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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.


The History of Editorial Games, Part One

Posted in Columns by Simon Ferrari on June 1, 2009

Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.

The history of the editorial game began not with a bang, but with three. The first (the Big Bang of editorial games, as well as a couple other genres, so to speak) was the wide adoption of Flash in the creation of casual webgames. We can date this as sometime around August 2000, when Macromedia released Flash 5 with ActionScript 1.0, XML functionality, and SmartClips (an early form of components). Flash 5 and Flash MX were instrumental in the popularization of gaming portals such as (which we will return to near the end) in late 2001.

The second bang occurred on September 11th, 2001. Al-Qaeda’s attack on American soil plunged the country into what seems today to be a perpetual war, becoming the most visible public issue (until, perhaps, our most recent economic downturn) both in the United States and abroad. The war on terror is a polarizing issue, leading to an explosion of opinion-based publishing on the Internet. Opinions are cheap, and we’re quick to form them. Flash isn’t incredibly cheap unless you’re a student, but it is relatively easy to quickly make a game with it if you have any knowledge of keyframe animation or basic object-oriented programming.


Finally, the prior currents converge in late September of 2003 (I’m now finished with the “bang” metaphor): Gonzalo Frasca launches with a controversial “toy world” entitled September 12th. Frasca had casually created a political game called Kabul Kaboom during a transcontinental flight at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, and the game’s unexpected viral popularity led him to develop September 12th—an elegantly simple game about the dangerous assumptions of tactical missile strikes on terrorist pockets—over the course of the next few months. It employs an early example of what Ian Bogost calls “the rhetoric of failure”—a game that can only be “won” by not playing it at all. September 12th became wildly popular, gaining mainstream media attention and inspiring almost a decade of political Flash games (recently winning the Knight Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award for newsgames at this year’s Games for Change).

Next week I’m going to write a post that will explain exactly why I’m calling September 12th an “editorial game” instead of a “newsgame.” This post skips on a lot of theoretical jargon and definitional hair-splitting so that readers new to the idea of political games might come to understand how a fledgling game genre is developed and refined over time (from a design perspective), forged in the heat of playful experimentation as opposed to through top-down formalist definitions—meaning that, if this were an academic paper, we would be able to show how most editorial games are built upon common unit operations carried over from other forms of casual games (something I argue a bit at the end of an article on relevance).

Water Cooler Games, a website maintained by Frasca and Bogost, tracked the development of what they labelled “newsgames” (which we can now separate into the sub-genres of newsgames, “editorial games,” “political games,” and “documentary games” with the benefit of hindsight) from 2003 until today. The year 2004 saw the creation of Madrid—Frasca’s follow-up to September 12th that we’ve covered elsewhere—an editorial game that simply asks one to remember a tragic event, an early entry into the documentary genre called John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission by Kuma/War, and the controversial doc game JFK Reloaded, wherein one tries to mimic the exact shots fired on President Kennedy (supposedly) by Lee Harvey Oswald. Ed Halter notes the popularization of Osama bin Laden whack-a-mole games in the mid-2000s, but no other prominent editorial games appear to have popped up until early 2006.

Here begins a series of chronologically-ordered micro reviews, for which I will provide meta-commentary throughout and at the end of the article. For the most part, I will be embellishing on the notes made by Frasca and Bogost as they documented the editorial games made through the bulk of 2006.

Dick Cheney Quail Hunt
Produced by the Huffington Post in February of 2006, this artifact barely deserves to bear the name “game” (as Bogost points out here). Cheney stands in front of three onlookers (a little girl, another hunter, and a Secret Service agent?) with a shotgun. A bird eventually flies onto the screen, at which point you can click a button that says “Shoot.” No matter when you click the button, Cheney will turn and randomly shoot one of the three onlookers. Following a prominent news fiasco following Dick Cheney’s shooting of a fellow hunter, this game employs the rhetoric of failure to poke fun at how bad a shot Cheney is. When you inevitably fail, the creators provide two educational links for you: one about Cheney and canned hunting, and one to an “animal-friendly” vegan podcast. Strangely, the text bubble above these links encourages you to try playing again and “aim better next time.” Perhaps the only interesting touch is the score tally in the bottom left corner, which will never rise past zero. Ian noted at the time of its release that this can truly be called a “newsgame” in Miguel Sicart’s sense of the word (“ephemeral and timely,” explored fully in my next post), because it was released so soon after the news event.

