Chungking Espresso

Newsgames: Journalism at Play Now Shipping

Posted in Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on October 13, 2010

The book that I co-wrote with Ian and Bobby is now shipping from Amazon and MIT Press. I hope that the Kindle version will become available soon, because I know a few of you iPad users have renounced the printed word forever or whatever and love the idea of zooming in on my beautiful words with your grubby fingers.

Many thanks to everyone who has already purchased the book and to the people who helped make it all happen.

For those of you who are on the fence about the book and don’t find the back cover description entirely enlightening, some of the book’s first chapter can be read in this excerpt published by The Atlantic. As always, our blog contains many early arguments and stories that formed the core of the book (just search posts by category).

If you’d like to interview me, Ian, or Bobby about the book for your own website, podcast, or publication, just send me an email or leave me your contact info in the comments.

EDIT: As Michel notes in the comments below, the physical copy of this book is incredibly sexy. If you can’t tell from the picture: the dust cover is fused to the canvas cover of the book on the inside and for most of the exterior. The only exception is at the spine. This avoids the problem of having to choose between ruining the dust cover or removing it completely and looking like a pretentious ass.

Announcing: The Cartoonist

Posted in Newsgames, Projects by Simon Ferrari on September 2, 2010



The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of “newsgames” — videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Read the rest of the post here at MediaShift Idea Lab.

End of Life IF

Posted in Newsgames, Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on October 19, 2009

eol

End of Life is an interactive fiction about family life and decision-making. It started as an idea in Ian Bogost’s newsgame project studio. One of the branches of newsgames we have identified for our book is the documentary game. Typically these have a medium-length (20 minutes to two hours) playthrough time and are built as a mod for a 3D engine. There are three major types: spatial, procedural, and personal. Personal documentary games mix spatial and system-based models in order to tell share a story from a unique, subjective point-of-view. End of Life is a text-based adaptation of the documentary game form, addressing the real-world issue of “end of life counseling” or the decision whether to pull life support from a dying loved one.

The high concept pitch for EoL would sound something like, “It’s Ruben & Lullaby meets The Sound and The Fury.” Point-of-view switching is a powerful literary device, but in static texts this typically implies a forced perspective. In EoL, the player can switch back and forth between five family members at any moment and in any order. If they don’t like a character, they can ignore her for the course of the playthrough. The invalid family patriarch is our Benjy Compson (the mentally handicapped member of Faulkner’s fictional family), providing commentary that the active family members do not have access to. Some characters always do the same things in every playthrough; most have branching choices based on their moods at certain points in the day. When there is no choice in action, mood will instead dictate how the character mentally reacts to her situation.

Ruben & Lullaby provides the inspiration for the interaction model: the player controls a wisp that can nudge the emotions of one family member per hour. I see this as a direct contradiction of the interaction model of The Sims, where players are cued to a desire or feeling in the Sim that they can rectify or not by dictating action. Players of R&L and Facade are often frustrated when their commands don’t lead to tangible results in game, and I wanted to capture a similar frustration in EoL. Each family member begins the playthrough in a randomized mood. Each is variably susceptible to particular mood swings, leading to healthy dose of guesswork and replay value. The player can also choose to abstain from influencing the characters, letting the drama play out based on the beginning values.

At the end of the game, the family convenes to decide the fate of the patriarch; some will vote to keep him alive if they are in a good mood, some if they are in a bad mood. This decision takes place offscreen, much as in the violent sections of Greek tragedy (mostly because I wasn’t good enough to code it dramatically). The player has gleaned parts of their personalities in the playthrough, but he doesn’t know everything about each family member. Most importantly, their ethics aren’t considered. The game argues that people make decisions based on who they are and the mood they are in. Ethics certainly make up who we are, but they tend to be remarkably malleable under duress. Decisions are also relational; some people, under some circumstances, will take radical action to counteract what they see as the controlling influence of others.

In discussing digital media, we often fall back on an essentialist logic that says that an artifact is aesthetically legitimate if it maximizes the affordances of the medium; however, there is a slightly older aesthetic criterion, coming from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which states that aesthetic legitimacy arises not from essentialist qualities but from the reflection of the work’s means of production–it has to reify the cultural milieu of a time and place, adopting a suitable form for conveying it. End of Life draws from the latter school of thought, directly confronting a relevant public issue and encapsulating how one specific family deals with it.

The suggestion that a digital artifact should provide always immersion, embodiment, and agency is perverse. It only makes sense if one views digital media as escapism, created to fully engage the user in the place of the real world around them. A brute fact of human life is that we don’t have control over much of our lives or the lives of others. Aarseth argues that games become more “gamelike” if they are configurative, that the player should be able to see the meaningful influence her actions have on a virtual world. I would argue that agency and embodiment mean more in configurative work when they are directly contradicted in non-configurative work. By taking these essential qualities away sometimes, we make them more cherished. Such qualities should be selected from to suit the work, not the other way around. Defaulting to what is important to us robs it of importance. This is an educational opportunity, an antidote to the intoxicating sense of power that most digital artifacts provide. Some things simply aren’t configurative in the real world; families are a good example.

