Newsgame, or Editorial Game?

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Continuing the thread on editorial games from my history, part one.

Author's note: While I was finishing up this piece, Ian forwarded me an upcoming DiGRA paper by Michael Mateas and Mike Treanor of UC Santa Cruz on *roughly* the same subject (though they focus much more on further defining the shared qualities of both genres). It thus became difficult to round off the article without seeing almost every claim as an argument made against their position. I'm not going to reply directly to any of their assertions, nor am I going to include any further insights into the subject that I may have gleaned from reading their piece. When their paper is presented at DiGRA, I hope you'll take the opportunity to contrast my definitional stance with theirs. We will be incorporating and replying to their article directly, and in long form, much later on down the road. Thanks for reading!

The line between "newsgame" and "editorial game" is fuzzy no matter how you slice it. Basically, our suggestion is that most games called "newsgames" don't have the same intentions or goals as traditional reporting, or "the news," but rather those of the op-ed piece: to persuade; therefore, we should label these digital opinion pieces as "editorial" rather than "news." Most people are probably inclined to ignore the possible distinction, because there doesn't seem to be enough proof that we need one in the first place (we can't exactly place a finger on what a "properly journalistic" newsgame would look like, as Paolo Pedercini has pointed out to us before). By the end we will (hopefully) have a slightly better understanding of the relationship between editorial and newsmaking, as well as a firmer grasp on how procedural rhetoric is used in editorial games.

Kabul_Kaboom


Miguel Sicart provides a constraining set of attributes in our quest to find exact definitions for these terms. He claims that newsgames, like the news, should be "timely" and "ephemeral." First we'll address timeliness. Gonzalo Frasca was able to produce Madrid within 48 hours after the train bombings, and he made Kabul Kaboom within a few hours on an airplane trip. There's also the example of Raid Gaza! that Ian recently wrote about, released only a few days after Israel's most recent offensive. But in the same article, Ian shares his experience that it personally takes him at least two weeks to craft a quality newsgame, such as those he created for the Arcade Wire series. I've already hinted that I see the Arcade Wire games as more editorial than news (for obvious reasons, including the fact that they only sometime comment directly on a news event)

Perhaps one distinction between news and editorial game is that the latter isn't bound by Sicart's strict criterion of timeliness? Simplistic opinion pieces are easy to craft directly in the wake of a news event, but a more refined editorial stance requires time to develop and be iterated upon (much like a videogame). We could then see news and editorial games as developing along the rough timeline that Alberto Cairo provides for his infographics workflow: at first the important thing is to present all the facts to the reader (a newsgame proper), and over time more information is added and synthesized (the editorial game). In this light, we can see quickly-produced editorial games such as Hothead Zidane as strange, partially developed hybrids of the two genres: the game presents us with the basic fact of the headbutt and the red card (the news), as well as providing fleeting, unsubtle commentary on the shame that Zidane should be feeling for his actions (the editorial).

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Moving along, Frasca provides us with his own rough definition for the genre whose name he coined himself in a paper he presented to Vodafone. Frasca sees newsgames more as an extension of the editorial cartoon than the written op-ed; therefore, he cites the attractive and satirical flash games by Molleindustria as the pinnacle of the genre. Political cartoons hold a special place in Gonzalo's heart, because the cartoons in French textbooks were the only thing that made secondary public school education tolerable for him. Just as public school takes itself "too seriously," Frasca asserts that print journalism is too stolid for a new generation of readers--he posits this as one of the primary insights that led to the success of The Daily Show. This isn't to say that the news isn't serious business, but rather an indictment of a monolithic institution that has largely failed in adapting to contemporary trends in media distribution and tastes--largely because of what many perceive as its steadfast belief that what has worked in the past (or what has developed gravity through shared values over time) should continue to function unchanged into the future.

In Persuasive Games, Ian discusses the difference between "visual rhetoric" and "procedural rhetoric." Procedural rhetoric is basically how a designer/programmer can use computational processes and tools to express an idea or persuade others. Comics are not procedural, so they fall wholly within the sphere of visual rhetoric - the study of how images persuade or express. Neither one of these rhetorics is inherently "stronger" than the other, but they do function differently enough for us to question the indiscriminate equation of political comics and newsgames. (Author's note: This is exactly where the Mateas and Treanor piece shines most--it lays the groundwork for how we can break down editorial cartoons and adapt their thematic qualities and goals into procedural expression.) Right now we are reading a few books on the subject, which we will return to in the future once we understand thoroughly. For now, our biggest takeaway from Frasca's excitement about the future of the genre (and the medium as a whole) is that procedural representation has the potential to speak directly to contemporary media consumers without taking itself too seriously--both newsgames and editorial games have the ability to tackle serious and disturbing issues playfully.

Returning to Sicart, I believe there's reason to disagree with his criterion of ephemerality--the notion that a newsgame should be thrown away as easily as an article on the same subject. For instance, a newspaper story with the headline, "Tactical Missiles Strike Hospital"--essentially covering the same topic as September 12th--isn't an artifact that one keeps around. September 12th, on the other hand, is a game that can be played time and again and used to reflect on future events. So before Raid Gaza! came out, I sat and watched the news of Israel's latest offensive while playing September 12th. Something about putting the argument and the event into code has the chance to make it timeless. This appears to be another point at which we can distinguish editorial games and newsgames--perhaps a newsgame can be thrown out (or recycled, if we take one of Bartle's suggestions to heart) with the paper, but an editorial bears numerous readings and reflections over time. In this way, we see that a good editorial game shares almost as much with documentary games such as JFK Reloaded as they do with quickly produced, ultra-shortform newsgames.

12thReticle

Both Sicart and Frasca end up asserting that objectivity is not an explicit goal of what they call a newsgame (remember that, according to R+K, striving for objectivity is a fundamental tenant of journalism). For Frasca this seems to just be a working, practical method: newsgame creators care enough about on issue (read, they have a strong enough opinion about it) to spend their time working on these comparatively unprofitable ventures in order to both persuade/express and to develop the burgeoning genre. Sicart is considerably more specific in his explanation, and it stands to take a close look at his view of the "editorial line" in a game. For him, what the newsgame designer chooses to include and exclude determines the game's editorial line. Bias is taken for granted in Frasca's chosen model of the editorial cartoon, which never claims objectivity; however, in Sicart's model--where the newsgame equates roughly to a news story--this privileging of bias conflates the functions of the "factual" news story and the op-ed, thus confusing possible distinctions between editorial games and newsgames.

What does it mean when Miguel Sicart says that "the editorial line" of a game is determined by what is included and excluded? It's easy to state this, but somewhat harder to understand exactly how to design around the idea. Going back past Bogost's explication of procedural rhetoric in Persuasive Games, we can look to what he writes in Unit Operations: simulation games are already about such a selection process of inclusion and exclusion.

When creating a simulation game, as opposed to an actual useable scientific model, one must understand that not every fact or possibility can be included when procedurally modeling a system or event. Instead of hard-coding each important aspect, the game programmer crafts algorithms that will, when generalized, create an impression of the system one hopes to represent. Specifics can be derived by tweaking the algorithms until the two systems match up even closer, but there will always be a "simulation gap" between the real system and the game system.

The goal of an editorial game creator would thus be to narrow the simulation gap as much as possible in order to convey their "line" on the issue, while a newsgame creator would strive to close the simulation gap in such a way that as little bias sneaks through as possible (for Sicart asserts that newsgames "do not persuade" or have "political interests"). For an example, let's take a look at Frasca's September 12th. The game generally works well as a political game, because it effectively delivers its argument against "tactical" bombing; however, as an editorial game one can see a gap in Frasca's line. Essentially, one could read it as a call to military invasion--bombing creates more terrorists, and they're not going away on their own, so a ground strike seems called-for. An admittedly unfair reductio ad absurdum such as this shows the difficulty in designing around the idea of exclusion and inclusion.

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Perhaps the key for an editorial game is to be as blatantly one-sided as possible? In the case of Raid Gaza!, almost everything is excluded: Palestinian terrorists' reasons for shooting missiles at settlements and the motivations of rogue Israeli settlers--two of the many important problems ImpactGame's Peacemaker attempts to explore--are not addressed at all. All that the player understands by the end of the experience is that Israel is using undue force and that the United States will seemingly never cease military and fiscal support for their efforts. The game carefully picks its fight and then plumbs the depths of possible, relevant consequences.

In either case, the "simulation fever" that Bogost warns us about in Unit Operations is just as likely to strike the players of newsgames and editorial games as it is the players of a work such as Sim City. For instance, the simulation gap between what I saw as actual McDonald's business practices and the hilarious hyperbole of Molleindustria led to my somewhat negative reflections on playing the game. While it is by no means a goal to please everybody, another distinct line between newsgames and editorial games seems to be the level of inclusiveness sought (and earned) by the designer. News strives to present information as objectively as possible in order to reach the widest possible audience, while editorial refines its scope in order to persuade or inflame.

Thus, we've established three possible distinctions between newsgames and editorial games: limitations of timeliness, ephemerality, and the simulation gap (and the different ways to close it). I recognize that I've covered and justified these in unequal amounts, and I hope that if you have any detracting comments you'll present them in a constructive manner so that we might move forward with more rigorous definitions in the future. Next time we'll return to our history of the editorial game with an examination of the Arcade Wire series. Thanks for reading.

