Chungking Espresso

Newsgame, or Editorial Game?

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on June 2, 2009

Continuing the thread on editorial games from my history, part one. Published simultaneously for Bogost’s News Games blog.

Author’s note: While I was finishing up this piece, Ian forwarded me an upcoming DiGRA paper by Michael Mateas and Mike Treanor of UC Santa Cruz on *roughly* the same subject (though they focus much more on further defining the shared qualities of both genres). It thus became difficult to round off the article without seeing almost every claim as an argument made against their position. I’m not going to reply directly to any of their assertions, nor am I going to include any further insights into the subject that I may have gleaned from reading their piece. When their paper is presented at DiGRA, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to contrast my definitional stance with theirs. We will be incorporating and replying to their article directly, and in long form, much later on down the road. Thanks for reading!

The line between “newsgame” and “editorial game” is fuzzy no matter how you slice it. Basically, our suggestion is that most games called “newsgames” don’t have the same intentions or goals as traditional reporting, or “the news,” but rather those of the op-ed piece: to persuade; therefore, we should label these digital opinion pieces as “editorial” rather than “news.” Most people are probably inclined to ignore the possible distinction, because there doesn’t seem to be enough proof that we need one in the first place (we can’t exactly place a finger on what a “properly journalistic” newsgame would look like, as Paolo Pedercini has pointed out to us before). By the end we will (hopefully) have a slightly better understanding of the relationship between editorial and newsmaking, as well as a firmer grasp on how procedural rhetoric is used in editorial games.

Miguel Sicart provides a constraining set of attributes in our quest to find exact definitions for these terms. He claims that newsgames, like the news, should be “timely” and “ephemeral.” First we’ll address timeliness. Gonzalo Frasca was able to produce Madrid within 48 hours after the train bombings, and he made Kabul Kaboom within a few hours on an airplane trip. There’s also the example of Raid Gaza! that Ian recently wrote about, released only a few days after Israel’s most recent offensive. But in the same article, Ian shares his experience that it personally takes him at least two weeks to craft a quality newsgame, such as those he created for the Arcade Wire series. I’ve already hinted that I see the Arcade Wire games as more editorial than news (for obvious reasons, including the fact that they only sometime comment directly on a news event).

Perhaps one distinction between news and editorial game is that the latter isn’t bound by Sicart’s strict criterion of timeliness? Simplistic opinion pieces are easy to craft directly in the wake of a news event, but a more refined editorial stance requires time to develop and be iterated upon (much like a videogame). We could then see news and editorial games as developing along the rough timeline that Alberto Cairo provides for his infographics workflow: at first the important thing is to present all the facts to the reader (a newsgame proper), and over time more information is added and synthesized (the editorial game). In this light, we can see quickly-produced editorial games such as Hothead Zidane as strange, partially developed hybrids of the two genres: the game presents us with the basic fact of the headbutt and the red card (the news), as well as providing fleeting, unsubtle commentary on the shame that Zidane should be feeling for his actions (the editorial).

Moving along, Frasca provides us with his own rough definition for the genre whose name he coined himself in a paper he presented to Vodafone. Frasca sees newsgames more as an extension of the editorial cartoon than the written op-ed; therefore, he cites the attractive and satirical flash games by Molleindustria as the pinnacle of the genre. Political cartoons hold a special place in Gonzalo’s heart, because the cartoons in French textbooks were the only thing that made secondary public school education tolerable for him. Just as public school takes itself “too seriously,” Frasca asserts that print journalism is too stolid for a new generation of readers—he posits this as one of the primary insights that led to the success of The Daily Show. This isn’t to say that the news isn’t serious business, but rather an indictment of a monolithic institution that has largely failed in adapting to contemporary trends in media distribution and tastes—largely because of what many perceive as its steadfast belief that what has worked in the past (or what has developed gravity through shared values over time) should continue to function unchanged into the future.

In Persuasive Games, Ian discusses the difference between “visual rhetoric” and “procedural rhetoric.” Procedural rhetoric is basically how a designer/programmer can use computational processes and tools to express an idea or persuade others. Comics are not procedural, so they fall wholly within the sphere of visual rhetoric – the study of how images persuade or express. Neither one of these rhetorics is inherently “stronger” than the other, but they do function differently enough for us to question the indiscriminate equation of political comics and newsgames. (Author’s note: This is exactly where the Mateas and Treanor piece shines most—it lays the groundwork for how we can break down editorial cartoons and adapt their thematic qualities and goals into procedural expression.) Right now we are reading a few books on the subject, which we will return to in the future once we understand thoroughly. For now, our biggest takeaway from Frasca’s excitement about the future of the genre (and the medium as a whole) is that procedural representation has the potential to speak directly to contemporary media consumers without taking itself too seriously—both newsgames and editorial games have the ability to tackle serious and disturbing issues playfully.