Dick Cheney’s Texas Takedow

A day or two after the game by the Huffington post was released, another came out that was slightly more gamelike. Cheney, donning a Confederate flag baseball cap, wanders an empty field shooting at clones of Harry Whittington (holding their arms above their heads as though in a stick-up) that walk back and forth horizontally. As Ian notes, it would have made sense to have Cheney actually trying to shoot quail instead of gunning down scores of Harrys that appear to be wandering where they shouldn’t. You receive ten points every time you shoot down Harry. If you score well, a cartoon Devil-Cheney appears and the designers ask you how you plan to carry out the Apocalypse. If you don’t shoot at all, Cheney appears as a Fairy Godmother, a banner shouts “You Suck,” and the menu tells you that “we solve our problems with violence in America, remember?” Unlike the Huffington Post “game,” this one isn’t really a direct critique of canned hunting; on the other hand, it is also more gamelike and doesn’t preach as much through text and hyperlinks. It seems to be much more generally interested in making fun of Cheney’s (and America’s) bellicose nature (which may or may not have anything to do with the Whittington shooting).

In March of 2006, Paolo Pedercini (the personal hero of everyone who studies political games) premiered The McDonald’s Game at a festival in Torino—an important milestone in the history of the political game—which we have covered elsewhere (his games skirt the fine line between editorial and political game, and they don’t really fit in neatly with the short-form games we’re covering in this particular history).


Hothead Zidane
Hothead Zidane was created by an Italian football fan soon after Zidane’s disgraceful headbutt during the World Cup finale. Frasca asserts that it must have been thrown together in a few hours considering the lack of a score or any difficulty. The player controls Zidane, who roams through a small bit of field as clones of his Italian adversary (Materazzi) come at him waves. After a few successful headbutts, Zidane is thrown a red card and the game is over—an example of the rhetoric of failure being used to comment on the fact that a past event cannot be altered. One last news image shows Zidane with his back to the Cup, head bowed in shame. Frasca notes the “crude graphics,” but I believe the designer actually captured the quality of watching a soccer game on a small CRT screen quite well. The character movement, repetitive attack, and sound effects all reminded me of a Shinobi game (an early ninja brawler for the Sega Genesis). Played with the mouse, I think it provides a closer level of identification with the Zidane avatar than the keyboard-controlled Cheney games. Within a week, Addicting Games had revamped the game with a score system that had multiple levels of hit detection (more points for upper body, bonus points for a headshot), faster scrolling of Materazzi clones, higher graphical clarity, and enhanced sound effects. They also released the source code so other gamers/modders/designers could make their own version.

Israel-Lebanon Wargames
“No security-political situation is complete without its idiotic web games, which allow tensions to be released,” states an article by Israeli Culture news source Ynet. In July of 2006, Frasca posted (by way of Ed Halter’s blog for his book on wargames) two games about Israel’s war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah leadership—Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in particular. The first game, simply called Nasralla, is a whack-a-mole game featuring Nasrallah’s head popping up over what Frasca thinks is a Google Map of Beirut. The game apes Frasca’s own missile delay mechanic from September 12th, leading the player to end up spamming random missile strikes in order to successfully land a bomb (one strategy is to aim near the bottom of the screen in order to cheat the delay mechanic). This is arguably almost as sophisticated as Frasca’s initial use of the delay, because (as the Ynet article suggests) it “encourages guessing”—placing the player in the mindset of a zealous IDF leader. Of course, nothing else about the game is as interesting or well-crafted as Frasca’s original. When the player scores a hit, a message in Hebrew pops up to declare: “Very good, chief of staff. Come back to work now.” It is unclear whether this game is sarcastically critical of Israel’s administration or enthusastically in support of the war on Lebanon.

