Forget the Story

Thoughts on Interaction-Based Journalism

Journalism expressed in a video game can be interaction-based, not story-based.

What the hell does this mean, anyhow? It means that games could give journalists a completely different way of reaching their audience.

There’s three basic modes of learning, right? Lecturing, storytelling and play. We all know which is the least effective. Storytelling is more fun. We all seem to be hardwired to do it, so we’re good at understanding things this way. That’s why most journalism is storytelling of one kind or another, with characters, plot points, scene descriptions and so on. Good print articles tell stories; good documentaries tell stories.

Games are also a powerful learning tool. But you don’t learn from video games by following the story. Games aren’t about story. Games are about skills. Games are about figuring out, through trial and error and applied intelligence, how a certain model of the world works. Many games these days do have stories, of course, but many of the best don’t.

Chess? Go? Tetris? No story. The Sims? It’s the bestselling game of all time, and there’s no trace of a story. It’s a set of parts you can assemble, and a set of rules governing how those parts interact. (Rules like: if you don’t feed your sims, they get sick and die. If you don’t find your sims jobs, they can’t buy food. Etc.) Ditto SimCity, Civilization, and plenty of others.

The reason these games are powerful learning devices is because they create a model that works in a certain way, and you have to figure out the rules as you go along. That’s what makes the game fun – you start as a n00b and end up pwning. Becoming the expert is the fun bit. (Props to RK for this.) When you become an expert through playing, you gain an intuitive understanding for the way things work in the particular simulation you’re interacting with.

This is an extremely powerful way of learning, because you actively drive your own development of skills. The game may be a simulation, but the skills are real. Like if you rack up enough hours in one of these, you can then be trusted with 400 lives. If the simulation is accurate to reality, then you’ve learned something about the real world.

This is where journalists come in – could we design a game that would let people learn about the issues we’re covering through interaction?

There are games out there that address serious issues, even make editorial points. Their designers do this by placing the people they’re trying to reach in an authentic situation. Some succeed better than others, but that’s the nature of any medium.

Interaction-based journalism could give the public a new way of engaging with the news. We’d create the application and let them loose to try things out. We’d put them in positions where they have to make realistic choices based on authentic, real-world information. We’d give them a realistic, tantalizing challenge to overcome.

They’ll sort out the story on their own.

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One thought on “Forget the Story

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