News Games Interview
Brian Diggelmann from Grady College at the University of Georgia interviewed me for a paper he’s writing on new media integration into news websites. He’s attempting to get Ian to do a similar interview for him, so hopefully some of my answers will make it into the final product (but they probably won’t, because Ian will say roughly the same things more eloquently).
A newsgame, also called an editorial game or sometimes a documentary game, is any videogame that explicitly engages with a current or ongoing news event or issue. Most often they are political in nature, and even more often they are frivolous “tabloid” style games that simply reskin tried-and-true game mechanics with the visual trappings of a news event (in order to garner page hits).
The thing to understand about computers in general and games specifically, is that this is a medium premised on mathematical modeling. Game designers create general systems of algorithms that when run by a computer will simulate a process or environment loosely or explicitly inspired by the real world. This is called “procedural literacy” by Ian Bogost and “process intensity” by Chris Crawford and Greg Costikyan. Computers enforce rules, and so they are uniquely able to model real world systems that also operate by rules. A movie, photograph, or article can explain the results of a system, but the computer can allow you to play with the system itself to see how events resulted from existing conditions.
The major weakness with games is what Bogost calls the “simulation gap” and the resulting “simulation fever” this gap inspires. This is the gap between the designed system of the gamemaker and the actual system from the real world it attempts to model. Games, even the best ones, aren’t scientific models… they’re not always going to get everything right (even scientific models often fail to do so), so they’re not perfect as predictors of actual human behavior. Simulation fever is a term used to described whether you reject the simulation altogether for its faults, or decide to use it as an educational experience for understanding the system partially or question the assumptions on which it is based.
I’m talking about “regular” people now, and not game designers and political science students: because games are enjoyable. Even “boring games” – games that purposefully try not to be “fun” in the normal meaning of the term – are entertaining to play if you care about the issue it addresses. We’re often bogged down in work or school, reading and writing all day, so we’re usually tired at the end of the day or during a break from work. A lot of people don’t want to sit and read an article about an issue, because they’ve already thought about so much during work hours. Games are relaxing, so a newsgame is kind of an intellectual lubricant that gets people to engage with an issue without having to go through a bunch of verbose prose. This isn’t to say that some of these games aren’t explicitly more complex or frustrating than an article – but people can generally choose their level of involvement with the artifact (whether to take it seriously and analyze it or not).
Well, if you had a team educated in journalistic practice (discipline of verification, avoidance of political bias, the watchdog role) making the game in a newsroom, with an editorial staff checking the quality of the work, then you wouldn’t see them making games like “Sarah Palin Shoots Russian Missiles.” You’d have to earn readers’ trust by making serious and well-thought-out games. It would be a leap of faith on their part, but this is the same leap of faith people had to make when info-graphics were introduced in papers and news sites. You’d have to make sure you were making games that showed something about an event that an article couldn’t.
Editorial games, the ones we see the most of, wouldn’t mesh. You’d have to put them in the op-ed section of the site. The reason these are the only games we see is that the people making them aren’t journalists. They’re designers who feel very strongly about the issues they’re covering. One attempt at a more journalistic newsgame (marketed to news media holding companies) is the PlayTheNews series made by Impact Games. Their general idea was just to show all the issues and “stakeholders” in a news event, allowing players to predict how they thought an event would unravel based on the conditions and people involved. There was no editorial bias in these works – it was about presenting facts. It had the weakness of not actually modelling the systems explored – basically it was a template for making playable info-visualization. If you got a team working explicitly on newsgames for a newspaper, then you’d start to see less editorial work and more straightforward journalistic effort.
Let’s put it this way: a polished Flash game constructed over the course of a month or so will average you about $5000 in costs (mostly in labor, but also a bit on upgrading technology). Most of the work and money required to make a game is in the assets, or creative, department. If you were taking images wholesale from other sources, you’d have to pay for it. But if you paid your own artists and used assets created in other departments of the news media holding company, the costs would be significantly less. The most viable business model would be for multiple news media outlets to hire out their work to a single game developer specializing in such games (no such company exists at this time). This is one of the only ways they’d be able to pay for the labor required to create the games, and they’d probably have to share releases with the other sites if they wanted really great games. This would still give those few papers a significant advantage over their competition.
You can’t just feature a playable version of a newsgame on your website. You can write an article about it and link to the developer’s site, but if you host it on your own website you have to pay them. This is a contract that has to be addressed individually with each developer (some might be happy just to have the exposure, but once they got more recognized they’d want to cash in for their work). Ian has made some games for CNN.com, you could ask him about it (but he might not be open to sharing).
Currently, ads are the most common way to make money off of Flash games, and ad revenue is in a major slump right now. That’s why you don’t see these games on new sites, because the market is stretched too thin to experiment with new business models right now. Sponsorship is a viable option, there are already multiple studios that specialize in product placement in games. But you don’t write about Starbucks cups in your articles to get sponsorship money, so people might not appreciate one much in a newsgame. Right now it isn’t viable to charge people to view content on a news site (there are a few magazines that still get away with it), so people are going to have to realize eventually that it’s worth paying for quality work that required money to create. I have the awful feeling something really horrible is going to have to happen before people realize it, though. If you got enough interest in the quality of the games you were making on your site, then the big-paying sponsors would roll in to place banners around the game. But this isn’t happening until the economy starts to rebuild itself.