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A Case Study in Newsgame Creation: Why Game Designers and Journalists are Still Learning to Work Together

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As early as 2001, digital newsgames offered a noteworthy opportunity to engage audiences and provide a new news consumption experience. Nearly 5 years later newsgames have not clearly delivered on their potential. With such promise, why didn " t news presses give way to newsgame studios? This paper provides a simple case study in newsgame production, providing a set of lessons learned from an academic studio working with a variety of news organizations including one of the largest United States based daily newspapers. It does so to examine the contemporary opportunities and challenges in producing games for news organizations. The paper describes how the increased reliability of low cost, simple game-making software has afforded for the production of just-in-time newsgames. Such opportunity may facilitate a second wave of newsgames as lowered cost of production, increased distribution channels and growing ludic literacy of the general population facilitates their success. However three challenges remain obstacles to their growth: the pace of news; a misunderstanding of the rhetorical properties of games media, and an evolving ludoliteracy shaped by social currency and politics.
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A Case Study in Newsgame Creation: Why Game
Designers and Journalists are Still Learning to Work
Together
Lindsay Grace
American University
Game Lab
Washington, DC,USA
Grace@American.edu
Dr. Mike Treanor
American University
Game Lab
Washington, DC,USA
Treanor@American.edu
Chris Totten
American University
Game Lab
Washington, DC,USA
Totten@American.edu
Dr. Josh McCoy
American University
Game Lab
Washington, DC,USA
Jam@American.edu
ABSTRACT
As early as 2001, digital newsgames offered a noteworthy
opportunity to engage audiences and provide a new news
consumption experience. Nearly 5 years later newsgames
have not clearly delivered on their potential. With such
promise, why didn‟t news presses give way to newsgame
studios?
This paper provides a simple case study in newsgame
production, providing a set of lessons learned from an
academic studio working with a variety of news
organizations including one of the largest United States
based daily newspapers. It does so to examine the
contemporary opportunities and challenges in producing
games for news organizations.
The paper describes how the increased reliability of low
cost, simple game-making software has afforded for the
production of just-in-time newsgames. Such opportunity
may facilitate a second wave of newsgames as lowered cost
of production, increased distribution channels and growing
ludic literacy of the general population facilitates their
success. However three challenges remain obstacles to their
growth: the pace of news; a misunderstanding of the
rhetorical properties of games media, and an evolving
ludoliteracy shaped by social currency and politics.
Author Keywords
Newsgames Game Rhetoric, Game Design, Persuasive Play
INTRODUCTION
Eventually USA Today rocked the world of journalism with
a new format color. As one researcher put it, USA Today
“had come a long way since its founding in 1982, when its
colorful brand of journalism was widely ridiculed by
critics” [8]. The visual anomaly in news reporting rose to
become the most widely read daily newspaper in the United
States [8]. It was not only Today‟s colorful homepage that
helped USA Today change the expectations of readers. It
was its commitment to digest oriented news, one which
favored infographics, bold, summative headlines and easily
gleaned content. In an information laden world, this new
styled front page provided something readers had been
seeking summary. It also embraced a clear change in the
media consumption habits of readers around the world [4].
Media, even the stoic and stayed environment of
newspapers, recognized an increased visual literacy in its
readership. Headlines were no longer simply about finely
crafted writing, it was also about finely crafted visual
information.
The contemporary world of journalism is engaged in
another struggle. Journalists are struggling to adapt to a
new audience of readers. The inverted pyramid structure
must compete with a myriad of listicles, interactive info
graphics and all manner of entertaining distraction. In the
carnival of information sources, conventional news delivery
looks well worn and not a little tired.
Into this environment a variety of solutions have been
inserted as experiments. These include the heralded rise of
the newsgame. Newsgames, as first asserted by Gonzalo
Frasca, were to be “simulation meets political cartoons.”
[5]. Likewise Ian Bogost and others [3] offered newsgames
as an opportunity to engage audiences on their terms,
allowing players to experience news in ways reading and
viewing did not. In the ideal situation, such games afforded
players multiple perspectives and even the ability to
formulate their own understanding of complex issues. If
newspaper readers had increased their visual literacy (or at
least hunger for it) by the time of USA Today‟s
introduction the expectation is that news readers were
likely developing their own ludoliteracy, or at least
interactive literacy.
Supporters of newsgames identify the rising millennial
population, which reportedly acquires news information
differently than the champions of traditional news
journalism the baby boomer generation. While baby
boomers supported the conventions of the past generation
of news journalism, Millennials possess sharp differences in
preference and habit [6]. Of note to some, is the Millennial
culture of game playing [1], which is cited as one of the
many reasons for the potential of newsgame consumption.