A week before finishing this project, I finally found published theoretical grounding for my position. In their early work on augmented reality games, Jay Bolter and Blair MacIntyre argue that point-of-view switching provides adequate embodiment in lieu of actual agency in a digital environment.2 I actually don’t find their particular example of this principle compelling; basically they simplified Twelve Angry Jurors to Three Jurors, strapped a backpack computer and a virtual reality visor to a player, and then allowed the player to switch between inhabiting the mindset of one of the three characters as a static drama played out. I think EoL takes point-of-view switching one step further and provides a better proof-of-concept for their argument.

I consider End of Life no small success. My writing is admittedly the weakest element; mentally I finished the piece the moment I finished coding the framework girding the story. This project combines everything I’ve learned how to do in Flash thus far (excepting animation), and it constitutes the first true state machine I’ve ever made completely by myself in the platform. Even though the writing is somewhat trite, pulling from every cliche of everyday family life I’m familiar with, it becomes true in that I pulled it from one specific, real-world family (my own).

There is some room for future development here, both graphically and procedurally. Right now there are two variations for every character in every round based on there mood. Given the way the structure is set up, I could add mood variations to the branching story sections or add a third mood variation (neutral) given enough time and literary inspiration. I would also love to try to remake this project as a true documentary game, in a 3D engine, with unique art assets and dialogue. The current iteration of this project represents the utmost level of my design and programming abilities given the time constraints and the specifications of the assignment.

I should note that this situation didn’t actually happen to my family, and the personalities have been a bit blown own to be more compelling. My grandfather died five years ago from Alzheimer’s disease, asleep in his bed, in the room that I grew up in. This isn’t meant to be a universal story, though it can be generalized to the extent that families are, after all, families; it is a directed experience featuring characters with largely determinate personalities. This is the way I wanted it, and I hope the player enjoys what I crafted for them. A big thank you goes out to Graham Jans for teaching me how to randomize variables in Flash. I’m also indebted to my family for providing me with the strong personalities embedded in the family members of this fiction. Thank you to my father, who used to work as an intensive care nurse, for describing the hour-by-hour care of a comatose patient.

———————-

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 16-45.

MacIntrye, Blair and Jay Bolter. “Single-narrative, multiple point-of-view dramatic experiences in augmented reality” in Virtual Reality 7 (London: Springer-Verlag, 2003), 10-16.

Desert of the Real

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on June 8, 2009

Today we take a slight detour from our series on editorial games to celebrate an editorial machinima of exceptional quality, produced by everyone’s favorite editorial game creator: La Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini. Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.

InTheSand

It isn’t easy writing about thinking, talking, or writing about machinima. One of my professors (Michael Nitsche, who I just found out is heavily cited on the Wikipedia entry on the subject) is hopelessly obsessed with augmented reality and digital performance, so last semester he dragged us through the “serious” machinima canon in an effort to inspire us into creating cinematic experiences within the 3D prototype worlds we were creating. I can honestly say that I don’t remember a single one of them, except perhaps the fact that many featured Half Life 2‘s G-Man. Comedy is there, as evidenced by the broad popularity and honing of craft achieved by Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue, but I’ve yet to see a dramatic or serious piece that worked for me.

I admit that I’m being a snob about this—I can’t quite get past the fact of my film history and video editing education, and I know I’m judging these works unfairly by cinematic standards. Even when they’re made by people who are serious about pushing what’s possible with the form, they’re not made by filmmakers—they’re made by videogame fans with their own goals, standards, conventions, and communities. (Author’s Note: This is me prodding you to write about machinima if you care about gamer-based videogame interpretations, by the way.) Sometimes, they’re made by artists who already have the skills to make mods and games of their own, yet choose to express themselves in machinima form. This work is a vital counterpoint to the fan-based production that drives the bulk of machinima development (we must attack the middle-brow from both above and below, as they say).

FaithFighter2
Paolo Pedercini, the mind behind the anti-entertainment videogame cooperative La Molleindustria, recently revamped his brawler about religious hatred, Faith Fighter, to accommodate complaints from numerous Islamic organizations and news media companies. The result was Faith Fighter 2, a parodic appropriation of Gonzalo Frasca’s “commemoration mechanic” from Madrid: click on numerous gods from the first game to feed them with love and prevent their memories from fading away. When you fail, you’re treated to the claim that many made against Paolo himself: “Game Over: You failed to respect a religion, and now the world is a total mess!” Contrary to popular belief, it was in fact possible to “win” Madrid by filling up a meter in the bottom of the screen. It may be possible to keep a game of Faith Fighter 2 going indefinitely (I certainly can’t click fast enough to do so), but it doesn’t appear to have an end. At some point the player must slow down or give up, prompting the Game Over. This is clearly a self-deprecating rhetoric of failure from Paolo: when you deal with religion, you’re going to “lose” no matter what you do.

I applaud Pedercini’s ability to swiftly respond to the demands made of him with such intertextual snark, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a legitimate follow-up to his Oiligarchy, which I see as his most significant work to date (largely because of the winning condition he snuck in). Last week I revisited his website to play some of his games that I’d missed (including an Italian-language “propaganda game” called Embrioni in fuga made before a national referendum on embryonic stem cell research… it is a Lemmings-like that I’ll examine in future discussions of the “editorial line” in games), and I was surprised to find out what he’d been working on lately: two videos and an installation!

