I have been researching newsgames for the last 8 months with a view to making my own newsgame project, a multiplayer wordgame I’m working on with an online media partner, the best it can possibly be.
The first thing I discovered is that there is a fundamental mismatch in the way news and games are produced. Newsrooms are set up to turn out stories within minutes if necessary. Game studios require weeks, months or even years (a lá Duke Nukem Forever) to be brought to market. So if news is fast, and games are slow, how do you produce a newsgame that can “win” in the online news environment?
Luckily, the question points to two answers: you can either (1) speed up production; or (2) extend consumption.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Dutch game designer Kenney Vleugels, who released a game called London Looters while the chaotic riots of August, 2011 were still rocking Britain. The game tasks players with defending their shop from marauding looters (read: “hitting them over the head”). As an expression of sympathy with the victims of the riots – and outrage at the rioters – it is effective enough. As a game, however, few could argue that the experience is very shallow and offers little replay value. London Looters’ popularity peaked not long after its release, and I don’t expect it to recover.
But what about newsgames that aren’t just about one story in particular? That brings us to…
2. System-centric newsgame design
If you think of journalism as an eco-system, containing many types of news and structures that are built around them, we can discern certain recurring features within the system. Many stories have visuals, for example. The majority of news refers to personalities. Online news has clearly measured traffic and social metrics. The list goes on: location, units of conflict, updates.
Now, when these features are carefully applied to robust game mechanics, the result is a newsgame that can be updated as often as the news itself.
Example? Look no further than fantasy sports. Fantasy sports can be deconstructed as a number of game mechanics (trading players, accruing points based on their performance) placed upon the foundation of sports statistics, a freely available, constantly updated resource within the news. The result is a thriving industry (if the Fantasy Sports Trade Association is to be believed) and millions of regular players.
News quizzes also come to mind. Facts are one of the most ubiquitous features of the news eco-system – though oddly absent on Fox News – and as a result, news quizzes are one of the only newsgames regularly featured by online news publishers (Examples: The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal & NPR). The age of procedurally generated quizzes has already dawned – Studio E9 has developed a platform that can generate quizzes automatically from a site’s existing content.
Back to my own project. Head to Head sources another freely available news resource, headlines, from various RSS feeds to put a new spin on the “free association” game mechanic seen in games like Apples to Apples. To start, the game assigns each player a number of headlines, each linked to a recent article from the world wide web. They must then submit their headline that best fits the category for that round, e.g., “Controversial”. One player will sit out that turn to be the judge, and they decide which headline wins.
I’ve thought a lot about what I want people to experience in this game. It comes down to discovery and conversation. What if you learnt that North Korea had decided to declare war on Japan inside of a game? And what would the discussion that followed be like? I want this to be a space that connects people to the news and to each other in a way that regular RSS readers do not.
No game will ever be the same, as long as the intractable entropy of the universe continues to produce fresh news (and headlines). And, because success is socially determined, there is no dominant strategy to suck the fun out of the game, at least in theory.
As much as I look forward to refining Head to Head and finally showing it to the public, this post is about the future of newsgame design. My point is: it has one. We just need to be realistic about the structural inefficiencies of the medium in a 24/7 media environment. System-centric design is one way around it and I hope it is an approach that can be developed further by journalists, game designers and the nutcases who just happen to be both.
Niel Bekker is a journalist and game designer, and a (very) recent graduate of Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 program in journalism. You should follow him on Twitter here.
Bogost, Ferrari & Schweizer – Newsgames: Journalism at Play
An excellent book on the history and state-of-the art in newsgames. System-centric design can be considered as a direct response to their call for newsgames to be designed as “platforms”.
The Dynamics of News Information on the Web
A 2006 Harvard study that confirms what we already know: online news gets old fast. How fast? Well, they pin it at about 36 hours.
“Cartoonist Prototype Tackles the Most Visible News”
Bogost and co. have put their money where their mouth is, and actually begun building a newsgame authoring tool that allows journalists to generate games from stories without any coding or game design knowledge. It’s an interesting hybrid solution to the problem I describe above, combining the approach of system-centric design but with a micr0-newsgame end product. Simon Ferrari discusses the early results of their work.