Halter connects the first game to the Whack Osama games that hit the net over the course of the mid-2000’s, positing them as successors to the earlier form of the “celebrity assassination” game. Bogost makes an observation on the prominent role of whack-a-mole in political games, which Frasca ascribes to the fact that it is relatively easy to use a face for a Flash game because it cuts down on the need to animate a body.

The second game, also called Nasralla, is similar to Cheney Quail Hunt from the perspective of control. Nasrallah, animated to move and sound like a grotesque vaudeville chicken, runs back and forth horizontally at a constant pace; players hit a red button in order to drop a variety of items (bombs, dead doves, toilets) on his head as he passes below them. Frasca notes that one of these, a severed pig’s head, is a symbol of disrespect to Muslims (because of Halal eating practices). Each successful hit nets a chicken-squawk from Nasrallah, and after scoring ten hits the player is treated to a message from the two creators: “U did it! We luv u! xxx” The mix of racist caricature and children’s text message-speak is truly disturbing, perhaps highlighting the childlike glee that some zealous Israelis feel at the prospect of war (in propaganda or actual violence) with their Muslim enemies.

Bush Backrub
In early August of 2006, Bogost reports that a Flash game has been produced rather quickly after Bush performed an “impromptu backrub” on German chancellor Angela Merkel. Bush creeps behind three world leaders—Kim Jong Il, Vladimir Putin, and Merkel—during a UN assembly. Meters below them slowly empty, and the player must lead Bush behind each leader with the mouse, click to place Bush’s hands on their shoulders, and then jerk the mouse back-and-forth to perform a “Texas backrub.” This seems to be a new mechanic in newsgames at this point, one that I’ve seen used to perform a similar action in gay sex games made in Flash (NSFW, commentary by Denis Farr). When the “comfort” meters on each world leader hit certain low levels, slightly amusing (read: slightly offensive) thought bubbles appear above their heads. The player is scored for how long they keep the game going, but I didn’t perceive any quickening in the pace of the game (I simply tired and let myself slow down after awhile). As Ian notes, this isn’t really criticizing the Bush administration in a serious way but simply recognizing the hilarity of a prominent fluke of world news.

Terri Irwin Stingray Revenge
On September 7th, a celebrity tabloid newsgame was released, returning the genre to its popular roots in games created about Hollywood sleaze (remember: Halter traced whack-a-mole mechanics back to such games). Tabloid newsgames seem closer in design and purpose to editorial games than to proper newsgames, because they have little to no journalistic intent. The game deals with the recent death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. Frasca begins his post on the game by explaining that he and Ian had talked the day before about what such a game might look like before deciding definitively that it shouldn’t be made. The next day, a game was posted online wherein the player controls Terri Irwin slaughtering stingrays to avenge her husband’s death. Unfortunately the game has been removed from all original hosting sites, and I couldn’t find a rogue copy of it to play. Apparently the game was taken down after numerous negative reactions from the public (even WCG got a lot of comments arguing for censorship). Mechanically it appears to have been most like the Hothead Zidane and Cheney Texas Takedown games—waves of stingrays swim horizontally toward Terri, who can swim up and down to shoot them with a harpoon. Frasca saw this as providing a kind of societal catharsis for the tragedy, while many commenters protested the content of the game on the basis of the Irwin family’s continued love of and support for wildlife (even the violent kind).