The first video is an incisive, wistful, and often beautiful look at urban ecology and Craigslist’s “missed connections.” I love everything about it except the robotic voices used for reading the original Craigslistings in voiceover (which, if Paolo stumbles upon this, I’d enjoy reading the explanation for). The installation piece, called The 21st Century Home, appears to be a black-lit tarpolin wigwam zig-zagged with neon tape in order to replicate the aesthetics of Tron. Visitors (or players) stumble around in the “real virtuality” to another roboticized voice spewing pop philosophy about our transhumanist digital future. I think the robot voice works much better in this one, but I can’t really judge it all without experiencing it firsthand. Finally, to the subject of this article, the second video is (as you probably guessed by now) a machinima.

Sights

Welcome to the desert of the real isn’t the first politically-charged machinima; however, it is probably the first one to compliment an identically-titled collection of essays by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek named his seminal essay on the mainstream US reaction to September 11th after a quote from Morpheus about the nature of The Matrix, which (of course) further referenced the Simulacres et Simulation of Baudrillard. Here Paolo filters his commentary on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through another two layers of simulacra: a videogame, and the machinima filmed within that game. The subject of the work is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a “counter-propaganda” video, recorded within the America’s Army wargame/military recruiting tool.

I know that I’m assessing a new form with an outmoded vocabulary, but I can conceive of no greater praise than to say that this 6-minute machinima feels like a distillation of Errol Morris’s Fog of War and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (one of the greatest films of all time).  Spoilers follow.

An American soldier crawls forward over a dune with a sniper rifle (in third person perspective). We cut to a first-person point-of-view through the rifle’s sight, following an enemy combatant lazily traversing a ridge. Just when you think the protagonist (who is you, now) isn’t going to fire, a loud crack rings out and the screen fades to black. Returning to third-person, the protagonist leaves his rifle laying in the sand. After this follows a hallucinatory trek through the desert intercut by a series of questions, in text form, from the handbook on self-testing for PTSD in American veterans.

InquiringNuns

Call-and-response is a popular mechanic in documentary film: the earliest example I can remember of this sort is the 1968 film Inquiring Nuns, in which two nuns walked the streets of Chicago asking people, “Are you happy?” Pedercini replaces the call portion of the call-and-response with those from the PTSD checklist, and he replaces the response with a segment of the aimless trek through the desert.  He essentially subverts the rhetorical query (“Are you happy?”)—to a viewer who could either be a gamer or a veteran—with a suggestive one: “You aren’t happy, are you?” I can personally relate to the question pictured below, having suffered for years now from increasingly violent nightmares that force me to wake up suffering from heavy breathing and chest pain (of course, I don’t think that Paolo is saying these questions apply equally to gamers, or that all gamers endure the same dreams that I do). One of the questions “Feeling emotionally numb and incapable of loving feelings?” reminds me of the problem of Everquest Divorces.

PTSDIntertitle

Remember that Molleindustria’s stated goal is to subvert the entertainment industry’s influence on the videogame medium. This is a very Zizekian mission in itself—the scabrous philosopher holds that dominant ideology completely structures the subject even in an era when we’re increasingly cynical and aware of its functioning. One could argue that a machinima about PTSD is irrelevant by now, that we’ve all known about it for years now. But Pedercini asks us to recognize an analogous condition: gamers also suffer from a kind of PTSD, a mental dulling following prolonged exposure to videogames that encourage violence without reflection. The America’s Army games, in which the mission is never justified nor questioned and everyone plays “the good guy” (American troops) in various roles, are an obviously egregious contributor to this ludic ideology (as detailed in Bogost’s Persuasive Games and Halter’s From Sun Tzu to XBOX).

Fog of War isn’t an exact match for how the intertitles work in Welcome, but I feel that they are relatively close in spirit and form. Morris’s work is composed of a series of lessons (as opposed to questions) from former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, focusing on what he has learned after a lifetime of studying and waging war. McNamara’s final lesson from his original eleven on the Vietnam War is as follows:

“We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”

This in fact roughly equates with the message of Zizek’s writing on post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy: America must recognize its cultural imperialism and acknowledge that the choices and solutions we’ve established to the event thus far are completely reactionary, obscuring the reality of the situation and the way out. It’s possible that Paolo is saying something similar about mainstream games and their solutions to the demands to “grow up” from academics and highfalutin critics. On the one hand we get “tactical shooters” that replicate the immediate physical repercussions of gunfighting while still ignoring other consequences and assumptions. On the other, we could argue that something like Bioshock attempts to reflect on the nature of violence through the form of the shooter, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we asserted that the game didn’t end up valorizing it in the end—plasmids don’t provide ways around direct conflict, but different flavors of mutual slaughter. Neither tactical nor pseudo-philosophical violence is the answer to the goal of making games more serious, honest, mature, artful, etc. As the original Faith Fighter argues, violence as a primary mechanic must be subverted instead of “improved.”

TasteCherry

Welcome to the desert of the real reminds me of Taste of Cherry mostly because of its minimalism, spare color palette, meandering non-narrative, and extreme take length (which are typical of many of his films). Most machinima adhere to what we would identify as a postmodern editing style of incredibly short takes: taking a look at a random selection of works on Machinima.com, I clocked an average take length of 2 seconds. Red vs. Blue, having been refined and developed over time, has a longer average at around 5 seconds. Welcome features an 11-second average shot length, truly the machinima equivalent of the extremely long take practiced by Kiarostami (at least by current standards). The takes pulse like a cardiogram: they begin at around 8 seconds, reach a crescendo of over 20 seconds just prior to an intertitle, and then drop back down.

