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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.

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Speech, Speech, Speech!

Posted in Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on February 16, 2009

I just realized people recorded this information, so I’m putting it here as a reminder to build a proper CV.

I’m giving my first lecture ever! And it’s going to be a series of them!

Dr. Casey O’Donnell at the Grady School of UGA has invited me to lecture to game design, journalism, and digital media classes on Monday of next week. I’ll be talking mostly about journalism and games, digital media applications for journalists, interactive mapping, and newsgame design. Considering the fact that all the knowledge I have on these subjects comes secondhand from my professors (Ian Bogost, Janet Murray, Carl DiSalvo, and Celia Pearce), I’ll be lucky to make it out of the PJ building alive! Hopefully I can make it sound young and fresh for those in attendance. So if you’re a UGA student, ping me about the classes, times, and locations and we’ll see about getting you in to make fun of/criticize me.

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Moralizing versus Choice

Posted in Gaming, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on November 28, 2008
I’d like to take issue with Bobby’s post about “issues in games” following Rowsell’s Escapist piece. I don’t agree that “game poetry,” such as the experience of playing Shadow of the Colossus, does a good enough job of making its players more informed or better humans. It’s become a quick cliché in the indie game movement, feeding likewise into independent newsgames, to have games that teach a moral through “unwinnability.” Take, for instance, September 12th or a game made here at Georgia Tech about heroin addiction, where the only way to “win” the games is to not play it at all. I don’t think Shadow of the Colossus operates in the same way as these games, but many people seem to want to read it as one. From Bobby’s examination of Shadow, it would seem that the only way to be a good person would be to not kill the colossi in the first place. The moral isn’t that interesting: don’t sell your soul in an attempt to play at being God. Do we really need more versions of Faust or Frankenstein in our lives in order to be better people?

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The problem with these games is that there aren’t any moral choices to be made within the games themselves (the decision to stop playing is meta-game). Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t work on an ethical level for me, because simply watching a character’s forced fall from grace through plot progression is about as persuasive today as an Aesop fable. September 12th and Shadow are old games now, and it’s a cop-out at this particular moment in gaming history to create a game without a choice other than: play and be damned, or drop the controller. If only making such a statement got the mainstream game industry out of its slough of despond! (I’ll also be linking this back to choice in newsgames at the end.)

Ethical decision-making and choice are still largely lacking in most video games, even in Western roleplaying games where character development is supposed to be a key element. I saw this written on the whiteboard in our game lab the other day:

a) saintly response
b) noncommittal shrug
c) be a rat bastard

How can we even conceive of a game where someone deals with telling a partner about having AIDS, or an FPS set in Iraq (or Vietnam, if you want to make metaphors instead of open statements) where a soldier must choose to either shoot an innocent woman or disobey a direct order from a superior, when in a fantasy or scifi roleplaying game your choices are as black and white as giving what little money you have to a homeless man or stealing his clothes before shooting him? This is the real first hurdle that we need to leap before we can have “serious issues” gaming in the mainstream  (as opposed to infinitely rehashed poetic reflections on the soul).

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I’d like to invite input on where you see realistic moral choice in video games, but I’ll give some examples of where I see some glimmer of hope for the future. Despite the utter lack of meaningful choice I found while playing Fable II, I was in fact floored by the decision I got to make after the game’s somewhat disappointing finale (I’m not going to spoil). In Fallout 3, the choices one has are fairly constrained by the good/neutral/evil tree parodied above; however, there are some points in the game where collecting information provides more nuanced choices. While completing “You’ve Gotta Shoot’em in the Head,” one can gain the choice (through dialogue with other NPCs) to change one’s mission from killing three men to persuading them to part with special items they hold. Some work has also been done toward integrating consequences for one’s actions into the game. If one plays as a particularly good or evil character, then roving bands of hitmen or lawmen will pursue you. This is a small step forward from the usual consequence in RPGs of “if you kill or steal in a town then the guards will attack you until you pay a fine.” In general I’d say that Bethesda has integrated more dialogue options, choices, and character development nuances based on alignment in Fallout 3 than in their Elder Scrolls series.

