Chungking Espresso

Newsgames in the Pipe

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on December 11, 2008

(upcoming post for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/ – please email me if you want to link this, because I need to post it to the JAG blog before that happens)

Every once in awhile, I struggle with the idea of the breaking newsgame. How could a newspaper, or an independent game developer, possibly make a game on the fly that was both “worth playing” and directly relevant to the news of the day? The makers of newsgames have, for the most part, freed themselves from worrying about this problem by dealing mainly with ongoing, long-term public issues; however, I constantly have the nagging feeling that these games need to become quite a bit more timely before being attractive as a regular feature for a news source. Let me share the story of a recent flurry of ideas exchanged on this subject.

6a00c22522e470549d00d4144918623c7f-500pi.pngWe recently had a demo day here at Georgia Tech. Sitting in the corner of the room at our News Games booth, I watched (with a twinge of jealousy) Raph Koster and some dudes from the EVE Online team celebrate the accomplishments of some of my classmates on a board game they’d been working on all semester. None of the famous folks were coming up to ask me about my thoughts on the crossroads of news and gaming. Maybe this just isn’t something that has a direct impact on their work? Just when I thought I wasn’t going to be having any good conversations that day, a middle-aged man shuffled toward me and asked, in a British accent, if I had anything interesting to show him. It took me a few moments to spy his name tag.

This was Richard Bartle: one of the early online gaming movers and shakers, and architect of my ten long years of MUDding (I played Gemstone and Mihaly’s Achaea). This man was a personal hero of mine, sure, but did the old Wizard have any tricks up his sleeve when it came to thinking about newsgames? As it turns out, he did. It also turns out that he was only talking with me for so long to avoid the pesky necessity of leveling his warlock up to 80 in WotLK (joking). Perhaps all the little esoteric niches within the critical gaming community were closer together than I’d previously thought. After some polite conversation on the nature of our research, I shared with Bartle some of the roadblocks we’d been coming to. On the subject of the absence of the breaking newsgame, he had this to say:

“Well, we all know the Queen is going to die someday. So we could make a game about it today, and release it when she does.”

This seems like such an obvious partial answer to the  problem – one which Ian hints that he already might have been thinking of – but it’s one that we really hadn’t talked about in discussions of the topic before. At first I thought making such “predictive” games might somehow violate journalistic integrity; however, it turns out that this would fall squarely within the practices of most news outlets. There are a few different manifestations of this. First is the article on something one knows is going to happen once. Obituaries for famous people are commonly written long before their actual deaths, and they are constantly updated as these people continue to survive and add to their accomplishments. The second case is when one knows that a decision or outcome will fall in only a small number of ways. One such example of this is the tradition of pre-making two headlines for the two possible resolutions to a presidential race. And then there’s the pre-making of material for events that are known to occur cyclically: weather, economic activity, politics, etc.
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When we start looking for examples of games that might fit this predictive mold, we run into some initial hiccups. Take, for example, the “obituary games” dealing with Steve Irwin’s death by stingray. How could one possibly have predicted that he would die this way, let alone made a game about it beforehand? This isn’t as big of a hitch as one might initially think. You simply have to choose which information you can be most sure about. For example, Paul Newman was pretty old when he died. You wouldn’t have had to predict exactly what he would die of to be able to make a great video game where an old man surrounded by salad dressing bottles fantasizes about his early days as a cowboy or Cool Hand Luke. In the case of Steve Irwin, it was likely that he’d die playing with dangerous aquatic animals. Despite being unable to know which animal would manage to penetrate his catlike reflexes, one would still be able to create most of the underwater gameplay mechanics, placeholder art, and sound bytes before the actual event occurred.

For the second case, that of pre-making a news story that will assuredly break in one of only a few possible directions, I’d like to take a look at some of the media surrounding Obama’s recent election. When it comes to biting, timely satire on a public issue, nobody can really hold a flame to Comedy Central’s Daily Show and South Park. The night after polls closed South Park aired an episode (click on “About Last Night…”) wherein Obama wins the election, liberals get drunk and riot in the street to celebrate, and conservatives fear for the end of the republic while locking themselves away in a fallout shelter. Now, it’s possible that Parker and Stone have such an ace team on their hands that they were able to make this episode in one night’s time. But it’s more likely that they’d pre-written the shows for either decision (and had of course already prepped the art for both).

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To my knowledge, there weren’t any games that addressed the public hype over this event – probably because we were all celebrating or cursing the event in “real” life. But that’s not to say that such games wouldn’t be enjoyable and interesting to experience. We’ve talked a lot about how great it would have been if the CNN “holograms” on election night had simulated for viewers the experience of being in Grant Park that night. It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for somebody in Second Life or There.com to have recreated this space inside a virtual world for people to experience in real time (please drop a comment if this was actually done in some way). Of course, it is an incredible asset for virtual worlds that they can play host to post-election celebrations and grumbling drunken escapes in ways that the South Park episode did. Doug Wilson is planning a series of posts on our explorations into the world of Kuma Games and their re-creation of current and historical war zones. They do some decent work toward trying to allow players to “take part” in actual military encounters (like the capturing of Saddam’s sons, for instance). It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for such a company to make the kind of predictive leaps in game development that I’m talking about here.

Finally we come to the idea of games about cyclical events. Doug is also planning a post on hurricane and meteor-strike calculator “games.” Such simulators, which allow users to input various sorts of data about the size and location of storms or extraterrestrial objects in order to see the amount of havoc they might wreak, could easily be expanded into games about actual events. We’ve played some games that retrospectively look back at the events in New Orleans during Katrina, but there’s no reason that such games couldn’t have been made on a “breaking news” deadline: “Try to rescue survivors from rooftops… but beware, some of them will shoot at your helicopter as you attempt a descent!” On the subject of the cyclical nature of the economy, we have the fact that most everyone knew we were headed into a recession many months (or years) before feds actually announced that we’d officially landed in one. Newsgames about the recession and its impact on various sectors of the corporate and public world could have easily been pre-made for this event.
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Now, it’s one thing to come up with the stories and core mechanics for games such as these before the event strikes, and it’s another thing to have the art and assets ready and up-to-date when the final details are reported. Bartle also addressed the subject of content creation for breaking newsgames. Advocating a Farmer & Morningstar-style approach (introduced in their Lessons from Lucasfilm’s Habitat), he asserted the fact that the core game mechanics should be separated from the graphical content should there be a technological leap in the latter before the predictive breaking newsgame can be published. He entertained my idea of multiple news sources outsourcing the work of creating newsgames to an independent company supplying the lot. This is probably the only conceivable way that a newsgame developer would have the fiscal security and size to hire the amount of people required to make games on a regular or breaking news schedule. If the people who pioneered info-visualization in newspapers and their websites (Alberto Cairo is our preferred source of information on the subject) could figure out a working model for their work, then there’s probably a solution to this problem out there in somebody’s head as well. What I’ve written here is only a tentative first step in that direction.

We wrapped up the conversation by talking about (non-video game) journalists and their standing disdain for games as trivial. Bartle seemed to think that this was the largest obstacle toward making games a common sight on news websites. We can only hope that more journalists will pick up on the potential for video games to address serious or personal issues, following the odd example of the BusinessWeek Arcade that Ian posted about. One disconnect here might be the fact that a reporter has to work on strenuous daily deadlines and sometimes pull all-nighters to bring a story to print, while most makers of newsgames have no such deadlines and can therefore be seen as pronouncing judgment from a temporally distant Ivory Tower. Perhaps the availability of breaking newsgames might interest or satisfy journalists in a way that current such games do not.

EDIT: Richard wanted me to know that he thought it was funny that I’d described him as a “shuffling, middle-aged” gentleman. I wanted to note that I would never describe the man as “shuffling” in general. He’s as regal as they come. If he denies that fact that he’s quite a bit older than I am, then I will also go along with him on this point. The man is damn sprightly.

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