Taste of Cherry deals with problem of suicide in the Muslim world. Suicide is incredibly taboo in predominately Muslim countries, especially those with theocracies (Kiarostami is Iranian). Having decided to take his life, the protagonist (Mr. Badii) of Taste of Cherry wanders the dusty landscape for roughly two hours trying to find someone to cover his body after he dies. Badii has crossed a religious Rubicon with his decision, leaving him in a walking Purgatory between life and death. A similar problem confronts the protagonist of Welcome—once a soldier has killed for her country, what is the rest of her life going to be like? Once a gamer decides to put the gun (controller) down, what is there to think, say, or do? Taste of Cherry finishes with a short meta-documentary on the filmmaking process cued to Louis Armstrong’s Saint James Infirmary Blues, while many veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars find themselves dealing with mental and physical health issues by the end of their tours of duty.

I’m not saying the experiences of war and war gaming are the same, only that they are essentially subject to the same dominant ideologies. Once you’ve begun to combat the structuring of your subject, how long will it be before you find a new social frame to latch onto? “What comes next” is the nagging question La Molleindustria continually strives to answer for our medium.

Horizon

Welcome to the desert of the real ends where David Byrne’s True Stories begins: a frame split like a Rothko painting, the horizon line perfectly dividing ground and sky. Such a shot connotes new beginnings and infinite uncertainty for the future. I’m left with one lingering question: Pedercini uses the PTSD checklist as a cinematic and  metaphorical framework, but would we actually want to try to make a videogame that emulated a light form of PTSD in the player? How would we go about doing this? Would it be ethical to do so, simply to make a political point or allow empathic access to the mindset of the mentally damaged veteran? I wonder if these are questions Paolo asked himself before deciding to create a machinima instead.

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.

Kabul_Kaboom
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).

jon-stewart
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.

12thReticle
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.

raid_gaza
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.

Pictures for Truth, an “advocacy game”

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on May 14, 2009

Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.

Pictures for Truth is a newsgame funded by Amnesty International, produced using Microsoft’s XNA software development kit. You play an American journalist in China just prior to the Beijing Olympics. You have a date to meet with a Chinese journalist covering poor living conditions at a toxic electronics dump. When you arrive at your hotel, you receive a call informing you that your friend has been detained by authorities at the dump.

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A police officer at the dump confiscates your camera and hauls your friend off to jail. You must find a new camera, interview people at the dump and outside a jail, and take pictures to accompany the “stories” generated by the interviews. You write three stories: about the health issues surrounding the dump, the working conditions of those living near the dump, and about China’s municipal system in regards to the death penalty (this story is unlocked by completing the first two).

Aesthetically the game is rather beautiful. Unlike many of these investigative reporter games we’ve played (like Homeland Guantanamo), PFT is rendered in realtime 3D. So instead of clicking between discrete composed scenes, you get to move through sensory-immersive recreations of the dump and the Chinese jail. The game is in black and white, presumably to compare the game with a newspaper. Texturing is spare, mostly hatched greyscale or pencil scribbling. The characters look like white paper cutouts.

A lot of effort has gone into making PFT “gamey.” You receive fame points for every interview question you ask and for adding pictures relevant to the stories you are composing. Fame unlocks three “power-ups:” a zoom lens, an extended hard drive for your PDA, and a hidden camera.

Unfortunately, only the hidden camera is actually useful. You must have this in order to take pictures inside the jail cell where your friend is being held. The zoom may increase the fame points you receive for taking pictures, but if this is true it would violate the photographic rule of thirds (placing the focus of your pictures in a third of the screen, with axis of action from the subject aiming toward the unoccupied two thirds (this assertion is disputable, but the fact that the NPCs remain static means that there’s no real reason to zoom up close to their faces to catch, say, teardrops forming in their eyes). The PDA hard drive space is only needed to store pictures; you can delete unwanted or used pictures, and there aren’t really enough subjects to require massive amounts of space.

The biggest problem with the game is that there’s no real room for agency on the part of the player. All one has to do is click through every available conversation piece with each NPC. Anyone used to playing games made by Bethesda knows the drill: swiftly click through the conversation tree without paying attention to much of anything in order to unlock everything, and then find the one piece you need to progress the game state and read it carefully. Adding insult to injury, the game only takes two lines of conversation and forces you to use them for the article you’re writing. It would have made much more sense to add a score for each line and then allow you to combine then to maximize the “fame” points for the article. This would at least provide some feedback educating the player on the quality of different types of information. The picture mechanic does some work to remedy this: much like in Dead Rising, capturing points of interests (represented as nodes or “hot points” once the cameras snaps) awards more points; re-using the same subject twice in an article subtracts points.

In the end it’s obvious what Amnesty’s purpose was for this game: not to teach one how to be a journalist, but to teach one how difficult it is to be a journalist in China. There’s also the ancillary educational goal of teaching players about living, working, and municipal conditions in China.

