Newsgames: Journalism at Play, the latest book by Ian Bogost, prolific video game designer, critic, author and director of graduate studies in Georgia Tech’s Digital Media program, examines the use and potential of video games to inform the public and bring context to the news. For his latest book, the author of Persuasive Games and Racing the Beam is joined by graduate students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer. In this Q &A, Bogost talks about this collaboration as well as how games can help journalists share the rest of the story.
Q: In this book, you teamed up with two of your graduate
students, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer. How did the book benefit from this
When done right, a relationship between a professor and a graduate student should be one of building colleagues. Graduate school is a place where students learn to be professionals, sometimes professional engineers or lawyers or whatever, and sometimes professional scholars. Real colleagues don't work in master/apprentice relationships nor in boss/worker relationships, but sit on an even keel. By working with my doctoral students on the book (in addition to the dozen or so other researchers who participated in the lab), we were all able to work through the topics at hand together, finding approaches and answers that we might not otherwise have seen individually.
Q: What do you mean by the term "newsgames?"
"Newsgames" is just a name for the ways journalism can partake of video games as a medium. Originally when the term was coined (by Georgia Tech digital media alumnus Gonzalo Frasca, in fact), it meant bite-sized games that express a designer's commentary on a current event—a sort of playable editorial cartoon. In the book and in related work in our research lab here at Georgia Tech, we have expanded the term to include any application whatsoever of video games to journalism, and vice versa, from editorial cartoons and tabloids to documentary games and crossword puzzles and software platforms.
Q: What can newsgames add to the news that traditional forms like print and broadcast miss?
The videogame is a powerful medium for constructing systems that are governed by rules. A videogame is a computational model of a system whose underlying code governs what that system can do and how it operates. As such, players of video games reason about the logic that makes the videogame world possible and use it to proceed through the game.
Print and broadcast media do the opposite. They tell stories about people, places, objects and events. Broadcast news excels at supplying vivid images that appeal to viewers' emotions, while print stories often weave elaborate narratives. Journalists may research the underlying processes that brought such events about, but journalistic matter, itself, often just scrapes the surface of the outcomes.
Video games, by contrast, reconstruct the underlying logics that make particular stories possible in the first place. For example, the tale of the woman who can no longer get to work because her MARTA bus route has been cut is important for making us aware of the budgetary problems of our transportation system, but a carefully constructed newsgame starts by examining the root of the problem, for example the entire economic, mechanical and operational mechanism that is the public transit system.
Today, most problems are complex and systemic rather than surface-level. Good video games always involve systems, and for that reason they have much to contribute to civic knowledge and engagement.
Q: Are newsgames likely to become more popular, like Internet news sites did, or will they always be a niche format? Why?
The biggest challenge newsgames face comes from their fundamental incompatibility with the way readers and journalists think about the news. The obstacle here is not the technology or the medium, but what it represents about ideas and information; we're just not used to creating and interacting with systems instead of stories. That is changing as software media like video games increase in popularity.
But that's not the only way the newsgame could prove successful. Much like the many interactive infographics and photo slideshows that get passed around the Internet, the newsgame could serve as a hook for online news organizations to draw in readers. As the format develops, the newsgame could help differentiate one news agency from another. "Come to our website, we're the ones doing something new and different." We're working on a new project with this goal in mind, again funded by the Knight Foundation. Its focus is on creating an authoring tool for small-scale newsgames meant to draw users into local issues.
Another point: novelty is not really our goal anyway. When we first started this research in 2008, we began by looking at the core values that drive journalistic practice. We asked ourselves what video games excel at that and can support these values in a meaningful way. Anything that doesn't advance those goals doesn't deserve the name "newsgame" anyway. The newsgame may never replace the written story or the 6:00 news, but if put into the right hands it could serve as an invaluable tool for tackling complex issues while engaging readers. And perhaps over time, it will become central rather than peripheral to civic engagement.
Q: What are the top things you hope a reader can take away
from your book?
First, the potential of newsgames is their ability to explain systems, not tell stories. They are capable of handling a level of complexity that is difficult to address with words or images. Newsgames not only address the who, what, where and when, but they are especially suited for the why and how.
Second, there is a natural relationship between journalism and games. Newsgames are not about hopping on the bandwagon of popular entertainment, but taking pre-existing forms like crossword puzzles, news quizzes, editorial cartoons and infographics a step forward. Journalism does not have to be dry to be professional and these forms have proven news can be portrayed beyond the written and spoken word.
Third, journalism is hard work. Newsgames are not some cure-all ready to remedy the ills of a field in financial trouble. The games need the guiding hand of the journalist to ensure that they are addressing journalistic values. Creating a newsgame involves mustering the resources of the newsroom to reform civic knowledge in a new way.
Q: Tell me about the cover.
The cover shows an early 20th-century newsboy holding a Nintendo DS handheld gaming system instead of a newspaper. It communicates the current state of journalism, a collision of outmoded ways of making and disseminating the news and an uncertainty about what to do with new technologies. And it suggests just how conservative adoptions of technology have really been in the news: the web, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, all are just adaptations of print and video into networks for digital distribution. The videogame offers something surprising and unfamiliar and new, a new way of doing journalism, not just a new way of sharing the same old stuff.
About the Authors
Ian Bogost is associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture, at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner, Persuasive Games LLC. He is the author of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames and Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism and the coauthor (with Nick Montfort) of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (2009), all published by the MIT Press.
Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer are doctoral students in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology.