Relevance!

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One of the Elements of Journalism described by Kovach and Rosenstiel is that it  "must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant." This is something that we haven't really addressed directly on this blog, perhaps because this seems like a no-brainer: how do we make this news piece interesting? Well, we'll just make a game about it! The problem with this is that many newsgames continue to alienate both gamers and nongamers alike. We shouldn't just take the value of newsgames for granted. I think they satisfy this element of journalism, but I'd like to preempt those who might not think the same.

If it's true that there's a disconnect between these games and their players, then either the shortcoming is in the games or in the public (likely, it's both). It doesn't make much sense to demand outright that the players adjust themselves to the games. The standard indie developer response of, "Who the hell cares if they like the game?" doesn't carry over here (if this is your attitude, then there's probably no reason for you to read this). If you're making newsgames, its likely that you have some passing interest in raising awareness or influencing public opinion. Playing devil's advocate and assuming that it's the newsgames that need an attitude adjustment, we can tackle the problem from three angles provided by the Elements: significance, relevance, and interest. I recognize that this is not a completely accurate parsing of the element, but I'm using it as a working model.

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Before I start, I need to make it clear that I recognize that I have no place to tell newsgame developers how to do their job (nor is this my desire). They're the digital watchdogs of the citizenry; I'm just playing in their worlds. The suggestions below should rather be seen as a call to ask the question at some point in development: "Are we making the significant relevant and interesting?"

Are they relevant? Well, what are people worried about knowing most? Three obvious answers right now are the economy, the new president, and the war on terror. We've got newsgames to address all three. Oiligarchy and Oil God deal with the economy with oil as an entry point. Kuma Games produces games on almost every major military operation in Iraq, while September 12th took an early ludic stance against tactical bombing. Campaign Rush and Debate Night covered the Obama campaign, but it's a bit too early to expect games about his presidency considering he only recently took office. Some websites anticipated the hullabaloo surrounding Obama's cabinet appointments, and made gamey web apps to help readers wade through the possibilities.

Let's take a look at Ian's Airport Insecurity game. Certainly this issue is relevant - airport security has been a flagship issue for Homeland Security. And the game models pretty well the absurdity of standing in line at an airport for two hours just to have somebody bend the pages of your books and single you out to have your bags rifled through. There's the added bonus that the game geo-locates the player, finds the closest airport, and uses a database to determine levels of security for different items. But is it as relevant as this journalist who sneaks razor blades and other contraband onto planes? I'd much rather play the game then just read Goldberg's account of his experience, but as it stands his indictment of the racial politics of airport security cuts deeper than Airport Insecurity. This isn't completely fair, as Ian's goal is to show that arbitrary changes in security protocols have little to do with actually increasing safety - and not to address anything else that might be relevant. We can admire this effort to focus on a single argument and carry it through.

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Are they significant? The answer starts to vary here. One way to tackle tackle judging how significant a newsgame is would be to gauge how fully it engages an issue. That is to say, if the issue is complex then the game should be equally complex. Of course, this doesn't have to apply to the complexity of the gameplay itself - its the modeling of information that counts. Seen in this light, it wouldn't make sense to criticize a round Oil God for being over in a minute or less. It plays out like a few good opening moves in a game of chess. The game attempts to model a whole hell of a lot of information in a short amount of time, and it succeeds at doing this. On the other hand, I think Ian would be the first to admit that Oiligarchy is a "more significant" work - on account of its scope, "alternate history" approach, and grounding in actual government/corporate interaction (as opposed to Ian's meaningful abstraction).

It's hard for a newsgame developer to find the resources and manpower to make her work more than "poster games." But it's worth leaving them in development long enough to fully flesh out opposing viewpoints, do research into what people are actually concerned about, and playtest the game until the desired results have been achieved. It is my hope that the media sources who publish some newsgames will eventually take this in mind when they start deciding in boardrooms what elements should be added to or stricken from a game idea.

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Are they interesting? Here's the big roadblock for me. Certainly we can say that the idea of "the newsgame" is without a doubt interesting. People designing games to make arguments about public policy? Woah there, space cadet! But how do we judge them individually? This is where I feel compelled to ask that-which-we-must-not-imply: should they be fun?

I've answered this partially elsewhere. I don't think newsgames are boring. Even if their subject matter isn't as fun as a mainstream video game, a lot of the mechanics and art are. Most of these games end up getting linked on casual Flash gaming sites, because they look and play like most other free web games. One can't claim that the graphics aren't up to snuff, because simple Flash animation has become a popular and attractive norm in the current generation of TV cartoons. A lot of gamers claim they don't pay attention to a game's story, and a lot of game designers stress the importance of gameplay over narrative. Campaign Rush is a "whack-a-mole" game, Truth Invaders a Space Invaders clone, and September 12th a point-and-click shooter. These are the same tried-and-true "fun" game mechanics that operate in every other casual game. It's the subtle variations on these themes - making the mechanics make a point - that help these games become interesting.
 
Yet when a casual gamers comes across one of these games, they're likely to be quickly confused by the often abrupt or confusing endgame. Maybe it's the lack of reward? A lot of newsgames use the "unwinnable" condition to prove a point. The Chris Crawford "we do not reward failure" message works on an extended piece like Balance of Power. But might it not come off as a cop-out when you're talking about a game that's over before many players even understand what's going on? September 12th suffers from this problem more than most. I understand that the purpose and scope of the piece was to make a succinct point, but I'm sure there were a lot of people who finished their first round of playing it and then said, "well maybe they'll let me attack the issue the 'right' way this time." I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: choice is much more interesting than being fed a moral.

Argue with me, people; I want to learn!

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