With such promise, why didn‟t news presses give way to
newsgame studios? This paper seeks to examine the
challenges and opportunities that newsgames present in a
contemporary media landscape. We provide as a case study,
the development of a game for a major national paper with
a daily print circulation exceeding 400,000 paid
subscribers, more than 500 staff journalists and more than
25 Pulitzer prizes. We list three challenges and provide
insight on 3 solutions that we believe addressed these
issues. The challenges are the pace of news, a
misunderstanding of news culture, and an evolving player
ludoliteracy shaped by social currency and politics.
THE GAME: DELIVERY DRONE
The researchers partnered with newspaper editors to create
a game that encompasses a collection of planned and
completed news articles. To initiate the design process, the
researchers requested 5 news topics for which the
newspaper planned at least 3 months of consecutive news
coverage. The topics included global warming, the rising
cost of college education and the political, economic and
moral dilemmas of drone usage. Through a relatively
proprietary design process the researchers chose to design
and develop a game about moral issues in drone usage.
The game‟s final design was determined through a series of
design collaborations between the university researchers,
journalists and technical staff at the newspaper. The final
product of the researchers‟ efforts are depicted in figure 1.
The game was designed as a whimsical experience to
expose the moral and pragmatic ambiguities of domestic
drones.
In the game, players shuttle a domestic drone through a
contemporary North American environment, picking up
packages from warehouses and delivering them to their
final destination. While delivering packages the player must
navigate drone congested airspace, avoiding obstacles and
making sure not to infringe on personal privacy. The game
was developed using the Construct 2 game creation
application. The final game was designed for web play via
HTML 5 and JavaScript.
To support news objectivity, the game was designed
without the heavy handed rhetorical content typical of
historical newsgames. The newspaper‟s team explicitly
requested that the game experience emulate the fair and
balanced reporting objectives common to high quality news
journalism.
Figure 1. Screenshots of the Delivery Drone newsgame,
demonstrating package delivery and privacy violations.
THE LURE OF DESIGN
One of the initial challenges in creating the newsgame was
articulating and adhering to the roles and responsibilities of
the team. Like many interdisciplinary efforts, scope creep
by both the news staff and the game development team
occurred. Most often the news staff wanted to propose
game designs or mechanics, despite recognizing their own
limited experience in the game design domain. When the
game developers asked the team for a list of editorial
themes, for example, the news staff would frequently
provide game design specifications instead of topics. This
was more than a misunderstanding of responsibilities. The
news staff were themselves game players and sought the
opportunity to design. They weren‟t merely in support of
the newsgame concepts, they wanted to provide creative
input. The same is not true of game designers on the task,
who were unlikely to offer their opinion on news standards
and approaches.
Such design tendency emphasizes an essential challenge
and opportunity in newsgames. Like other entertainment
enterprises, the consumers of the entertainment product are
sometimes falsely confident in their ability to make such
products. Like the audience-critique of a Star Wars film,
game players are often eager to offer their input on how
games can be made better. This is a natural and logical
instinct that poses both an opportunity and challenge for the
future of newsgames.
On the one hand it proves that game players are excited for
such play. This interest and energy can be directed toward
the creation, critique and promotion of newsgames. It is
reasonable, for example, to imagine that with low enough
barriers to entry, game-savvy journalists can create their
own games without the heavy investment common to
contemporary game development.
Game making by non-developers and inexperienced
designers has clear potential in a future that converts the
relatively specialized game-making process into something
as trivial as the now mundane desktop publishing or blog
paradigm. If authors of newsgames can author their games
relatively free from the technical constraints of authoring
such work, the newsgame has a fruitful future. Hence the
potential of products, like Game-O-Matic [9] as solutions
for a newsgame rich world.
From the opposite perspective, such tendency to walk
confidently into the domain of game design without
appropriate training demonstrates a lack of seriousness
attributed to games. Games, from this perspective, are
easily designed (if not constructed) experiences that require
only tertiary experience. This logic implies, if someone has
played a game, they are ready to design a game. Oddly, few
would say the same of filmmaking, book writing, dancing
or other creative endeavors. Such design with abandon can
be detrimental to the future of newsgames. Without a
proper understanding of procedural rhetoric, for example,
the game could obliterate the very concepts it is attempting
to communicate [10]. This is a lesson learned in a variety
of purpose-driven game endeavors, including educational
games and social impact play.
To mitigate this tendency, the researchers met repeatedly
with the news staff and outlined a fairly distinct set of
responsibilities. The game design and development staff
would translate the news staff‟s core themes, observations
and messages to game mechanics. Those mechanics would
be reviewed by the news staff. In short, each team focused
only on their domain, instead of providing a repeated back
and forth between news and game design. The game was
black boxed once the editorial goals were provided. To
mitigate scope creep, the news staff did not see the game
until the mechanics were completed. This approach worked
for the project because the teams were housed in distinct
institutions. Long term, as news organizations start to
employ internal game design and development staff[7], it
may be harder to keep these activities distinct.
