, said that “games generally have goals” and “are winnable.” Along with an objective, a game needs a set of rules to allow the player to attempt to achieve their goal and certain challenges that may arise that prevent the user from succeeding. For example, in The Uber Game, the player’s objective is to earn $1,000. The rule is simple: choose between the options presented to you at a given time. Unexpected challenges may arise as a result of your decisions. The overarching goal for the game is that players walk away with a better understanding of the difficulties an Uber driver may face in their daily lives.

However, players may not walk away with the impression the game designer intended. With The Uber Game, players took to Reddit to discuss their opinions and takeaways. While some Redditors understood the game was designed with the intention to show how challenging driving for Uber could be, other players thought the game was intentionally designed to be easy.

Reddit
An example of differing opinions after playing The Uber Game.

Similarly, Spent, a game that was also designed to help cultivate empathy, also resulted in mixed outcomes. Spent was intended to demonstrate the difficulties of poverty, showing that homelessness may be “just one decision away.” In other words, falling into poverty is often outside of an individual’s control due to unexpected circumstances. However, whether or not players walked away with that lesson is debatable. One study conducted at Yale University found that participants who both played and observed Spent felt empathic concern for the difficulties a poor person may face. However, the study also found that the game did not have a significant impact on changing the player’s beliefs about the poor’s controllability of their situation. Despite these findings, Spent has raised over $70,000 for the United Ministries of Durham.

McKinney
Spent was developed by advertising agency McKinney for the Urban Ministries of Durham to help players empathize with the struggles of poverty.

In addition, while developing newsgames helps a publication reach out to broader audiences, it may also be helpful for game designers to be aware of certain attitudes in gamer culture. Games like The Uber Game and Spent can be seen as “walking simulators,” a largely derogatory term in gamer culture that refers to games that focus on narrative and do not include certain traditional game mechanics, such as puzzles or enemies that prevent the player from proceeding. Some comments about The Uber Game on Reddit questioned whether the interactive narrative met their standards for what they defined as a game. Players critiqued the game for having very few interactions aside from clicking, and wanted more sophisticated mechanics. These attitudes may prevent players from walking away with the game’s intended messages. However, these perceptions may be changing within the gaming community over time, as platforms like Twine make interactive narrative forms more accessible.

Reaction from a Redditor who thought The Uber Game failed to meet their definition of a game.

Although the designer cannot control how players will react to a game, it is important to playtest a game before releasing it in order to understand how players will interpret what goes on. Game design, like other forms of software development, requires several rounds of iterative testing to make sure that the desired outcome for users is achieved. This time-consuming development cycle just one of several challenges for deadline-driven news organizations considering creating a newsgame.

What’s hard about building newsgames in newsrooms?

While interactive newsgames have been around for quite a long time, they have been making a comeback in larger newsrooms in recent years. Initially, the idea of developing games in newsrooms was met with backlash. Newsrooms were reluctant to adopt games as a new medium early on because they were unsure of how games could be used to tell stories. Games traditionally had not been used to communicate serious messages, and the precedent for playful storytelling had not been established.

Shannon Perkins, the creator of Wired’s 2009 newsgame Cutthroat Capitalism, said in an interview with Knight Lab that “newsrooms and journalists [in 2009] generally [had] some level of discomfort working creatively. Journalists have a strong bias towards things being quantifiable, more structured, but I found that all the different interactive, game-like pieces I did with Wired, there’s a part of that process that is purely creative.”

Wired
Cutthroat Capitalism was made by Shannon Perkins for Wired in 2009. The game allows players to interact with the factors that affect Somali piracy.

Today, however, newsrooms seem to be more open to the idea of newsgames as other forms of interactive storytelling have become more prominent. Several major publications now have their own interactive and visual teams, and are more receptive to the idea of creative, interactive news. Despite this shift in attitudes, newsrooms still struggle with a lack of technical resources and tight deadlines that make it difficult to support an iterative development cycle. In a 2018 report supported by the International Center for Journalists and Google News Lab, only 5 percent of newsroom staff have technology-related degrees and 2 percent of newsrooms employ technologists.

Blood said that the process of conceptualizing The Uber Game was very organic, and was first pitched by Robin Kwong, the paper’s Head of Digital Delivery. Kwong saw an opportunity to build a narratively driven game after one of the paper’s reporters did extensive reporting on Uber drivers. He then wrote the script for The Uber Game and launched project’s undertaking. During the early stages of the game’s development, there were two main challenges. First, since The Financial Times had little experience developing newsgames prior to building The Uber Game, helping others understand what the end product would look like was a struggle. Second, Blood mentioned that they also had to work on the game on top of their other regular duties in the newsroom, and they worked without a hard deadline until the project was in a state that could be shown to others. He worked as the game’s core developer, working in a narrative scripting language called InkJS and styling in CSS.  Two UX designers and an illustrator were also convinced to join the team, and three developers were eventually added towards the end once a hard deadline was set.

