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:
- 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
- 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?
- 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.