NEWS MOVES FASTER THAN DESIGNERS
Even with the increased adoption of a variety if iterative
and adaptive approaches to game design, the game design
and development process struggles to be a fast moving
process. As with most creative processes, the scale of the
exercise is in direct proportion to the time and resources
allocated to it. While there has been a clear growth in
weekend long game jams during the past 5 years, the scale
and polish of many such games would not meet the editorial
or quality demands of a major newspaper. There in exists
the second challenge in producing effective, accurate and
newsworthy newsgames. News moves quickly.
When the notion of newsgames was first promoted, the
landscape of game making was different. At that time a few
basic tools existed for rapid game making. These included
Yo Yo Game‟s Gamemaker and Unity3D. Web Games
were dominated by Flash Technology, with a few third
party plug-ins available for web browsers. The promise of
web based play was easy dissemination and ubiquity. As
newspapers adapted from print to digital delivery, a logical
accompaniment was a digital game. Unfortunately,
proprietary solutions also complicate the technical
infrastructure. If for example, the newspaper is provided in
non-propriety HTML; their readers must still have propriety
solutions like Flash installed to play games. Coupled with
techno-political challenges like Apple iOS devices not
supporting Adobe Flash, the challenges confounded.
The contemporary environment for such games has
changed. Non-proprietary solutions in HTML and
JavaScript allow for rapid game development with cross-
platform support. Such games are playable on web
browsers and mobile devices. They are also based on the
same basic technologies used to deliver the newspaper‟s
core content.
The growth in mobile games has also supported an
increased focus on development speed in games. Mobile
games have simply helped developers understand how to
adapt quickly. The mobile game space is one of quick
adaption, with the scale of player engagement measured in
days, not months. For newsgames, this means more
developers and players are thinking about games as micro
engagements of a few minutes, instead of a few hours or
days. The connotative value of a game has moved from the
wholly immersive experience of console play, to the casual
commitment of a few minutes of mobile play. This framing
is likely more useful to champions of newsgame, who
historically have never aspired to the AAA-styled 20 plus
hour game experience.
This difference in perspective is a product of the
technology, but also reflected in the way people consume
games. Players are drawing from the evolving landscape of
play experiences. For contemporary audiences, games like
Flappy Bird are not some strange web anomaly, but an
approach to game making and game playing that treats
games more like disposable artifacts. Much like the low
cost paper on which printed news is produced, the pulp of
game making has increasingly included low investment
games.
This increased low-production, or pulp game, could be
viewed a harbinger for the devaluation of games or as the
trend that makes games widely accessible, easily
disseminated and enables a wider ludoliteracy.
We believe the disposability of games, as supported by
mobile game consumption, has surprisingly created inroads
for the newsgame. Just as pre-newspaper audiences had to
adjust to the notion of story as newspaper article, or news
story, players are adapting their understanding of game
from controller mediated console experience to include
casual, simple and purpose-driven interaction. This is
arguably a stage in development of a ludoliteracy that needs
to develop before newsgames can gain popularity.
In support of this perspective, the case study game was
designed and developed under game-jam like constraints. It
was developed quickly, using low cost non-proprietary
technologies. The team held 3 primarily meetings. First to
package 15 game concept statements for news staff review.
Second to determine the full set of mechanics, dynamics
and aesthetics for the final game. Third to review the core
mechanics after they were developed. The core mechanics,
approximately 80% of the game, was created in just over a
week of part-time work. These constraints supported the
timely production of the game. The obvious tradeoffs are
depth, quality and complexity. We propose that that these
are the material trade offs for such work.
GAMES ARE NOT AFFORDED FREE PRESS LIBERTIES
As part of the development of a ludoliteracy, the politics
and social-currency of games are evolving. The financial
weight of the games industry has afforded it a certain level
of respect as an entertainment medium. The sheer number
of players has also afforded it some political liberty from its
nascent years. However, ludoliteracy is continuing to
develop. Like other types of literacy, exposure is one of the
more effective ways to develop such understanding.
In support of such literacy, the last 5 years have seen
considerable growth and ubiquity of mobile devices. The
result is an increase in player‟s understanding of what
constitutes a game, what games can do and how games can
be used. It is more common for players to think beyond the
emblematic platformers or first person shooters when
games are discussed. The average player‟s game awareness
might include social games like Farmville and Words with
Friends, as well as social impact mega hits like Paper‟s
Please and Dumb Ways to Die.
