Journalists have been using games to tell stories since the early 2000s, but newsgames, games that integrate journalism into gameplay, have yet to convince editors to include them in their daily reporting.
Instead, the more typical digital coverage seeks to emulate what makes gaming so compelling and able to garner consistently large audiences – and revenues.
User experience and design researcher at BBC soundsNick Donaldson, said, “There are wins and losses in games, and that’s what makes them so closely linked to your brain’s dopamine response.
“But that idea of clear victory and defeat doesn’t translate easily to the media world, so it’s harder to reproduce. Instead, the metrics are emotional: what makes us laugh, what makes us feel like we understand the world.”
Techniques first used to make games so compelling have started to creep into the thinking behind messaging apps, Donaldson explains.
The progress bar in a New York Times visual examination or the reward of being in the top 10 percent of readers The guard For example, each website shows the user that the next dopamine hit is just a few clicks away.
“We sprint toward a finish line when it’s in sight,” Donaldson said. “That’s why you buy coffee faster at the end of your loyalty card.”
Donaldson warns that while publishers can learn from game design, pure gamification, the process of converting an audience’s broad motivations into easily understood, quantifiable goals, can diminish the usefulness of journalism that a publisher is trying to convey.
Users are now smarter about manipulative tactics and can be put off by the stress of maintaining a daily streak, and the novelty of a new feature can quickly wear off, Donaldson explained.
“As a public broadcaster (BBC), our job is not to maximize time spent, but time well spent,” he added.
“Gamification is about creating habits, but it’s a very short-term solution. The only way you can truly play the long game is to create a platform that appeals to their real-world goals, whether that be making them better informed about the economy or discovering their new favorite band.
“There are many tools you can use to do that more sustainably than streaks or progress bars.”
Aside from the potentially superficial staples of most mobile games, editors and reporters have recognized the opportunity to hone their visual storytelling through games.
The New York Times has led the charge with visual stories that often mimic point-and-click games or offer branching narratives based on the reader’s interest.
Many publishers have adopted similar techniques, e.g Al Jazeera‘s interactive maps too South China tomorrow post‘s self-contained and “completable” series.
The first intelligence game was 2003’s September 12, in which players take control of a crosshair aimed at a city miles below, tasked with killing terrorists by firing missiles.
Each terrorist moves through a crowd, so any attempt by the player will result in civilians being killed as well. It quickly becomes clear that the only way to avoid collateral deaths is to not shoot at all.
“The Uber Game”, created by the financial timeswon the Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling gong at the 2018 Online Journalism Awards.
You play as a member of the sprawling fleet of Uber drivers, juggling fares, maintaining your vehicle and making it home in time to help your son with his homework.
More recently, “Testris” tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic around the world. You start by choosing a character and seeing how life has been impacted in myriad ways based on social status and location.
The guardVisual Projects Editor David Blood, who was part of the team that developed The Uber Game, said: “It seemed to allow the audience to relate on a personal level to the Uber driver who is at the center of the story narrative stands.
“One of our biggest takeaways from the project was that this type of identification — essentially empathy — could be something that games are particularly effective at generating.”
Games routinely evoke empathy, from the narrative of That Dragon, Cancer, about coming to terms with the death of a child, to Night in the Woods, about revisiting childhood fears — worthy topics, but not exactly new.
Newsgames are often released years after the events they depict. For example, in 2017’s Path Out and 2016’s Bury Me, My Love, you play as refugees fleeing the 2014 Syrian civil war.
Few games can match the stories they tell, and despite the success of The Uber Game, Blood says games are unlikely to become a big part of journalistic life: “News games are very resource-intensive to produce. They place significant demands on reporters, designers, developers, editors, and others at the time.
“Then there’s the question of the news agenda: if it takes a month or two to produce a news game, will it still have sufficient journalistic value by the time it’s released?”
At a time when almost every news publisher is feeling the pressure, Blood said the time spent developing a game is hard to justify when more typical forms or reports are faster, cheaper, and less risky.
Not every story lends itself to being told in a game, and the accelerating pace of breaking news delivery is unlikely to slow enough for games to catch up, but journalism’s sparing use of interactive elements can create stories that engage audiences touch deeper.
The journalism we consume every day, especially audio and video, is more of a “sit back” than a “lean in” and for many, active participation is simply not how they consume their news.
When publishers try to incorporate the elements that make games so compelling, they have to be smart about how to take readers along with them.
And because these new features demand so much from the reporters, editors, and programmers who create them, they have to hit hard when they hit.
Free daily newsletter
If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up for our free daily (Mon-Fri) mobile-friendly email newsletter.