Newsgaming: Tabloidisation gone digital?

One of the more lamentable aspects of my life as a parent is that I no longer have lots of time to play games. There's a whole PS3, X-Box culture out there that is passing me by completely.

I love getting lost in gaming and escorted Lara Croft around the world to kick a little ass, humiliated Tiger Woods (on the course that is - he's more than capable of humiliating himself off it) and killed more worms than a, octogenarian fisherman.

So it was with great interest that I attended a session on Gaming Mechanics in News at the news:rewired conference. I had already heard a presentation from Philip Trippenbach on the subject of gaming/journalism convergence 18 months ago and was looking forward to seeing how things had moved on.

Key to the session was the presentation by Bobby Schweizer from the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play.

Bobby reiterated a similar point to Philip's from 2010 - that games simulate dynamics so are therefore a highly valuable teaching tool, and one that could and should be integrated into digital journalism.

He highlighted a couple of games specifically. In September 12, gamers are invited to bomb terrorists responsible for the 9/11 atrocity. In doing so, of course, civilians are also killed.

The second game to catch my eye was Budget Hero in which gamers are required to balance and control where the US taxpayers dollars will go.

There is no doubt that both games have a worth in modern society. Being able to personally experience the delicate balancing act of organising the budget for one of the world's superpowers is great experience, just as the lesson learned from blowing up innocent people in pursuit of semi-mythological bogeymen half-way round the world is one that all potential US Presidents should take during the primaries.

But, towards the end of the presentation, a colleague in a magnificent tartan suit said: "I agree this is all very exciting and worthwhile. But why is if good journalism?"

And there's the rub. Tools like these have existed for a long time - The Sims is hardly a new concept for example, but why is it such good journalism?

In these convergent times we can present a story in a multitude of ways for a reader/user to get to grips with it. Well-presented data journalism, video journalism, podcasts, blogs etc etc sit side-by-side and invited the reader to choose how to find out about a story.

My worry is that the oversimplification of an issue through the use of gaming in the way outlined above is an inexorable lurch towards tabloidisation. We have seen an increase in tabloidisation in the past 50 years, be it on television, radio or in print and it strikes me that the promotion of newsgaming could be online's major contribution.

If we look at some of the key aspects of tabloidisation, we can see how my fears may be realised:
  1. Privileging the visual over analysis - I think this is obvious where games are concerned. Actual levels of analysis will be minimal compared to the visual elements of the game
  2. Using cultural knowledge over analysis - the game will become a shared experience, just as the BBC's One in 7bn was in October. But how many moved beyond typing in their date of birth to reading the analysis? It drove millions to the BBC site but was it for the acquisition of understanding or something to post on Facebook/Twitter?
  3. Dehistoricised and fragmented versions of events - as above, how much context can you provide in a limited gaming experience?
Of course, newsgamers are not intending this to happen. The intention will be that the game is 'consumed' alongside the more 'traditional' aspects of journalism but will that be the case? I think not, I think that many people will begin to rely on the games but will participate with less thought to the real issue at hand and more to gaining the highest score.

I need to cut £5bn to make my budget fit? Screw my left wing principles, I am chucking the NHS straight in the private sector and hang the consequences. That's pretty much what Blair was planning anyway.

I'll give you a nice tabloidised anecdote to 'prove' my point once and for all. Look at any footpath that goes round the corner of an open space. There will always be a muddy trail through the grass because human nature will cut corners - it doesn't matter how green your ethics or how polished your shoes, the temptation to rip up the grass and splash through the mud is always there.

Other speakers in the session also highlighted the positive use of such interactive technologies such as The Times's Al Trevino demonstration of an app which will allow users to experience all the Olympic sports. As a feature-driven, experiential piece of journalism I can see that this will have value.

Alastair Dant, interactive lead at the Guardian, highlighted another quiz-type game the Guardian used last year in which they highlighted quotes and invited the reader to guess whether they were from Colonel Gadaffi or Charlie Sheen. It's good fun - try it. I love Mock the Week and the News Quiz when they try this sort of thing.

However, it is also a classic way in which we distance ourselves from genuine atrocities (I'm talking about Libya, not Hot Shots Part Deux - see, now I'm doing it.)

Gary Glitter starts a Twitter feed (or doesn't) we all become Frankie Boyle for the afternoon, North Korean leader dies and there is a huge rush to Tweet lines from Team America. Do we need media outlets to start cashing in on it too?

I would say no. Just because we can, it doesn't mean that we should.

I'll leave you with a quote from Jeremy Paxman:
Good journalism is bad business and too often bad journalism is good business … for journalists to function properly, they have to be given freedom and resources. And those will come only from organisations which believe that their first duty is disclosure, not entertainment.


  1. I would argue that in some cases we need to ask what the alternative result would be. For instance, yes many people will not have gone further than typing in their DOB for the 1 in 7bn interactive - but how does the figure of those who looked at the analysis compare with a similar analysis when reported without an interactive 'entry point'.

    That's a more meaningful comparison.

    The idea that people read the news for "acquisition of understanding" itself needs a stronger critique: in fact I'm not sure how much news consumption is motivated by that, and how much by the need to be able to operate socially (discussing current events) or professionally (reacting to them) or even emotionally (being stimulated by them).

    It's easy to say that journalism's first duty is disclosure, but if you can't get people to listen to that disclosure then it is purposeless (aside from making the journalist feel superior). That is why journalists write stories, and not research documents. It is why they use case studies and not just statistics. Games are another way of communicating information. Like all the other methods, they have their limitations as well as strengths. We need to be aware of these, and think about them critically, but to throw out the method entirely would be a mistake, I think.

    1. Good point. But my educated guess (and it is just that) would be that the people who went beyond the interactive hook would have done so without it. Also, reader offers can bring in readers but we don't label them journalism

      I would not throw out the entire method and I will continue to think critically about it and I take your point about disclosure.

      But when it comes to gaming as a means of communication, the same is true of works of fiction - theatre, novels, films, television etc. The teach and encourage debate yet are not labelled journalism.

      I sometimes get the sense that people fear that journalism is broken and we must cast around to see what we can 'pinch' from other media. Journalism is not broken, it has lost its way but some of the solutions I hear being outlined could just be false hope.

    2. But a game based on facts is not a work of fiction, yes? Journalism can be published in novels, or even staged in a theatre. Isn't journalism the process of gathering facts and then communicating them clearly, typically in a narrative of some form? Isn't that what newsgames do?

    3. I find it difficult to see how the narrative of a game can match the narrative of a blog, a podcast, a video, a feature etc.

      As I said I can see the usefulness of it as a medium in its own right, but for mainstream news journalism I suspect it will be another tabloidisation. Advances in typesetting and page layout meant that we could incorporate many of the lesson of graphic design but can we truly say that it is a better form of journalism? It is a prettier form of journalism but we have to weight up whether the pros outweigh the cons.

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