Returning to Sicart, I believe there’s reason to disagree with his criterion of ephemerality—the notion that a newsgame should be thrown away as easily as an article on the same subject. For instance, a newspaper story with the headline, “Tactical Missiles Strike Hospital”—essentially covering the same topic as September 12th—isn’t an artifact that one keeps around. September 12th, on the other hand, is a game that can be played time and again and used to reflect on future events. So before Raid Gaza! came out, I sat and watched the news of Israel’s latest offensive while playing September 12th. Something about putting the argument and the event into code has the chance to make it timeless. This appears to be another point at which we can distinguish editorial games and newsgames—perhaps a newsgame can be thrown out (or recycled, if we take one of Bartle’s suggestions to heart) with the paper, but an editorial bears numerous readings and reflections over time. In this way, we see that a good editorial game shares almost as much with documentary games such as JFK Reloaded as they do with quickly produced, ultra-shortform newsgames.

Both Sicart and Frasca end up asserting that objectivity is not an explicit goal of what they call a newsgame (remember that, according to R+K, striving for objectivity is a fundamental tenant of journalism). For Frasca this seems to just be a working, practical method: newsgame creators care enough about on issue (read, they have a strong enough opinion about it) to spend their time working on these comparatively unprofitable ventures in order to both persuade/express and to develop the burgeoning genre. Sicart is considerably more specific in his explanation, and it stands to take a close look at his view of the “editorial line” in a game. For him, what the newsgame designer chooses to include and exclude determines the game’s editorial line. Bias is taken for granted in Frasca’s chosen model of the editorial cartoon, which never claims objectivity; however, in Sicart’s model—where the newsgame equates roughly to a news story—this privileging of bias conflates the functions of the “factual” news story and the op-ed, thus confusing possible distinctions between editorial games and newsgames.

What does it mean when Miguel Sicart says that “the editorial line” of a game is determined by what is included and excluded? It’s easy to state this, but somewhat harder to understand exactly how to design around the idea. Going back past Bogost’s explication of procedural rhetoric in Persuasive Games, we can look to what he writes in Unit Operations: simulation games are already about such a selection process of inclusion and exclusion.

When creating a simulation game, as opposed to an actual useable scientific model, one must understand that not every fact or possibility can be included when procedurally modeling a system or event. Instead of hard-coding each important aspect, the game programmer crafts algorithms that will, when generalized, create an impression of the system one hopes to represent. Specifics can be derived by tweaking the algorithms until the two systems match up even closer, but there will always be a “simulation gap” between the real system and the game system.

The goal of an editorial game creator would thus be to narrow the simulation gap as much as possible in order to convey their “line” on the issue, while a newsgame creator would strive to close the simulation gap in such a way that as little bias sneaks through as possible (for Sicart asserts that newsgames “do not persuade” or have “political interests”). For an example, let’s take a look at Frasca’s September 12th. The game generally works well as a political game, because it effectively delivers its argument against “tactical” bombing; however, as an editorial game one can see a gap in Frasca’s line. Essentially, one could read it as a call to military invasion—bombing creates more terrorists, and they’re not going away on their own, so a ground strike seems called-for. An admittedly unfair reductio ad absurdum such as this shows the difficulty in designing around the idea of exclusion and inclusion.

Perhaps the key for an editorial game is to be as blatantly one-sided as possible? In the case of Raid Gaza!, almost everything is excluded: Palestinian terrorists’ reasons for shooting missiles at settlements and the motivations of rogue Israeli settlers—two of the many important problems ImpactGame’s Peacemaker attempts to explore—are not addressed at all. All that the player understands by the end of the experience is that Israel is using undue force and that the United States will seemingly never cease military and fiscal support for their efforts. The game carefully picks its fight and then plumbs the depths of possible, relevant consequences.

In either case, the “simulation fever” that Bogost warns us about in Unit Operations is just as likely to strike the players of newsgames and editorial games as it is the players of a work such as Sim City. For instance, the simulation gap between what I saw as actual McDonald’s business practices and the hilarious hyperbole of Molleindustria led to my somewhat negative reflections on playing the game. While it is by no means a goal to please everybody, another distinct line between newsgames and editorial games seems to be the level of inclusiveness sought (and earned) by the designer. News strives to present information as objectively as possible in order to reach the widest possible audience, while editorial refines its scope in order to persuade or inflame.

Thus, we’ve established three possible distinctions between newsgames and editorial games: limitations of timeliness, ephemerality, and the simulation gap (and the different ways to close it). I recognize that I’ve covered and justified these in unequal amounts, and I hope that if you have any detracting comments you’ll present them in a constructive manner so that we might move forward with more rigorous definitions in the future. Next time we’ll return to our history of the editorial game with an examination of the Arcade Wire series. Thanks for reading.


8 Responses

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  1. Nick LaLone said, on June 3, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    All I could really think to say is that because of you I will be buying Persuasive Games. By the way, there’s a game that just came on the XBLA called Angry Barry that is basically a flash game of Obama killing everyone to get to the presidency. I wonder if it is a newsgame or an editorial game.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on June 3, 2009 at 7:42 pm

      Ha! Yeah, the other GRA working on this book got that one covered. I guess I’ll have to go by his description, it ain’t going in my chapters 🙂

  2. L.B. Jeffries said, on June 5, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Enjoying this series quite a bit. One question, if it’s technically impossible to create a fully realistic simulation, then the news game is inevitably going to just be an editorial. It won’t have enough negative consequences for an act or positive ones, depending on how I personally feel about the event. It just seems like objectivity is doubly hard to achieve if not impossible.

    • Nick LaLone said, on June 5, 2009 at 10:14 am

      The thing about objectivity is that it’s more of a pursuit than a way to do something. I’d imagine the debate here is where the line between them is simply because of the term and rhetoric behind “objectivity”.

      Objectivity is impossible to achieve in the way the social sciences (mass com, sociology, etc) need it to be. It is physically and mentally impossible to fully separate yourself from the ways you were trained, raised, and perceive the world. I state this as fact only because it needs to be stated as fact in much the same way as the theorists use objectivity in the above article. This debate will continue for centuries.

      You could make the argument that an editorial game and a newsgame are the same thing given that each requires a modicum of interpretation and that certain actions have various outcomes but that is neither beneficial to a situation intended to maintain the categories of the news nor helpful. Labels are helpful and work backing up those definitions creates a nice backing for whatever side we choose.

      Reading over this stuff, I would venture to say that there is indeed a difference between the two, however sleight, and it is that difference that makes it worth exploring. I’d love to see what the news theory guys have to say about the differences between an editorial and a news story.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on June 5, 2009 at 11:35 am

      Sorry it took me so long to get back to yas; stayed up trying to beat RE5 so I could return it before Sunday. God it’s a miserable experience, and I have no idea what I think about it anymore.

      Anyhow, what Nick says is largely true of the situation. Objectivity isn’t an end goal but a discipline for journalists. They know they can’t rid themselves completely of bias, and they know they can’t get every fact of a situation, but they’re trained to try. When a major news event breaks, facts trickle in. This doesn’t keep people from reporting on incomplete data–there’s a working method there that we can extrapolate for what I’m calling a “proper newsgame” (we think we got a name worked out for that for next post).

      An editorial usually waits until a certain amount of information is present before commenting with an opinionated viewpoint that the writer attempts to make as transparent as possible. If you look at the difference in quality between a New York Times editorial and an editorial written by a local political celebrity (in Atlanta you see a number by conservative politicians, for instance) you’ll basically see a level of restraint and tact that marks the difference between Bogost’s games and the kind of tabloid crap I’ve covered so far.

      So you’re both right–objectivity isn’t possible to achieve, but admitting that is one of the first steps you need to take in order to even approach an acceptable level of objectivity 🙂 I try to get into this when I distinguish different ways to close the simulation gap, but that’s going to need a lot more work until it makes sense as a design principle. We just ordered three books on editorial and editorial cartoons, so maybe I’ll know more soon.

  3. Nick LaLone said, on June 6, 2009 at 8:51 am

    I did a cursory glance and didn’t find exactly what I was looking for to make my point. I was looking for theory work that examined bias and compared news article content to editorial content. I’d imagine you’ve found all of the relevant literature though, any recommendations?

    I did find this though. It seems pretty decent:

    Also, RE:5 is a crazy game. There’s something to be said about a game that has a sort of decent message about Africa that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. I’ve been wanting to write something on games taking themselves too seriously vs not seriously at all. I think the RE series and probably Gears of War would probably be a good contrast.

  4. TheGameCritique said, on June 8, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I was thinking about your difference between news games and editorial games and it seems to me that another difference is in what the game is trying to address. Is it a singlualr event? Or address the a broader idea and concept of what is going on. As we’ve established complete objectivity is not possible, in real life. (You’re not getting me to admit anything Simon.) I think the first would be a working idea of a news game and the latter of an editorial game with varying degress of accuracy and intent.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on June 9, 2009 at 1:19 am

      I agree with you wholeheartedly, Eric! One of the sure signs of an editorial game is the fact that the issue is ongoing and thus easy to stew over and pontificate about at leisure. The newsgame must quickly react to a breaking story, without certainty about the reasons behind events and the “legs,” if you will, of the issue.

      I laud your steadfast position on Beyond Good & Evil, which is forcing me to slowly recognize my own pig-headedness on the issue 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and contributing, my friend!

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