So you think you can drive, Mel?
Following hot on the heals of the Irwin game, Gameology came across another celebrity tabloid game about Mel Gibson’s widely publicized drunk-driving-and-ethnic-slurring incident. Oddly enough, this artifact is by far the most technically sophisticated editorial game from this period (as Ian notes, it was made by The Game Show Network, which explains the production values)! A caricature of Mel’s face hangs out the right side of his car (Hollywood and Australia are basically the same place) as he speeds down the highway. The screen scrolls to the side (slightly uncommon at this point in the genre), and players can only control Mel’s car on the vertical plane. One’s score rises slowly as the game goes on; grabbing bottles of whiskey increases the score considerably, but it also raises Mel’s blood alcohol content. As his BAC rises, it becomes more and more difficult to control one’s movement as the car lags behind, jump forward, and bounces up-and-down. There are two enemies: Jews and cops. Jews throw stars of David at Mel’s car from the top of the screen, and if one hits the player loses 25 points. Hitting a cop doesn’t decrease the score, but once the player hits five of them the game is over. The rhetoric is clear: Mel has a single-minded obsession to drink, he despises the ever-present Hollywood Jews (while playing, I vocally cursed my own tribe as they threw stars at me), and he sees the law as little more than an obstacle to be blown through. Of all the editorial games we’ve looked at that serve as indictments of character (the Bush and Cheney games), this one comes closest to accurately proceduralizing and conveying the negative attributes of a personality.

On September 19th, Bogost announced that Persuasive Games had inked a deal to produce a series called The Arcade Wire games for Addicting Games (told you we’d come back to them) and Shockwave. It was an effort to show what a newsgame might look like it it were a deep, procedural interpretation of the news—a return to the level of craft established by Frasca with September 12th. The series began with Airport Security. By the end of the month, Jane McGonigal came across a NYTimes article detailing a newsgame, called Counter Strike, funded by the Iranian government, which shows players how to disrupt the world oil supply by destroying a US tanker in the Straight of Hormuz. Jane and Ian wondered aloud if this were in fact the first ludic “geopolitical act.” By no means ushering in the death of the one-off editorial or tabloid newsgame, this at least marks a good place for us to pause.

We can observe that, over the course of only half a year, an explosion of creative energy divorced from the admittedly academic attitude of Frasca and Bogost has occurred (which, of course, they were incredibly enthusiastic to watch over and comment on). This period marks the time between the creation of Madrid, after which Frasca ceased making newsgames, and the return to form for the genre that we see in the Arcade Wire games. Unlike Frasca’s games and the Arcade Wire series, it is unclear whether these casually created editorial games have any journalistic intent whatsoever. They certainly make no attempt to hide the fact of their bias or to present any meaningful “facts” (in the journalist’s sense) to the player. These artifacts are opinion pieces, in the truest sense of the word (and often not incredibly articulate). In some cases, they represent early steps toward ludic citizen journalism: games made by ordinary (non-industry, non-journalist) people who know how to program and care enough/find enough stuff funny about a news issue.

We can generalize a bit on their formal qualities, noting that editorial games are usually quickly-produced and mechanically-simplistic (Dick Cheney Quail Hunt and Hothead Zidane); use static photographs or caricatures of faces in order to avoid costly animation; often come in pairs (the Cheney and Nasrallah games); their mechanics tend to derive directly from more popular Flash games (whack-a-mole from the “celebrity assassination” sub-genre) or earlier editorial games (Nasralla #2 borrowing the delay and reticle from September 12th); and although similar in graphical quality and play, they cover a range of topics from serious political issues (war in the Middle East), the embarrassing foibles of unpopular politicos (Bush Backrub and the Cheney games), and celebrity news or sleaze (Terri Irwin Stingray Revenge and the Mel Gibson game, respectively).

The level of thought that has gone into the conception and the design of these games varies wildly, which I would argue is incredibly healthy for the genre as a whole. Releasing the source code of some of these games—as Addicting Games did for Hothead Zidane, and as a documentary game developer Overdog did for a game called Silence Variations on the theft of a few Edward Munch paintings—is another important and under-explored phenomenon (which I will be covering in my Master’s thesis next year). In the next article, I will analyze the definitional distinctions made between Frasca and Miguel Sicart on “the newsgame.” After that, I will analyze the Arcade Wire series produced by Persuasive Games and continue on to the next stage in the history of the editorial game.

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.


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.


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?’”


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.

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