My other favorite mainstream game company, on the other hand, has taken a step backward. BioWare’s Mass Effect has markedly less choice and consequence than their earlier Knights of the Old Republic titles. In the first KotOR, good and evil alignment opened up advanced Jedi or Sith force power; furthermore, the player’s ethics had a major impact on the planets they visited and their party of NPCs. Sure the choices were still largely black and white, but one could sometimes garner particularly benevolent or manipulative results through a proper handling of dialogue trees (one could force two families to slaughter each other or provide a happy ending to a Romeo and Juliet plotline). KotOR II expanded on this, by making good/neutral/evil choices more fuzzy depending on the party members currently following the player. Early in the game, one can choose to give money to a beggar. In the first Knights this would result in instant “good” points; however, if a mysterious Jedi guide character were following you, then she would show you how the beggar would go on to gamble with the money and eventually kill someone else over a debt – netting you “evil” points for not fully examining the moral quality of a man begging for money in the streets. In Mass Effect, one’s choices have little effect on the game world and none on the abilities of the protagonist. If I recall correctly, one can kill Liara and Wrex out of spite. But if one decides to off an entire race of possibly benevolent insectoids the only consequence is an angry teleconference with the Intergalactic Council (a similar action leads to quite an intense judicial proceeding in the first KotOR). There are also far fewer points in the game where dialogue trees make a tangible difference in player action.

So here we’ve got examples of two mainstreamers making steps in either direction, but there’s still probably a long way to go before we’ll see a mainstream game with a more realistic setting providing a more nuanced set of choices. Maybe HAL/Ape will give Bethesda the rights to Mother 4 in the near future and we’ll have a revolution on our hands (har har).

Let’s talk about possible integrations of choice into newsgames. I’ve already stated that while September 12th was effective at its time, it’s “unwinnable” twist has become dated. In our early examinations of games where one plays a journalist, I found Dead Rising disappointing because of its use of photojournalism as an unsubstatiated gimmick: while one does pursue “the truth” to eventually uncover a governmental wrongdoing, we never see the story published. Also, the action of taking pictures for experience points doesn’t have much to do with real photojournalistic practice (or educating the player about it). The only choice one has in the game is either to make it to checkpoints at the proper time or have “the truth” fade from history. If one could choose alternate methods of dealing with the game’s “psycopaths” or terrorists, then it would have been a much richer experience. Being able to forward pictures and stories to Frank’s editor over a cellular device would have added an extra layer: do you ultimately choose to expose the goverment secret or to turn over your evidence and not cause a public stir?

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Molleindustria’s Oiligarchy makes an interesting step forward from its previous McDonald’s game. In the McDonald’s game the only lesson one learns is how corrupt you have to be to keep a huge fast food industry profitable – the experience is frustrating and soul crushing. My distaste for the hyperbole the game frequently uses aside, it accomplishes some modicum of persuasive work. On the surface, Oiligarchy would seem to be using the exact same argument with an evisceration of a different industry; however, on viewing the game’s extensive production notes we found that Molleindustria did provide one “winning” condition where the player can cut back oil production to allow green initiatives to safely carry the world out of crisis when peak oil consumption looms. Developments such as this are crucial, in my opinion, to the future of newsgames. It’s not surprise that moralizing is so rampant in the genre, because anyone willing to spend the time and money to create one of these largely (fiscally) unprofitable games must feel very strongly about the issue or problem at hand. Being transparent about one’s bias does do some work toward making newsgames better, but I think the choice to either affect a different outcome or to see an issue from two sides in a newsgame adds to its value immensely.

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. Now go play PETA’s Turkey Cooking Mama: it gives you the ***choice*** to make scrumptious tofurkey at the end of the slaughter!

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