Storytelling 2.0: Exploring the news game


Ian Bogost, contributor

Video games can be more than just entertainment - they may be the future of journalism

PICTURE a bunch of journalists. What do they look like? What stories do they tell? The beat reporter records events from afar, bringing the world to your recliner. The sleuth uncovers injustice, revealing the corruption of the crooked and the greedy. The television personality summarises off-the-cuff remarks about local issues from people on the street.

All of these stories focus on people, places and events. They take complicated issues and package them in manageable chunks with identifiable characters. They cover what every student learns about journalism: who, what, where, when, why and how.

Now think of a video game. You might imagine the gory carnage of Doom, the cute characters of Wii Sports or the colourful polyominoes of Tetris. Games may seem like a distraction or a leisure activity. But much like print and television, games are a medium capable of many uses - some of which we are just discovering.

Video games simulate rather than describe the world. They replace the tale of the crooked official or the sound bite about a local parade with interactive experiences of the political, social and economic circumstances that produce those events in the first place.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology's Digital Media Program, we are researching newsgames, the application of games to journalism. Newsgames reinvent journalistic principles through their design, using current events, infographics, puzzles, community action and more.


(Image: Burger Tycoon)

Take, for example, Burger Tycoon. It's what we call an editorial game: short-form, quickly produced and easily accessed online. These games critique current events and issues - in this case global fast food. In Burger Tycoon, players take charge of every aspect of a fast food giant: they raise soy and cattle in South America, curtail contamination in a meat-packing plant, scold frustrated fry cooks in a restaurant and devise ad campaigns at corporate headquarters.

Despite its cutesy graphics and simple mouse-click play, Burger Tycoon paints a striking portrait of how the business models of multinational food conglomerates can compel corruption. As costs begin to outstrip revenues, players look for new ways to make a profit: tearing down rainforests, stuffing cattle with antibiotics, bribing health officials. Like a political cartoon, the game is highly opinionated, but it presents its opinion through the rules of the game rather than through images and words.

Another newsgame is Escape From Woomera, a documentary game that draws on the traditions of investigative reporting. The Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre was an Australian detention camp for illegal immigrants. A four-year media blackout kept most Australian citizens from ever learning about the desperate conditions experienced within the camp's walls.

The game recreates this inaccessible space in navigable 3D, sharing experiences of the camp rather than stories about them. Through images and journals smuggled out of the camp, its creators have made the hard truths of Woomera visible and playable, from unfair working conditions to the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of applying for asylum, to the deadly risk of attempting an escape.

Video games do not offer a panacea for news organisations. But they offer a truly new way for journalism to contribute to civic life by amplifying the how instead of the who. Video games offer models of how the world works and how it might be improved, rather than skin-deep stories about what ails it. That's why the best journalism of the future might not be read, but played.