News games are not just for gamers

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Screenshots of games made by Wired, GameTheNews, Al Jazeera and Marketplace to help teach people different complex concepts and issues.

By Miranda VanHorn

Leaders in innovative journalism and user engagement say news games are more complex and cover a wider range of topics than ever before.

Games are being used to cover investigative and in-depth reporting and are even being used in explanatory journalism.

Experts are calling the process of using games to explain or teach a subject “‘gamification.”’

For example, BallotBots, created by GameTheNews for BBC early this year, invites players to move their “politician bots” through a series of obstacles to get to their “voter bots.” The game was intended to get users involved in the U.K. general election and reach them about the democratic process.

The trend is affecting other industries as well. Gabe Zichermann, chair of the 2016 Gamification Summit, said, “There is a long history of using games for teaching.” The Gamification Summit hosts workshops and speakers from all over the world to help companies “gamify” their workplaces to create a better work environment, and use games to better engage their customers.

“Self-paced learning is a big thing,” Zichermann said, explaining that games allow people to delve into topics at a speed that works for them. They can quickly play through the parts that they already understand in order to get to the next level that they may not understand quite so well.

Games can also “get rid of the idea that failure is cheap,” said Zichermann. When someone fails a level of a game they have the opportunity to play through it again with the new knowledge of what not to do.

Marketplace created the Poverty Simulator game in 2012 that asks users to survive a month with only $438, the poverty threshold for a family of four in 2011. Through trial and error, the user can experience and learn about the types of difficult choices people living below the poverty line have to make.

Retha Hill, executive director of the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at Arizona State University is working on some templates for journalists to create games without knowing how to code. These games, known as “playable stories,” will walk the audience through complex issues that may not be as engaging in print form, such as policy and budget reforms.

The format is similar to that of popular interactive adventures such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones games made by Telltale Games.

News games are “vehicles to help news consumers understand complex issues,” Hill said. “Players” must get involved in the content to win the game, making readers part of the story.

The templates will allow journalists to fill in their own text and images based on the topic they are covering.

 “Journalists should be creating these games,” Hill said. However, “a lot of people are still afraid.”

The biggest concerns for people seem to be that these games will not engage an older audience and that they will trivialize serious issues, Hill said.

But news games are designed to reach all types of readers and viewers, not just gamers.

Lindsay Grace, director at American University’s Game Lab and Studio, counters the “generational bias against news games” by bringing up an age-old pastime: Monopoly.

Monopoly was created to teach people about economics, Grace said. It took a complex issue and taught it to people in an interactive way.

“People don’t realize that they have been playing,” Grace said, because they are learning about property sales.

Grace also noted that analyzing users’ choices in these types of games could give “more variable perspectives on the same topic.” For example, The Walking Dead games allow players to see the choices other people have made as they play.  Games can also be a way for publications to pull data from their audience that could be used to better target content and advertising.

There have been numerous examples over the past few years of serious games being used with a news focus:

  • Al Jazeera created an “interactive investigation” game called Pirate Fishing in 2014. You are assigned the task of watching clips and conducting your own journalistic investigation. The further along you go, the more points you get toward being a “senior reporter.” You can also earn “specialist badges” depending upon what you are able to find.


  • Cutthroat Capitalism was a game created by Wired in 2009 that aims to put the player into the mind of a Somali pirate commander trying to get the crew through a series of challenges: Players must attack another ship, capture it and negotiate their way to victory.
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