It is possible that games and game-like media highlight particular challenges in relation to journalistic transparency. One way of understanding how games have to deal with transparency is to try to identify different forms of transparency. Here are three.
Transparency of Influence
The disclosure of conflicting relationships in the research and preparation of news. This is the usual way we think about transparency in journalism, covering issues like sponsorship/advertising, the relationship between the reporter and sources or subjects of the story, disclosure of biases or other influences, a history with a covered field, company, or organization, and so forth.
Transparency of Construction
Transparency related to the actual construction of a piece of journalistic media, rather than why it was written or what methods were used to research it.
A piece of jouranlistic writing can reveal or occlude an author's biases or conflicts of interest, but the writing itself is not subject to transparency. There is no doubt that the words on the page are the words in the article, having been penned by the author. Issues of citation and context are formal aspects of writing that also invoke questions of transparency. Taking a quote out of context or editing it in such a way that it becomes misleading occludes rather than reveals a source's intentions. In video content, edits and cuts are subject to the same problem.
Photographs seem even more subject to transparency of construction. They can be altered digitally or even constructed from whole cloth. The same is true for video, although the process is more involved.
Software is even more subject to problems of construction transparency because its manner of operation is not always revealed to a user. In some cases, discovering how a piece of software works is a trivial affair: in an interactive infographic, for example, moving a slider on an interface and seeing a graph update to the corresponding values is clearly changing a variable in accordance with a dialed-in value. But in the case of more complex simulations, of which videogames are one example, but so are more elaborate infographics, the operation of the software is much harder to intuit from casual operation alone.
This "black box effect" is a longstanding issue in games and simulations more generally. For example, Sherry Turkle and Paul Starr have separately argued that games like SimCity ought to have "policy knobs" that would allow players to change the assumptions in the simulation. But from the perspective of jouranlism, this is an issue of making bias transparent more than it is one of making simulation transparent.
Games thus have a particularly difficult challenge in adopting transparency of construction. An assurance that the "image hasn't been manipulated" has no analogue in a complex simulation.
Transparency of Reference
Citation is an important way of revealing sources. In writing, this can be done by quoting eyewitnesses, sources, experts, or participants. The same can be done in broadcast or video journalism. The footnote and the hyperlink offer another method. Photographs are another way to document events, and provided they are real, can serve as referential evidence.
Online, reference is problematic. Solving transparency of reference problems is a general issue in journalism, for which solutions are beginning to appear. For example, Tim Berners-Lee and Martin Moore are developing
a system to add transparency to web-published materials through tagging and other metadata.
Citation and reference in videogames is trickier than in other media. Games can incorporate writing, video, and photographs which whose soures are documented and displayed, but the source of a set of game mechanics meant to represent a particular aspect of lived experience cannot be so easily tagged or cited away (e.g., the operation of a commodities exchange, or the dangers of a defective sewage system). In these cases, a complex procedural model has been constructed, rather than cited, probably one amalgamated and abstracted from many sources. How can such a model be cited?
In future posts on this topic, we'll begin covering possible solutions to the challenges of transparency, with a particular focus on the squirrelier types, transparency of construction and transparency of reference.