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3 Comments

Hi Simon - nice to meet you! Very nice post.

It seems like there are at least three overlapping and disagreeing efforts in defining newsgames. Sicart offered his (which as I understood it seemed contradictory at times and imaginary [I couldn't think of any examples if I took the definitive criteria seriously]), yours seems to be what I have tentatively referred to as "reporting games" and mine is that newsgames are political cartoons with procedural messages (i.e. what Frasca said). Let me start by saying I have no particular connection to the word newsgame and your use seems perfectly valid/logical to me, though as I see it, it isn't how the word has been historically used.

Our biggest reason for focusing on political cartoons like we did was because of the rich history and significance that political cartoons have had. It seems likely that whatever driving force makes people draw political cartoons is also what is driving the creation of newsgames (as we use the word). So we set out to understand how political cartoons have worked and are analyzed and used that as a lens to interpret video games that refer to real world events. Whatever we end up calling those sort of games, exploring that space seems like the most beneficial places to focus energy to me. I very much doubt that games that _report_ news stand a chance of being as significant as news.google.com. While persuasive, propaganda, political cartoon-like games seem very well equipped to usurp (or at least supplement) political cartoons on editorial pages to me.

Below are a few particular responses:
"Returning to Sicart, I believe there’s reason to disagree with his criterion of ephemerality"
This is exactly a place where the political cartoon comparison is useful. Political cartoons may refer to one event, but they do so in a way that has larger significance. Looking through tons of old political cartoons I've found that their meaning (of the "good" ones) remains significant, funny, provocative and persuasive. I agree with your challenge of ephemerality.

"...essentially, one could read [Sept 12th] as a call to military invasion—bombing creates more terrorists, and they’re not going away on their own, so a ground strike seems called-for."
Our fluffiest criteria for newsgames is the "Often implies a solution to the problem pointed out." What you are pointing out is that it is hard to control what solutions are implied. What control does a designer have over leading the player to get a desired implied solution? Does what is included/excluded in the gameplay limit the possibility space? For example, the fact that there are no ground forces in the game means that they aren't a possibility in the simulated world and should thus not be considered? No, because the game itself is representational and the skinning implies solutions/associations thus making the ground forces a possibility. I think the implied solutions then need to come from the skinning and tone of a game. Sept 12th feels antiwar through its presentation. I think this is the reason why it is a good bet that Sept 12th isn't about how we need ground forces in Afghanistan.

"...more rigorous definitions..."
In general, I don't know if rigorous definitions are where we should be headed. I actually don't like that my paper has a tone of this. I see the purpose in exploring definitions in the first place is just to open up areas of the design space that were previously hidden. For example, I think our newsgame paper clearly demonstrates that newsgames are like the worst political cartoons and applies the ways taht political cartoons have been considered good to help see how to make newsgames better. In the end, the word newstgame just refers to a genre and eventually genre distinction become arbitrary.

Thanks a lot for this bright and intense analysis. This blog goes straight into my bookmarks !

Heyo Mike! Yeah, I totally agree that the work of defining these things isn't an end in itself. I mostly went through the motions of it here to decide exactly what to write about in our chapter on the subject. I do think that the editorial cartoon connection is the most fruitful for future work in the genre, and I'm reading a couple books on the subject to expand a bit on your paper later on. I'm particularly interested in looking at editorial cartoons that were considered "in bad taste" or pulled from papers after public outrage, since almost every prominent editorial and documentary game has been attacked in such a way at some point (the most recent example being the pulling of Faith Fighter from Molleindustria's main page).

I don't know if I agree with your assessment of September 12th there. I mean, I see exactly what you're saying... but I would hope that we're capable of a little more nuance than that. To me the anti-war and anti-bombing-of-innocents are two completely different things, you know? I don't know of anyone who found that interpretive loophole I did, but there's no reason to think that if these things became more popular in the future then people wouldn't misinterpret them wildly. I can think of a few editorial cartoons that this happened to, including the one by Ramirez from the LA Times where a soldier labeled "Politics" is executing Bush... it was a pro-Bush cartoon but was interpreted as a death threat by the FBI.

Finally, as to the reportage or reporting game, yeah, I don't know if it has much of a future. But I think that if we're serious about exploring the argument that videogames are strongest at modeling spaces and systems, then we have to at least try to find out if news stories that are primarily spatial or systems-based are better conveyed with a reportage game than with an article + pictures or an info-visualization. Certainly it's not for every news event, but the model of infographics workflow developed by Alberto Cairo show that there are certain kinds of stories that are best covered graphically. Who knows? Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to reading your final draft when you publish it! We'll definitely be citing it, expanding on it, etc. in our chapter!