News Games: Yay or Nay?

On Wednesday, 12th September, I attended the first Game Talk Mini event held and promoted by Vallekilde Højskole. The event’s theme was news games, what they are and how they work; an interesting combination of journalism and games development.

The keynote was given by Gonzalo Frasca, who started off his talk by discussing how games were relevant to education since people could learn through play, giving experiences of how they were used in the space industry, the medical industry and the military. Here, any form of error would be critical, so new users are guided through the system and taught through games. Frasca stated that “Learning through mistakes is one of the most effective ways to learn stuff“, and games seem to be the perfect medium to allow people to make mistakes.

Frasca gave examples of tutorials that teach the player how to play games, stating that if the player could not learn how to play the game within the first few minutes, then the player was lost. In particular, two examples of good tutorials were given: the Angry Birds tutorial and the Cut the Rope tutorial. This was because the first provided a short and intuitive animation of how to play the game, while the second placed the tutorial directly in the first level of the game.

This concept of understanding through play was then introduced with respect to news. Frasca claimed that people could understand events through action, stating Augusto Boal’s Legislative Theatre as an example. He also made reference to JFK Reloaded, which was a interesting experimental game, but a commercial failure. This “documentary game” allowed you to recreate the events of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, allowing players to come to their own conclusions as to whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald committed the crime or not.

Likewise, games could be made in addition to current news stories. Frasca stated that the concept of news games has been around since 2003, and most news games tend to be very quickly made with a short life span. He also stated that there were several challenges involved in creating news games, such as the fact that they had to be done in a few days in order to remain relevant, and the game had to make sense and be fun to play.

The second discussion that presented the counter argument to Frasca’s was Espen Aarseth’s talk, entitled “Good News is Not News: Dispelling the Newsgaming Myth“. Aarseth stated that although the “genre” of newsgames was 10 years old, news corporations did not seem to be interested in it, since it would have been picked up by now. He also stated several disadvantages to using games in news: the cost/benefit ratio seemed to be too low, making a good game is hard, and if the game doesn’t come out in time, is it still news?

Aarseth also made reference to a problem that could arise between the skinning of the game and its mechanics. Good games could only be made if the mechanics matched the thematics, so while war and violence made good games, Aarseth claims that everyday politics would be difficult to convey effectively in a game. He also claims that if the game developer does not care deeply about the topic, then the game itself will not be good. Reference was also made to The Landlord’s Game and Monopoly, which were meant to be political commentary against private monopolies but ended up being interpreted in a completely different fashion.

The talk ended with Aarseth concluding that the only people talking about newsgames seem to be the people making them, and that they don’t seem to be viable to news organizations.

Several examples of news games were presented through the discussion, such as September 12 by Frasca, Darfur is Dying and Phone Story by Molleindustria. Ultimately, I think that while both parties raised some interesting points about news gaming, the public is still largely unaware of news gaming. However, I’m definitely interested in trying to make some news games in the near future!