November 2008 Archives
The problem with these games is that there aren't any moral choices to be made within the games themselves (the decision to stop playing is meta-game). Shadow of the Colossus doesn't work on an ethical level for me, because simply watching a character's forced fall from grace through plot progression is about as persuasive today as an Aesop fable. September 12th and Shadow are old games now, and it's a cop-out at this particular moment in gaming history to create a game without a choice other than: play and be damned, or drop the controller. If only making such a statement got the mainstream game industry out of its slough of despond! (I'll also be linking this back to choice in newsgames at the end.)
Traditional works of journalism craft stories to present information in a cohesive manner. But what if there isn't any clear trajectory or narrative? What if a journalist really just wants to present an otherwise disconnected collection of references and fragments?
Digital media artifacts like palinaspresident.us suggest one interesting potential solution.
palinaspresident.us is a "click-through" flash app (developed during the election cycle) that satirizes the idea of Sarah Palin as president. The user clicks around the office to uncover graphics that poke at campaign issues and gossip in a humorous way. The content ranges from jokes about the "maverick" moniker, to dystopia visions of Palin blundering her way to nuclear apocalypse.
Admittedly, it seems dubious to deem palinaspresident.us as "journalistic." At the time, the game certainly played off relevant news topics (e.g. Troopergate, the "drill baby drill" chant), but the primary purpose here is clearly to amuse (or terrify), not to inform. Given its partisan nature, the website would probably be more fairly labeled as activism.
Nonetheless, we could certainly imagine using this kind of explorative, click-through interaction to craft engaging info visualizations. One might use this kind of framework to compellingly present a jumbled series of different issues and facts.
Answering Rowsell's question of why there aren't any commercial games discussing political or social issues is as easy as one word: money. The problem with Rowswell's article is that we already know this answer. Asking this question leads to an unsatisfactory answer, so we should reframe it. I'm hoping this blog post's exploration will let us arrive at a better question and encourage people to think differently about the medium's role in political/social issues.
Both stages are essential to the practice of journalism. Information without proper context and rigorous verification is just unreliable raw data; analysis without original reporting is just aggregation or editorial.
Of course, journalistic news media exists as a spectrum between these two poles. An interview typically focuses on reporting, whereas an editorial typically focuses on review. Nevertheless, we should note that the best interviewers contextualize and respond to the interviewee, and that the best editorial writers frequently incorporate their own reporting.
How do videogames fit into this spectrum?
One traditional news quiz is the New York Times News Quiz, which has a strictly pedagogical bent. The focus of this quiz, which is similar to many other newspaper-based news quizzes, aims to instruct younger readers about techniques of reading and synthesizing information from a newspaper article whose style of writing is different than styles taught in school such as the essay or short story.
After a brief word on directed activity, I thought it might be useful to discuss a fundamental split in infovis that Bobby and I sussed out a few weeks ago. After some discussion, we noticed that most of the infovis examples we were looking at fell into one of two categories: narrative or free-form.
All infovis invariably boasts spatial exploration of data, but some follow a stricter pattern of narration to convey a cogent story with multimedia and infographics. Other visualizations, the free-form variety, are more open engagements with data sets, featuring multiple filters to achieve alternative perspectives on said data. Exciting right? In this post I want to explore two examples of what I believe to be narrative infovis.
The question we're tasked to answer is, "Do the kind of people who create indie games have any reason to move away from their personal interests and goals in order to join our cause of making more thoughtful, creative newsgames (than the ones that are currently available) that follow the principles of The Elements of Journalism?" This question has multiple layers. Who are these people making Indie Games? Are they a homogenous group, or are they largely fractured in philosophy and practice? What constitutes a more "personal" style when it comes to newsgames, and does this raise issues for journalistic transparency or verification? And finally, is it actually important that a newsgame creator ascribe to the values in The Elements of Journalism that we've found so helpful in our own studies here at JAG?