The makers do connect these three educational points with their narrative thread. Another occupant of the jail holding your friend is a woman who has been jailed for trafficking heroin. She did this in order to buy medicine for her daughter, a girl you encountered earlier in the dump standing around by herself. You can choose whether or not to enlist a doctor’s help for the child, but it really doesn’t make sense not to do it and your ending condition doesn’t change if you do this or not.

As a side note, this game did highlight for me the difficulty of using XNA to create one of these games. Only a Windows machine will run games made in this way, and they have a somewhat high barrier of entry on account of the fact that Windows has to install the .NET Framework 3.5 in order to run them. This requires roughly 15 minutes of downloading, installing, and configuring (plus a mandatory system restart) – of course, this is a one-time only thing, and now your computer is set up to play anything else built in XNA. The payoff seems worth it in the end, however, because the product comes off as much more polished than something developed in Flash. Realtime 3D rendering is always a plus, and at the very least this game didn’t require as much of a download time as a game distributed through Kuma War’s download client.

Beyond Good and Evil and Photographic “Truth”

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on April 22, 2009

Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games research blog. So go comment there, not here!

It’s time for another post in which I show how a mainstream videogame manages to capture the spirit of a particular aspect of journalism better than any existing edu-game on the same subject! This month’s game is Beyond Good & Evil, an artifact that shares with Psychonauts the distinction of being a relatively late entry in the sixth generation of videogames that didn’t sell nearly as much as it should have considering its critical reception and creative flair.

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Everything one needs to know about BG&E is masterfully presented within the first thirty minutes of playing the game. A newscast cinematic opens the experience, with Hyllis’s most popular newscaster Fehn Digler (Fehn, a Scandinavian surname, is apparently the forename of all “goat sapientes”) announcing an oncoming wave of alien enemies called the DomZ (perhaps a riff on Ubisoft’s own Petz series). He transfers control of the broadcast over to the voice of General Kex of the Alpha Sections – an intergalactic military that is purportedly protecting the people of Hillys from the DomZ. He begins, “Loyal Hillians, the impending battle will be a difficult one, but thanks to the Alpha Sections…” before being cut off by a fadeout to the protagonist, Jade, meditating on a rock. Both Fehn Digler and General Kex are instantly set in opposition to Jade by this  somewhat disruptive cut. Although the name “Fehn Digler”  connotes the historical form of investigative journalism known as muckracking, he in fact aligns with the propagandistic Alpha Sections. When the introductory DomZ invasion begins, Jade springs into action and is captured in a series of black-and-white photograph snaps—Jade is a rugged photojournalist, an independent force flying in the face of the Alpha Sections’ media hegemony.

Jade is a spunky female of unknown ethnicity. Her ambiguous features hearken back to the famous 1993 Time magazine cover claiming to show the “New Face of America” and precede by a year the most famous multi-ethnic videogame heroine, Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2. Her name carries with it connotations of East Asian and Mesoamerican ornamentation. The name “Jade” also indirectly appeals to the game’s title, Beyond Good and Evil. The famous blaxploitation film Ebony, Ivory, and Jade features two female protagonists (one white, one black), and a male protagonist named Jade. Ebony and Ivory, black and white, traditionally invoke the concepts of Good and Evil. The third element, Jade, rests outside this dichotomy. Jade is mineralogically “tough,” and its earliest use was as a sharp weapon—thus connoting both beauty and the ability to “cut through” to the truth of a situation. Also important to BG&E‘s endgame is the fact that a 19th century French scientist discovered that what was known as jade was in fact two different rocks.

The game’s secondary protagonist is Pey’j, Jade’s gruff pig “uncle.” Pigs are significant in reference to jade in Chinese history. Some of the earliest depictions of a Chinese dragon, carved out of jade, are the zhulong or “pig dragon” ouroboros artifacts crafted in neolithic China.  The Pig is the final entrant of the Chinese zodiac, having lost the Jade Emperor’s race in mythological times. Accordingly, pigs in the Chinese zodiac are depicted as vulnerable, which explains why Jade often finds herself protecting her rotund uncle.  Another characteristic of pigs in the Chinese zodiac that Pey’j isn’t is naïve: from the beginning of the game, Pey’j is highly suspect of the Alpha Sections. His name is clearly a pun on the word “page,” connoting both a medieval servant to a knight (in this case, Jade) and a unit of print media.

Despite featuring a strong female, multi-ethnic protagonist, BG&E mires itself in tedious cultural stereotyping. A Latino colleague watched me play the opening hour of the game, and the flamboyant simpering of the AI character Secundo made my face flair with shame for being a gamer. Some of the game’s voice acting and sound design are so ethnically fetishistic and colonial that it was hard for me to stomach the opening acts.

The “animal sapientes” that inhabit Hillys are fairly derivative of the tropes established by Gullah folk stories of the “Bruh Rabbit” tradition. I have two words for you, words that I hope are never made manifest in code by a videogame ever again: Gullah Rhino. I get the joke—displaced Africans living on an island—but I’m not amused. So much effort clearly went into making Jade race-neutral in speech and facial features that I don’t really understand why the makers decided to go with such hackneyed ethnic tropes for the Secundo and Mammago characters.

