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News as Games

For journalism, the glory days of having a viable business model went away as the internet became mainstream. People got used to having news for free, but Google and Meta grabbed all the ad money. The tailspin has become increasingly chaotic, but the hunt for new models is still on.

One potential angle is games as news, and news as games.

Journalism is about uncovering truths and sharing them objectively. Fact-checked nuggets of truth enlighten the people, strengthen free nations and keep unruly powers-that-be in check. There’s common trust. Decisions can be made based on facts.

The bad news is you realize the value of quality journalism only after you’ve lost it, and found yourself living in a society gone insane. A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on, but now even the pants are being flooded with shit by the stevebannons of the world.

Well, bad actors gonna bad, but there’s more: it takes time to find the hidden information, to explain complex wholes, to endlessly fact-check, and wrap all the knowledge into an understandable package. It costs money to inform people, but the people don’t want to pay to be informed.

In the olden times, before the web, we had journalistic programming on radio and TV, and wide selection of quality newspapers, small and large. Subscriber fees help, but most journalism thrived on ads. Now, that money is pocketed by the few biggest tech companies, i.e. the ones with the most expansive ad network, powered by the best machine learning. The moat protecting the ad revenue dug by the few tech giants is too wide for anyone to cross anymore.

As the last of the journalistic Mohicans are fighting to defend the search for truth, every now and then, they have stumbled upon games, and tried to combine journalism with them.

The thinking behind combining games and journalism goes thusly:

  1. People like to play games
  2. Games make gazillions of tasty dollars
  3. Immersive interactivity is a more powerful way to convey information than linear text, video or audio
  4. Bonus: An undefined hope that maybe something unforeseen – but awesome! – will be born when you smush together old and new forms of media (it’s a possibility) (one believes)

Now, that four-step winning formula still remains largely unproven, but what has already been born, at least, is the concept of a “newsgame”. It popped up along with the first manifestation of that genre, a game called September 12th, released by Gonzalo Frasca in 2003.

What makes a newsgame

One way to zoom in to the definition of a newsgame is through newspapery lenses: a newsgame can be a report, an opinion piece, an editorial, or tabloid-style shock journalism.

Even top quality journalism is a balancing act between accuracy and accessibility, but good, honest journalism always gravitates toward objective truth. An opinion piece can be, for better or worse, just your opinion, man, and if you go off the deep end, you’re peddling propaganda and “fake news”, otherwise known as just lying.

The newsgames progenitor called September 12th commented on the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. As a newsgame, I think it hits the sub-genre of an opinion piece. In the game, you survey a middle-eastern market square through targeting cross-hairs, and shoot missiles to try to kill terrorists. But, the missile strikes are not 100% precise, and you end up killing also civilians and destroying buildings, which turns some civilians into new terrorists.

You can’t win the game, and the message is clear, but journalistically simple – which is naturally alright for an opinion piece.

The original newsgame, September 12th, is not widely available anymore, but you can check out a gameplay video on YouTube.

Another scale to define a newsgame is its topicality. Daily events require a wholly different approach than slow-moving complex phenomena spanning months, years or more. Newsgames usually go for the middle or the end of the scale, because it’s technically hard to create a game in a day to be able to react to daily events – excluding the simplest games like quizzes.

A broader view

In the sidelines of the newsgames concept, there are games that aim to inoculate people against fake news by teaching how modern online propaganda works, and, for example, the nifty The Evolution of Trust, which explains how trust among people is created and/or lost. There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram between newsgames and edutainment. Also, some might want to call agenda-driven activist games newsgames, some might not.

Nicky Case’s The Evolution of Trust explains the birth and death of trust in fun 30 minutes. Try it out at: ncase.me/trust

Backing up further you can completely detach from the idea of newsgames as separate products. The umbrella of newsgames also covers mini-games slipped into text-based articles, with the goal of activating the reader. For example, instead of a static graph depicting the yearly trend-line of poverty, the reader can first be asked to draw their own estimation of the trend, after which the actual graph is revealed. The purpose is to nudge the reader to focus and to think a little harder, while simultaneously providing a fun little challenge.

Games can also just live next the articles, supporting journalism. The classic crossword puzzles are still popular. Before the overabundance of entertainment, for some, they were a reason to buy a newspaper: one might buy the paper just for the fun puzzle, and as the paper lay on the living room table, some of the articles would get read too. Either way, the newsroom got paid and could live to create the next issue.

Media companies are naturally interested in if the side-hustle of games can fund the core business of journalism. For example, one of the oldschoolest paper of them all, the New York Times, has a separate crosswords app on the App Store – and it’s not there just for the love of puzzles.

The future on newsgames is still undefined

During the 2000s, a bunch of newsgames have appeared, struggled and died, and the holy grail remains buried.

The biggest challenge is the fact that making games is work-intensive, as is journalism. Piling them on top of each can double the challenge, but does it double the return and rewards too? Most published newsgames pale in comparison to pure games-for-entertainment, and a slightly scrubby newsgame is unlikely to woo players and/or news addicts on a level that would justify to the effort.

Gamified news can activate and engage a certain group for deeper dives into news – they might spend more time and thought on an article or a topic – but the large masses still prefer to stay on the beach, i.e. newsgames have not been able to draw in large enough crowds of new people willing to pay for the content.

Today, the hope lies in technological advances that bring about new innovation.

The problem of low resources can be helped by the advances in AI-generated content for images, videos and 3d models. Text generation can enable creating branching and more personalized narratives. New low- and no-code tools will empower technically impaired journalists to gamify their own creations. VR and AR will be utilized for immersive and contextual reporting in a way that has thus far been impossible.

Due to the technological convergence, I see a new dawn of newsgames rising, just in time to defend democracy in trouble.


Some examples of newsgames to try out:

The Uber Game, depicting the life of a gig worker, is considered to be the one of the more successful newsgames. [Link]
The New York Times has experimented with gamified news, like making the readers guess the political views based on the content of real fridges. [Link]
Endgame: Syria was a game that intended to explain the Syrian civil war, but was stomped on by Apple, and eventually forcibly stripped down to a generic Endgame: Eurasia. In the end, the developer felt that it’s not a newsgame anymore, just a game.
Can You Travel from Glasgow to London as a Wheelchair User shows how that journey would go for you. A humorous and informative multiple selection game from Buzz Feed. [Link]
The hard life of working for a tech giant is covered also in the The Amazon Race, published by ABC News. [Link]
Another New York Times experiment had readers draw trend-line graphs. [Link]
With a dab of gallows humor, Bad News teaches people how the fake news propaganda works. [Link]

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