As an example from the most popular of these fantasy sports, fantasy football, a player has a line-up of quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, kickers, and defenses. The first player's team is pit against another player's team. When Sunday comes, the individual performances of these positions earns the player points which get added together and the scores of the two game players are compared. These two players are only one match-up in a league that parallels that of the NFL: generally 10 to 14 teams with one opponent each week producing a win-loss record that gets players into elimination playoffs.
Structurally, the two most important things to note are that the game is driven by data and modeled in a format that resembles the source of the data.
Arguing that Rambo 4 ("despite its incredible violence") brought attention to turmoil and oppression in Myanmar, Jeffries advocates that videogames too should aspire to serve such an educational purpose: "At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about."
The idea of "games with a purpose" is not a new one. But Jeffries' argument seems to imply a moral imperative that challenges conventional game studies wisdom: at least where journalism and other citizen-first pursuits are concerned, game mechanics might just not matter as much as the subject matter.
While the crossword is a relatively recent construction (about 95 years old), word games and riddles have appeared in newspapers since the 17th century. The forms themselves, the riddle, word square, rebus, and enigma date back thousands of years .
Can poetry act as a form of journalism?
On Election Day, The New York Times published a series of election themed poems in the Op-Ed section. Even Stephen Colbert picked up on this oddity, making fun of the newspaper on his show this week.
Even if these poems aren't journalistic in themselves, The New York Times seems to be suggesting that other media forms and genres might usefully complement traditional journalism.
Or, restated in terms of our own project: whether or not games can function journalistically, they still might have a useful role in the larger news media "experience."
The puzzles take the form of several smaller puzzle, each a take on the theme (usually a holiday or event, such as the United Nations Day Puzzle, Country Club). The answers to these smaller puzzles are then used as entries in the last puzzle which answers a question posed by the writers at the beginning of the puzzle. For example, in Patriot Games, the question asked is: "our vote for the best way to spend Fourth of July holiday weekend". The answer for this puzzle (I hope it's not too much of a spoiler) is "Join a Party" which, as many word puzzles tend to be, is a pun on the word party as both a festivity and a political group.
This led me to think about the nature of these puzzle's construction and whether the creators themselves saw themselves working in a journalistic or editorial capacity. Moreover, how did these puzzle even come about in the New York Times and why did they take the form of "Op-Ed" Puzzles?
I'd like to once again thank Amy Goldstein and the other members of Puzzability for politely answering my questions regarding these puzzle and both the formal and ideological processes behind their construction.
Below my interview with Amy Goldstein of Puzzability:
Only two days left until November 4.
For months and months now, it's felt like the election has been on absolutely everybody's mind. With the stakes seemingly higher than ever, all sorts of people are coming out of the woodwork to support their candidate.
If we look to traditional media, we find scores of artists using their chosen craft to engage the election. To use a few Obama-centric examples: we've heard the Black Eyed Peas (and a gaggle of famous pop musicians) singing "Yes We Can"; we've seen Sarah Silverman use her in-your-face TV comedy to get out the Democratic vote in Florida; Ron Howard went as far as to resurrect The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days for his own pro-Obama short; hell, even the Budweiser "Wassup" guys spoofed their commercial to urge people to vote for change. Hollywood too is cashing in on election fever: witness Oliver Stone's W or Kevin Costner's Swing Vote.
As a games researcher and designer, I can only ask: why are there so few - if any - compelling political games or newsgames about this election cycle?
The question, which plagues the so-called Serious Games movement more generally, is far too contentious to be answered in one blog post. Ian himself tackled the question just two days ago, drawing a distinction between politics and politicking. But in focusing on the various affordances of games, Ian only orbits around what I personally see as the heart of the issue.
For my purposes, I'd like to reflect on one particular example that, in my mind, symbolizes the failure of the game designer community to capitalize on this historic election. In doing so, I want to suggest that the "problem" - if we should even view the dearth of worthwhile election games as problematic - has just as much to do with the culture around game design. We need to address the mindset under which these kinds of games are designed.