Moving on. The IRIS Network is an intergalactic organization of operatives and “correspondents” that seek to disrupt the machinations of the Alpha Sections. Their primary modus operandi is the creation of counter-propaganda in the form of newsprint and radio. Calling themselves a “network” of course denotes network television news. The fact that their agents are called correspondents only deepens this connection. The root network of the Yellow Iris is used in natural water purification , a fact which might or might not be an intended connection on the designer’s part—the Network attempts to “cure” the media occlusion caused by the Alpha Sections’ propaganda.

The irides of our eyes control the amount of light that reaches our retinas by expanding and contracting the pupil. Diseases of the irides directly affect one’s ability to see; similarly, the IRIS Network also controls the information that Jade receives throughout the course of the game. Although a seemingly benevolent force (perhaps the Good to the Alpha Section’s Evil), players and Jade immediately question the motivations of the IRIS Network after they introduce themselves to Jade through a deceit: they send Jade on a fool’s errand into the heart of an ancient mine as a test of her abilities. Mr. Hahn’s ridiculous transformation from the Cadillac-driving Mr. De Castellac to a blue collar taxi driver both confirms player suspicions that the Network is not to be trusted while connecting the organization to working class values. Jade finally meets with IRIS in the Akuda Bar, inside of which a dub song constantly drones a one-word chorus: “propaganda.”

The gameplay of Beyond Good & Evil is almost entirely derivative of two Nintendo products: Ocarina of Time and the Metroid Prime series. That said, the fracturing of the self-contained adventure game protagonist into units of Jade/Pey’j and Jade/Double H is both a vital move on the part of more and more recent game designers and cause for quite a bit of realtime narrative and engaging puzzle platforming. The important connection for us is that derived from Metroid: Jade’s camera functions almost identically to Samus’s scanning visor. Not only can it take pictures, but it can also access data terminals. Photography comprises roughly 1/6 of one’s time in the game, as players are practically required to snap nature photographs of plants, animals, and DomZ for a preservation society in order to maintain a steady stream of revenue. Perhaps predicting the recent crisis in print journalism, Jade’s career as a photojournalist has fallen on hard times. The pictures in her studio are of the orphans she takes care of—not what one would usually expect to see in a professional reporter’s darkroom. Before acquiring the nature photography job from Secundo, Jade doesn’t have enough of a line of credit to afford basic power needs or transportation costs.

The use of nature photography, in which verisimilitude is demanded by the needs for preservation and education, is important in understanding the naïve assumptions about photographic truth upon which Beyond Good and Evil rely. Jade’s mission from the IRIS Network is to infiltrate key Alpha Sections installations in order to photograph their unmasked faces and the plight of their hostages:

Every proof we can find relating to this conspiracy will bring us more and more support from the people. A general uprising would allow us to overthrow the Alpha Sections; if the revolt spreads we may be able to end this war, but we need photographic evidence to find out exactly what’s going on[…]

Alpha is the transparency value in digital image manipulation. As a cohesive, unquestioned whole the Alpha Sections are completely oblique. By disrupting and photographing their operations, Jade will increase media transparency and arrive at “the truth.” At the end of the game Jade’s photographs, published under the pseudonym “Shauni” (a name which apparently shares a Hebrew root with Jeanne, meaning “God’s Grace” and therefore associating Jade with Jeanne d’Arc’s goal of driving the invaders from a homeland), do in fact bring about a revolution against the Alpha Sections.

Which leads one to ask, “Why, in a distant future full of anthropomorphized space animals and flying cars, would anyone believe in the integrity of a photograph?” Tweens know how to use Photoshop. Critics questioned Robert Flaherty’s construction of early documentaries such as Nanook of the North roughly an entire century ago (in the 1920s). The game’s title references Nietzsche’s own Beyond Good and Evil, which demands that not that morality be abandoned outright but that philosophers throw away dated (neo-Platonic, Christian) concepts such as “truth,” “knowledge,” and “free will.” Unfortunately, the game only serves to affirm the completely outmoded concept of documentary reality. The game’s ending is somewhat revelatory,  but it can’t honestly be described as “cutting through to the truth.” Players are hand-fed the narrative conclusion and its moral. What the game never explains is how the Alpha Sections gained power in Hyllis, we are told only that “the government was caught off guard.” It doesn’t explain why seemingly the entire populace suffers and accepts the blatant, omnipresent propaganda of Fehn Digler and General Kex. We don’t learn much about how media control comes about, and we don’t learn a feasible modus operandi for independent journalists.

In order to evolve, journalists might one day have to throw their claim to being able to discern and disseminate “truth.” On the other hand, so-called “citizen journalists,” if they hope to succeed in the fragmented environment of newsmaking on the web, are going to have to learn that objectivity is more difficult to attain than the simple snapping of a picture. If only a game so apparently concerned with disrupting propaganda and news media hegemony could have helped light the way.

Documentary Games & the Life and Death of the Saga Song

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on April 1, 2009

Originally written for Bogost’s News Games blog.

In looking for proof-of-concepts for the success and creation of documentary and editorial games, I came across a historical movement in country music that I think bears exploration. Country music became popular music in the United States after World War II, because so many training camps were located in the South. Soldiers from around the country were introduced to the genre then, and they brought it home with them when they returned from war. An accompanying reason for the meteoric rise of country music was the “saga song” – a prominent sub-genre in the 40’s and 50’s that openly explored tragedies such as war and murder.