However, although the variety of game experiences has
diversified player understanding it has not had the same
impact on their understanding of games about things. The
contemporary logic rests games safely within the domain of
entertainment. Previous academic terms such as docugame,
social impact games, persuasive games, and more have yet
to reach the common parlance of players. As a result, a
common mis-translation of newsgame is educational game
about a current topic. To define newsgames as such is
myopic. It is like describing a newspaper as an educational
report of events. Newspapers, like newsgames, contain
much more than mere events.
Games continue to struggle to establish themselves as a
serious enterprise. To paraphrase Ian Bogost‟s quip in a
2013 Games for Change speech the world finds little
need to define serious books or serious film in the same
way it seeks to define serious games [2] . This tension and
it‟s historical success as a whimsical form of entertainment
have served games well, but also serve to handicap its
growth into other domains. If newsgames are to develop
they must find a way out of the ghetto of serious games.
In particular, despite the continued attention to free press
liberties in a variety of mediums, games are still not privy
to the same social-political liberty. It is still newsworthy to
make a game about something. This is particularly novel
when considering what such newsworthiness implies all
other games must not be about something (or much of
something). Like ill-fated satirists, there are risks to
making games about certain topics. Games, like comedy,
have limits that are far more confined than film or books.
The result is that games can only be about certain topics. By
analogy the game as pressed medium, is not subject to the
same presses as other mediums. This means, that
newsgames can be stifled by their own medium‟s
restrictions. It can be argued that newspapers are afforded
more liberty than games, at least in their reporting.
In the researcher‟s case study these limitations were
considered before development began. Of the varied topics
provided by the news staff hot button topics were explicitly
ignored. They weren‟t even considered an option for game
design because they were too serious, too grave or
summarily inappropriate for game making.
In the end, the topic, drone strikes was chosen because it
aligns well with the history of games. Drones afforded a
familiar military environment, a set of mechanics common
to arcade play, and a topic that supports a limited
persuasive rhetoric. The final design intentionally avoids
the rhetoric rich opportunities to make the experience
meaningful by restricting itself to the conventions of
popular game mechanics. In our game, drones are never
made personal, the stories of individuals are not told, and
player decisions are restricted to twitch calculations and
practical objectives. It is, in short, a mere playable report of
events.
CONCLUSION
It is our hope that this brief case study provides context for
the opportunities and challenges of newsgame
development. The researchers acknowledge that such
games are important contributions that face a myriad of
challenges.
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... García-Ortega & García-Avilés (2020), haber oyunlarının kendi içlerinde farklılık taşıyan bakış açılarıyla geliştirildiğini, bu nedenle; bilgilendirici, editöryal veya hiciv niteliğinde şeklinde spesifik bir ayrıma gidilmesinin yararlı olacağını ifade eder. Haber oyunları belirli konular hakkında üretilebilir ancak diğer ortamlarla aynı baskılara tabi olmadığından kendi ortamının kısıtlamaları içerisinde kalabilir (Grace, Treanor, Totten, & McCoy, 2016). Haber oyunları, oyun geliştirici ve editörlerin görüşlerini yansıtan kuralları ve mekanikleri içerse bile editöryal yorum rolüyle sınırlanmamalıdır. ...
... Üretim ortamında etkili bir iletişim, ortak dil ile mümkündür. Bu nedenle oyun geliştirmeye başlamadan önce ekibin ortak bir dil, kavram çerçevesi belirlemesi ve üretim sürecini iyi bir şekilde planlaması gerekmektedir (Bressan, 2020;Grace, Treanor, Totten, & McCoy, 2016;Marciano, 2018;Meier, 2018;Plewe & Fürsich, 2020). ...
... Oyuncuların, oyun için istekli ve heyecanlı olması, haber oyunlarının üretimini motive etmekte ve tanıtımını da sağlamaktadır. Bununla birlikte haber oyun üretimi, bağlı olduğu teknik kısıtlamalardan özgürleşebildiğinde tüm zorlukları ve fırsatlarıyla gelişim gösterebilecektir (Grace, Treanor, Totten, & McCoy, 2016). ...
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Millennials rising: The next great generation
  • N Howe
  • W Strauss
Howe, N., & Strauss, W. 2009. Millennials rising: The next great generation. Vintage.
Games are serious business at news organizations Poynter. http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/267835/game s-are-serious-business-at-news-organizations
  • B Mullin
Mullin, B.. 2014. " Games are serious business at news organizations " (11 September 2014). Poynter. http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/267835/game s-are-serious-business-at-news-organizations/
  • G Frasca
Frasca, G. 2001. " Kabul Kaboom ". Available at http://ludology.typepad.com/games/kabulkaboom.html (last accessed Jan. 2015)