Can Games Save the News?

crossword Can Games Save the News?News junkies are gamers.

Ask your friends a question about the latest news tidbit—say, where President Obama and the First Lady went on their dinner date this weekend. Then watch them whip out their iPhones, flip open their laptops, racing to find the right answer. Within seconds, they’ll emerge from the scrolling sea of Google results, triumphant and shouting: “Blue Hill!”

Our constant (okay, seemingly neverending) search for the right piece of news or information is a daily, even minute-by-minute challenge, providing a small, satisfactory triumph on blogs, Twitter and in comment sections, and even in bars and at dining room tables with our BlackBerrys.

New York Times junkies can even get their own Times IQ as high as 200 … on Facebook. Every weekday morning, the users of the New York Times News Quiz application are faced with five multiple choice questions based on the day’s top news stories (as regarded by the editorial staff). Yesterday, for example, users were asked where George Tiller was shot (Wichita) and who was Robin Soderling’s opponent in the big tennis upset at Roland Garros (Rafael Nadal). After they click away the quiz and submit their answers, they receive a Times IQ ranking, based on their answers. They can challenge their Facebook friends and compare their news knowledge to all users across the platform. A cheat sheet of links to The Times’ latest news articles is provided after they take the day’s quiz.

The application is simple and fun—albeit less than popular. (There are only 2,178 active users. Compare that with the Texas Hold ’Em Poker game, one of the most popular games on Facebook, which has more than 12 million active users, out of Facebook’s 200 million or so). But how else can newspapers play with their content to attract readers? 

Web news designers, like those whizzes at NYTimes.com, already create dazzling, interactive infographics to help readers digest vast amounts of information and understand complicated news stories. But what if users could not just click around the infographics, but become part of them—a character with dilemmas and goals—and not just understand the news, but play with it? Would reading the news become one of the best games in town?

On May 29, Clive Thompson, New York Times magazine contributor and a columnist for Wired, was speaking on a muggy afternoon at the 6th Annual Games for Change Festival in the New School’s Tisch Auditorium on 12th Street at a discussion titled “Games and the News.”

He mentioned The New York TimesFaces of the Dead feature. A photo of a U.S. soldier appears on the page—his face spliced with hundreds of tiny squares. Each one represents a service member that the Defense Department has identified as a casualty of the war in Iraq. Users can roam their mouse over the grid and click on the squares to find more information on the man or woman. “I remember looking, I mean that’s really beautiful, but it didn’t really make me want to go in and look at any of the individuals,” Mr. Thompson said. “There was nothing to do, basically, than hover over it.”

Ian Bogost, a video game researcher, associate professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner of video-games studio Persuasive Games, was speaking alongside Mr. Thompson, stroking a bushy goatee and explaining how this is a common characteristic with online infographics. “There’s this tradition of depicting data, and depicting data can be clarifying and can create sort of a different kind of interest in relevance,” he said. “[But] by creating this sort of directed activity, then all of a sudden something that was just sort of a message or information that you didn’t know what to do with can become more game-like.”

He said, for example, the Budget Hero game, created by American Public Media, allows users to balance the federal budget however they want to. They get several spending options, with pros and cons listed for each decision, and they can cut or finance areas of the federal budget. But what if the game set more parameters? What if they could choose whether to be a middle-class or lower-class American or how many children they have? How would that affect their decision and help them understand all sides to a budget decision?

 “I think if you apply that example to all the celebrated infographics in the news world—all the stuff that The New York Times does, for example—it’s really interesting and high quality but is often overwhelming and if you added a type of directed goal to them, then they actually become more journalistic,” Mr. Bogost explained.

He mentioned an About.com poll in which 54 percent of about 3,500 people said they buy a newspaper “all the time” just to play crossword puzzles and other games usually buried in the back sections. Another site, Archimedes-Lab.org, found that just 13 percent of their readers “never” “buy a newspaper just to do the puzzles.” “The crossword puzzle is this amazing entrypoint into the media itself,” he said. Reading the actual news articles, while flipping to the puzzle page, can be just an added bonus.

“The newspaper business realized, too late maybe, their competition for classifieds and advertising,” Mr. Bogost said. What if, like classifieds, games “actually turned out to be a business that is a part of journalism and they didn’t even realize it.”

Newspapers, Mr. Bogost said, have an opportunity to make gaming part of consuming the news.

Last week, at the Games for Change festival, “Play the News,” an online portal of interactive, casual games created by a Pennsylvania studio, won a kind of Pulitzer of news games—the first Knight News Game Award, at an awards ceremony sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on May 28.

Newsgaming’s September 12th – A Toy World was a controversial, yet interesting, contender in the competition. Released in 2003, the game takes place in a Middle Eastern city, in which little Lego-looking characters race between buildings and terrorists wear white head dressings. The user can drop a missile on the terrorists, but if they miss and hit a civilian, another civilian will weep over the victim and then transform into a terrorist before the player’s eyes.

Play the News, described as “an engaging, community-driven experience—imagine fantasy sports meets the evening news,” takes story lines from headlines (like banning fast food joints close to schools or Hamas attacks) and incorporates them into prediction and decision-making games. But the graphics seem old-fashioned and the story lines are, well, boring.

So far, online news games are behind in the whizzy graphics and lifelike role-playing department—a bit like playing Mario Bros today, among the Wiis and Xbox 360s of the world, which won’t keep users engaged.

But some news organizations have found exciting, yet simple, ways to incorporate game-play into their business—perhaps without even noticing it. Mr. Thompson said Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo “almost stumbled into this alt game-like apparatus for reporting news” by asking his readers to help him tease out a tip and find information for him. Mr. Thompson compared the dynamics to an alternative reality game, like playing Halo or World of Warcraft or even trying to figure out all those crazy clues on Lost by checking out their marketing materials online. “There’s a puzzle that is created that is incredibly hidden and complex so you know, people discover little clues and then you have to collaborate to try and tease out what the hell is going on,” Mr. Thompson explained. Mr. Marshall, and other TPM writers, are the leaders who corroborate the truth and collect it for readers to understand—and because their readers feel like they are playing along with the journalists and are part of the process, they keep coming back.

Mr. Thompson said newspapers can leverage this tactic by creating game-like “leaderboards,” giving the best commentors, bloggers and participants incentives, whether they be shoutouts or high rankings on the site (Digg.com and Techmeme.com have similar features, Gawker highlights their top community contributors as well).

“You could regard The New York Times as its prime value is it’s a fantastic leaderboard, right?” Mr. Thompson said. “It is a great place to create variety and rewards for people.”

When Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announced at his Games for Change keynote speech that he was going to create an online, social networking game to accompany his new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, he said that many are skeptical of mixing journalism and games.

“I think that the way to change that is the record of success that these have had and in my case, what really changed my thinking was watching Food Force and Darfur is Dying in particular, and journalism is in such desperate shape right now, frankly, that we’re groping for anything that might work, that might reach new audiences, that might connect,” he said. “I truly think that these [games] are going to play a major role in trying to make this connection because in journalism, we’re not often very good at it, and you guys can help us be that bridge.”

Do newspapers have to start tapping into their readers’ competitive sides to fight in this new-media ring? Game on.