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Preceding the wide popularity of country music was a ballad about the “Wreck of the Old 97.” The engineer, Steve Broadey, had to make up for a one-hour delay in the delivery of a Fast Mail shipment for the USPS by traveling at unsafe speeds between Monroe and Spencer. Broadey lost control of the engine while descending a gradient toward the Stillhouse Trestle; he de-railed the train, which fell into the Cherrystone Creek ravine killing all nine passengers. Broadey was blamed for the tragedy, but as a contributor to the Wikipedia article on the song explains:

{The ballad clearly places the blame for the wreck on the railroad company for pressuring Steve Broadey to exceed a safe speed limit, for the lyrics begin, “Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, ‘Steve, you’re way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.’” }

From the point of view of editorial, this is a case of the songwriter including information that determines an editorial line: Southern Railway caused the accident by enforcing reckless driving in order to satisfy their contract with USPS.

Nashville Skyline, a column for CMT News by Chet Flippo, discusses the saga song in connection to a recently-released compilation titled “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938.” Flippo goes through a short history of the sub-genre before editorializing on the disappearance of the saga song in contemporary country music. He seems particularly interested in understanding why country music has shied away from addressing the Iraq War directly.

I asked the only “expert” on country music I knew, Dirt Roads and Honkeytonks DJ Sarah Fox, this same question. She explained to me that country music as we now know it is closer in spirit to pop music than to blues as a result of the manufacturing of pop during the 70s and 80s. This makes sense, in that this era also buried the protest songs of the 60s under heaps of mind-numbing disco beats and escapist love songs; however, it doesn’t explain why a popular sub-genre such as the saga song all of a sudden became un-popular. This, it would seem, is simply a natural result of the eternal shake-up of the music industry that comes with every new generation of music listeners and purchasers.

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Does this mean that popular art addressing social issues is “out” across all media, and that the goals of editorial games will never reach fruition in this generation? I’d like to suggest that perhaps the issue here is simply a shifting of expectations in consumers of various media. For instance, in the film industry “war” and “issues” movies are still released in droves each year. To name a few recent ones,  we can see how Syriana, Jarhead, and Lamb & Lion continue this tradition. Instead of turning on our radios to hear songs about the news, we’re going to theaters to watch movies about them. As it turns out, the decline of saga songs in the 70s and 80s roughly coincides with the emergence of the New Hollywood period in American cinema. Cimino’s Deer Hunter (1978) effectively replaces the anti-Vietnam songs of the late 60’s.

This leads me to tentatively conclude that as a medium becomes the primary vehicle through which ideas are transmitted, the popularity of editorializing artifacts in that medium rises. We can see how, in general, both the American and gaming publics are not entirely ready for political or editorial games because movies are still our primary expressive medium (despite losing ground to the games industry each year). Tracy Fullerton cites an example of this preferential reception of the dominant medium when she discusses the backlash against JFK Reloaded. The game does something that movies cannot: based on physics and a 3D space, it shows just how hard it would have been for Oswald to have fired all the shots on Kennedy’s limo. Despite this unique experience it provided, popular backlash against the game found it exploitative. Fullerton asks the question, “Why don’t we have the same reaction to a film like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which goes so far as to use the much-derided filmic ‘recreation?’”

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Another editorial game suffering a similar fate was Super Columbine Massacre RPG. This game released roughly around the time that Gus van Sant’s Elephant won the Palme D’or at Cannes; the game, on the other hand, was famously rejected from an indie game festival despite winning the jury prize – showing that even among the art game movement such works were not yet ready to be accepted by some people (this was also the first time many industry outsiders were introduced to the genius of Jon Blow, who withdrew an early build of Braid from the same festival in protest of SCMrpg‘s dismissal). It should also be noted that infanticide was also a popular subject of the saga song of early/mid country music (and true crime novels such as In Cold Blood).

Certainly a big part of all this is a presentation issue: have you ever seen the websites for JFK: Reloaded, 9/11 Survivor, or Super Columbine RPG? Talk about poor marketing and image control. Gus van Sant’s career is particularly important to understanding this aspect of artistic creation. From among all the members of the New Queer Cinema, only van Sant and, to a lesser degree, Todd Haynes have managed to build lasting careers on the edge of the mainstream film industry. They do this by mixing up the topics of their work and tireless promotion at festivals – something aspiring documentary or editorial game developers can learn from.

Of course, there’s no reason that the evolution of videogames as an artistic medium will follow the rules set by previous media. Ian suggests that documentary game developers can simply build on the reputation of documentary film in order to gain leverage as a shared genre–as opposed to a disparate medium. In any case, I hope that I’ve shown that we have reason to believe that games dealing with serious issues will not always remain self-funded projects on the far boundaries of the games industry. Strangely enough, popular reception of these games might rely less on their own intrinsic value than on the increased cultural cache of mainstream games in the coming years.

News Games Interview

Posted in Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on March 23, 2009

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).

What is your definition of a news game?  What is, or isn’t, it?

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).

What strengths or weaknesses do they have over other forms of media?

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.

Why would anyone be interested in playing them?

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).

How can a newspaper website separate news games in the public’s mind from low quality creations that simply “respond” to a news story.

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.

News games often feature a very strong editorial bias.  How would this mesh on the site of a newspaper that claims fair and balanced coverage?

