We still haven’t decided here at JAG whether or not the idea of a breaking newsgame is possible. There are already many examples of public policy and news games of varying levels of quality, but the idea of being able to churn one out in a week or less in order to accompany a breaking story seems mind-boggling. One creator of the recent Truth Invaders 2008 presidential campaign game notes the difficulty of pumping out their relatively simplistic project on a two-and-a-half week timeline (look at the third comment down). Another issue we’ve been looking into is the rapidly expanding notion of the citizen journalist, and the question has been raised whether or not an analogue to the “professional” citizen journalist blog might be developed in the newsgame format. I’d like to suggest a way that citizen journalistic games and an expedited production schedule for breaking newsgames might be possible: the use of generic game creation software and game-specific level editors. It was jokingly asked in one of our project meetings whether a level made in LittleBigPlanet could be considered an “indie” newsgame. Yet within a few days of LBG’s release a few players had already created levels that required one to fly an airplane into the Twin Towers, as comically recounted by The Penny Arcade. Below I shall discuss the multiple programs available, their relative strengths and weaknesses, examples we already have of games made in this way, and the idea of journalistic originality in the context of these pre-packaged game creation tools.
Most level editors are only available if one owns the game they are derived from. When one builds a mod in Source or Unreal, the mod can be distributed for free to anyone who owns the game as well. This situation arose when game companies saw that they would make more money off of selling game discs to people interested in modding culture than they would from tracking down and suing their amateur content creators. In the case of Counter-Strike, based off of Half Life’s Source engine, Valve bought the intellectual property from the modders who created it. KumaGames, a company that makes both schlock fare (dinosaur hunter games) and vaguely politically relevant games that seek to immerse players in a news event (such as John Kerry Silver Star Mission), appears to use the Source engine for their games. The value of Kuma’s political games as educational tools is shaky, as Doug Wilson has written elsewhere, but the notion of dropping a player into a violent situation pulled from the news seems like a largely untapped reservoir for newsgaming if integrated with an emphasis on journalistic practice. The anti-violence game mod Velvet Strike comically alters Counter Strike so that players shoot spray paint instead of bullets. With a valid and apt context grafted on top of a “protest game” such as Velvet Strike, the idea of a citizen journalist game developer appears realizable.
Another popular base for modders are games made on the Unreal Engine. Albanian survivors of widespread “blood feuds” co-created Medieval Unreality with Lindart by modding and skinning Unreal Tournament. Lindart sat down with individuals involved in the blood feuds and helped them visualize their interior/psychological spaces inside the game. The model for citizen journalists to derive from this would be that of a modder interviewing people and then deriving an in-game version of their stories or perspectives. 9/11 Survivor, a game that places players in the shoes of someone trapped in an upper story of one of the WTC towers as the building collapses into flames around them, is also a UT 2003 mod. Doug Wilson is making a game about terrorism and paranoia (don’t want to spoil anything) using Unreal as well. Mods based on shooters have the strengths of being able to either immerse a player in a first- or third-person perspective within a dynamic 3d environment. Being able to skin spaces allow modders to alter pre-built structures to look and feel the way they want them to. A major weakness of basing newsgames off of shooters, as evidenced best by the KumaGames we’ve played, is that such games almost always carry shooting into the mod as the primary mode of interaction with the game space (there are notable exceptions).
If shooters and their game mechanic-related limitations aren’t one’s cup of tea, then RPGs are an obvious alternative. Their main strength would have to be the increased emphasis on dialogue between the player and NPCs. There are already many communities built around designing outfits and facial skins for characters in PC RPGs, allowing simple and deep NPC customization. Professor Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota has already created a newspaper reporting simulator, Disaster at Harperville, in the Neverwinter Nights level editor. The value of using older RPGs as the base for one’s work are that the decreased emphasis on graphics suits the mode of micro-development we’re looking at. The only obstacle is the fact that an isometric view implemented in older RPGs has obvious weaknesses in the area of optical immersion as compared to 3d shooting games. One could imagine building a newsgame in Oblivion’s level editor, but the amount of work that would go into lighting everything and making the textures look proper would far outweigh the benefits of the enhanced graphics at this point in time. The two most accessible amateur build-a-game kits are RPGMaker and RPG Sim Maker. The ultra-controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG and its Virginia Tech shooting clone were both made using RPGMaker. This is obviously the most accessible method of building a game, because all it requires is time and the ability to drag objects around with a mouse. Another strength is that games made with these programs can be exported by the developer and then downloaded by people who don’t have the RPGMaker software (unlike most mods). They can also be sold, if finances are important to the citizen journalist/developer.
So we haven’t really made any progress into citing specific examples of how to make breaking newsgames; however, I think these examples show that a notion of the citizen journalist game developer is both viable and desirable. Discussion of journalistic independence and originality forthcoming.