Overall, Blood said that developing The Uber Game was “not very easy,” and building a game presented certain challenges that were not associated with building other interactives. Games especially require original artwork, which may not be necessary for other journalistic pieces. That creative aspect, on top of the deep reporting that is traditionally required for good journalism, makes it hard to build a good newsgame, especially in terms of the time that is necessary.

“Most top tier interactives [at the Financial Times] need four to six weeks of at least three to four people’s time,” Blood said. “That’s not always realistic given our day to day responsibilities. Newsroom resources are stretched pretty much wherever you look.”

However, simpler newsgames can still be built given limited resources. Open source platforms like Twine allow users with little to no coding experience to build interactive stories quickly. Online resources also offer some graphics at no cost, along with artwork that you can pay for. The asset store of the Unity game engine and itch.io offer both 2D and 3D game assets, while Google Poly and Sketchfab specialize in 3D graphics. Given these resources, anyone can make a narrative game as long as they have a compelling story and decent writing skills.

Twine
A view of Twine’s editor. Twine is an open-source platform to build non-linear, interactive narrative games.

“A good way to think about newsgames if a small newsroom is interested in getting into it is that games don’t have to be complicated,” Wei said. “They can just be a slightly different way and perspective to approach a story.”

So, how do I get started building a newsgame?

Before diving into the types of tools that are available to build a newsgame, it’s important to first brainstorm what kind of message you want your readers to walk away with. Ian Bogost, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor , has identified 6 types of newsgames, but we’ll dive into two. Editorial or current event games “persuade, inform, and titillate,” while infographic games “make information interactive,” according according to the description on Bogost’s book.

Editorial / Current Event Games

The Uber Game and Spent are good examples of editorial newsgames. Both games try to help players empathize with a situation that is timely and pertinent. The Uber Game, for example, aims to communicate the difficulties of making it in the gig economy, while Spent portrays how hard it can be to make ends meet on low-income wages. Both of these games rely on non-linear interactive storytelling to communicate their message, and rely heavily on the writer’s scripts and the user’s decisions.

A way to get started with building editorial newsgames that focus on non-linear narratives is through Twine, which has been used to produce games like The Depression Quest and You are Jeff Bezos. While you don’t need to know how to code to use this platform, knowing how to code with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript can help a game designer add future customizations. More importantly, decent writing skills are needed to make this type of game effective. Although non-linear storytelling is a form of writing that is rarely taught in classes, this tutorial on Types of Narrative Choices is a good place to get started. The tutorial, also made in Twine, gives a good overview of how the user’s decisions can impact (or seemingly impact) the game they are playing.

The Depression Quest
A screenshot of the game The Depression Quest, built by Zoe Quinn to help players understand what it’s like to go through depression.

Infographic Games

Heartsaver is a good example of an infographic newsgame because it visually represents data in a way that players can interact with. Cutthroat Capitalism can also be interpreted as an infographic game because of the way it allows users to walk through the transactions of Somali piracy based on the information presented in the article it accompanies.

Building these types of games may require more technical knowledge, but there are ways to get started given some knowledge of web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

GDevelop is a free, open-source game creator that allows users to make platform games without knowledge of coding. Another good option for web-based games is GameMaker, which has a drag-and-drop development environment to help beginning developers who are just starting to learn how to code. A more technical option for web-browser based games is ImpactJS, which Wei used to make Heartsaver in a few short days, showing that game developers do not always need weeks to create a good game.

For developers with more technical skills, Unity is a popular game engine. It has a GUI for design, but uses the C# programming language for game logic and customization. (If you’re familiar with Java, you will probably find C# relatively straightforward.)  Unity offers extensive tutorials and allows developers to make both 2D and 3D games. The engine is often used by professional game developers. A few examples of popular games built in Unity include Hearthstone by Blizzard Entertainment, Cuphead by StudioMDHR, and mobile game Temple Run, which was vastly popular after it was published in 2011.

While there are several free tutorials to help you gain proficiency in the resources listed above, the Knight Lab’s own AR/VR projects lead Rebecca Poulson recommends Ben Tristem’s Udemy course to get a practical overview of game development skills. Other courses that may be helpful in terms of teaching game development concepts are also available on MOOC platforms like Coursera.

Although learning how to build games may seem daunting at first, there’s a wide variety of resources out there that can help you get started. Many developers are self-taught, and the best way to learn how to code is by working on projects that will give you practical experience. Whitney Pow, a student fellow at the Knight Lab who studies and builds games, said that they became proficient in Unity by teaching themself.

“It’s possible to make something great with not a lot of resources,” Pow said.

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