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.

Are there costs associated with keeping news games on a website? (licensing, etc.)

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).

How could news games be monetized other than banner ads? (sponsorships?)

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.

Readin’ the Paper for the Puzzlers

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 17, 2009

UPDATE: Now published here, with hyperlinks to all the sources!

Everybody knows now that eBay and Craigslist did a number on newspaper revenue. We’re told that newspaper producers were caught completely offguard by these online classifieds. One thing Ian wanted to know is: what would happen to the circulation of a newspaper if its game-playing constituency also migrated to the Internet?

This leads to a tacit first question: what number of newspaper-subscribers buy the paper just for the puzzles? There are some difficulties acquiring statistically significant numbers here. First, most newspapers don’t do regular surveys of their readers to actually find out why they’re buying the paper. Will Shortz at the New York Times shares an interesting figure – he does after all have a lot at stake here as the world’s current Dean of Crossword Puzzles. In a 2004 interview Shortz discussed a survey from earlier in the decade that found 27% of newspaper readers playing the crossword occasionally. That numbers isn’t particularly compelling for our purposes, but there is one other number dropped by Shortz that does carry some weight: 1%. That’s the percentage of Americans who named crossword-solving as “their favorite activity in the world.”

Another study by Richard Browne of The London Times estimated that ten percent of their readership did the crossword regularly. For their readership that comes out to 75,000 daily puzzle-solvers. Over 7,000 of those take part in crossword competitions. Browne conjectures that these percentages (10% and 1%) are approximately the same for every major paper. On the other hand, he cites British culture as uniquely interested in crossword puzzles: “many [British] people will take a paper for its crossword even it they don’t like that paper’s political stance.”

On top of these findings, there’s also reason to believe that many readers of more “serious” papers would be reluctant to admit that they buy them just for the puzzles. Internet anonymity helps: 54% of 3500 surveyed at About.com’s puzzle section buy a newspaper “all the time” just for the puzzles. Archimedes-Lab.org claims a much higher number because only 13 percent of their readers answered “never” to the question, “do you buy a newspaper just to do the puzzles?” People are also significantly more open when talking about their local papers.

In 2001, Kristin Tillotson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune cited an industry estimate that 25% of readers considered the crossword a part of their daily routine. This number didn’t surprise Tillotson, because of the violent reader reaction to the Star Tribune’s decision to syndicate the New York Times crossword instead of the LA Times. One comment stood out for me: “This puzzle makes me feel very, very stupid. I am not stupid. I am a physician. … You have ruined my morning. You have ruined my ritual.”

A 2004 article from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph confirms the importance of the puzzles for local paper subscribers, describing it as “a bedrock element.” These findings are both encouraging and frightening, because it shows that local newspapers – which are more vital to the life of “the average American” than national papers – stand more to lose if the population of puzzlers emigrates completely to the Internet. For more insights – to the Internet we go!

One blogger named Russell Beattie wrote a piece in 2003 that predicted crosswords as “the prototypical mobile killer app.” He makes some nice observations along the way. One of these is that “fresh, local, and topical content is key.” Even though every Barnes & Noble has an entire rack of puzzle books, this hasn’t posed a serious threat to newspapers. Why? Because people want today’s crossword, no matter the quality. It’s a shared human experience, part of the collective unconscious. Playing networked games over the Internet makes this shared experience explicit – but it also often robs it of its magic. The idea of tailoring daily mobile puzzle releases to localized audiences is daunting. Ian’s Jetset iPhone game localizes its content procedurally by identifying which airport that player is near – customizing the particular security standards that each different airport holds. Writing a series of processes to both generate a crossword and integrate terms or themes from local news seems to be a bit beyond the abilities of existing data-mining mobile games.

I’ve mostly addressed crosswords so far, and some of you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Sudoku craze. Now that we’re on the topic of possibly generating local crosswords by brute force processing, we might as well mention the fad-tastic number game. Wayne Gould, who popularized the 1980’s Japanese game in 2004, wrote a computer program to generate the puzzles. Part of Sudoku’s appeal is the opposite of the local, temporal qualities of the crossword: numerical in nature, they transcend language boundaries. So why did they only enjoy a brief flourish of popularity in papers before being quickly replaced by Internet versions and bookstore puzzle compendiums? One of the major reasons is the simplicity of programming a generator such as Gould’s, and the fact that Sudoku is public domain (legally, anybody could copy Gould). This led to a glut of the puzzle, a lack of uniqueness, and a passing importance in newspaper gaming.

What can we take away from all this? We have reason to believe that the people who buy newspapers just for the puzzles (especially the crossword) – whatever the percentage – are not going anywhere anytime soon. If it’s true that the local and topical qualities of crossword puzzles are their greatest strengths, then we have no reason to fear that the latest re-skinning of Grid Defender or Bejeweled will rob papers of their business. I believe that the throwaway comment I made about the collective unconscious is key here as well. There’s something magical about knowing that others are struggling against the same word puzzle as you at 6 in the morning while you’re getting ready for work. There’s significantly less magic in playing casual Internet games, which mostly appeal to the “coin drop” addiction of arcade games (keeping players around to suck up more advert banners).

More on this subject to come in the future, especially if we find more games like Ian’s that can procedurally generate local experiences.

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