Could Online Games Save the News?

Could games teach people the news?

Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is betting on it. On May 28, he announced that when he and his wife, former New York Times editor Sheryl WuDunn, release their new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, in September, they plan on accompanying the work with a free online-social-networking game.

He made the announcement at the New School’s Tisch Auditorium on West 12th Street, in front of about 400 humanitarians, journalists, academics and game designers who had gathered there to hear his keynote speech at the 6th Annual Games for Change Festival.

“It’s kind of nonintuitive for a New York Times columnist to embrace this [gaming] world. And the reason is essentially—I spent a lot of my time trying to get Americans to care about issues that are a long way away, that may not seem to matter to them, whether it’s global poverty or disease or genocide or sex trafficking or whatever,” Mr. Kristof told the crowd. “And one of the things I’ve concluded is that we as journalists, and the humanitarian community broadly, are really bad at this kind of game. Any toothpaste company manages to market its toothpaste with incomparably more sophistication than humanitarians trying to market, if you will, a cause where potentially millions of lives are on the line.”

The couple is working on the Half the Sky project with Games for Change, and getting some assistance from E-Line Ventures, a digital entertainment publisher; Dandelion Games; and Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and chief game designer at gameLab (and one of The Observer’s “Power Punks”). Mr. Kristof wouldn’t give up many specifics on the game. “It blurs the reality between artificial reality and what is actually happening out there,” he said. “And if I tell you any more, I’d have to kill you.”

Mr. Kristof said he and his wife were inspired by online games like Darfur is Dying, a browser-based game developed by mtvU, University of Southern California students and African aid workers in 2006. Users act as displaced peoples in a virtual world and are required to complete tasks like fetching water to aid their camp, while running from animated Janjaweed thugs. He cited Food Force, a 2005 game published by the United Nations’ World Food Programme, as another example.

“We just saw how people can use games as this entry point, make this emotional connection, learn a little about the complexities and truly become engaged in an issue,” Mr. Kristof said.

“It’s entirely possible to do journalism without the end product necessarily being a 20-inch story in a newspaper or a three-minute piece on the nightly news,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, in a recent interview with The Observer. “The evolution towards allowing the reporting of facts and the investigation of circumstances, which is at the core of what journalists do, to exist in other forms is I think a necessary wrestling with the new medium.”


AT A DISCUSSION TITLED “Games and the News” at the festival, Clive Thompson, the New York Times Magazine contributor and Wired columnist, was wrestling with games as a new form of journalism.

He mentioned The New York Times’ “Faces of the Dead” feature on their Web site. A photo of a U.S. soldier appears on the page—his face spliced into hundreds of tiny squares. Each one is a tiny picture of 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, other than hover over it.”

Ian Bogost, a video game researcher, an associate professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology and a founding partner of video games studio Persuasive Games, was speaking alongside Mr. Thompson. He cited the Budget Hero game, a successful news gaming venture created by American Public Media, which teaches users about the federal budget by forcing them to make tough decisions. Gamers get several spending options, with pros and cons listed for each decision, and they can cut or finance what they want.

Budget Hero “was trying to take a subject that is next to impossible to understand and explain it in some way that encourages interaction as opposed to encouraging the reading of long rivers of prose,” Mr. Benton told The Observer.

Mr. Bogost mentioned an 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,, found that just 13 percent of their readers “never” “buy a newspaper just to do the puzzles.” “The crossword puzzle is this amazing entry point into the media itself,” he said. Reading the actual news articles, while flipping to the puzzle page, can be just an added bonus—the cheese on top of the broccoli, Mr. Bogost said.

Could Online Games Save the News?