Why we need to use games for Journalism

Video games are like crack cocaine. In a good way. And that’s why we need to use them for journalism.

Yesterday I led a seminar with Paul Dwyer’s Media class at the Univeristy of Westminster. The subject was games as a maturing medium: one capable of great sophistication, depth and variety of expression. I think journalists and news organisations should be interested in video games as vectors for news and current affairs.

The lecture was over an hour long, but the quick version is this:

Demographics. Who actually plays games? Well, in short – everyone. 100% of 6-10 year-olds play video games multiple times a week. 97% of 11-16 year-olds do. And so on. Even in the 55-and-over age bracket, nearly 1/5th are gamers. Take the whole population together, and you’ll find that nearly half of everybody in the UK plays games more than once a week. We’re in the middle of a demographic shift from a society of non-gamers to a society of gamers. Any media organization that ignores this does so at its peril.

Fun. The real reason journalism needs to get into games is because they’re fun. This may seem obvious. But when you see what ‘fun’ really is, you’ll see why this is so important.

Let’s look at a simple example. Tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses, if you’re in the UK) is a pretty lame game. You play it as a kid and then you soon get bored of it. Why?

Because it is limited. There are only 23,580 possible games of tic-tac-toe. This may seem like a large number, but compare to chess (something over 10^50 possible games, at a lower bound) and you’ll see that it’s pitifully small. The fact is that with tic-tac-toe, you soon understand all the possible patterns and mentally map all the possible outcomes. This happens subconsciously, but that’s just how cool our brains are – they figure things out without you even realising it. Once you’ve understood this game fully, it becomes boring.

All games are like this. Most of them are much more complicated. Tetris is about the geometry of tetrads. Halo (and all FPS games) is about precise aim and timing. Grand Theft Auto is about exploration. In GTA, once you’ve explored the whole map, it’s done and the game is boring. Once you’ve fully understood any game – it becomes boring.

So fun is the process of acquiring understanding.

It’s trying again and again and again, because you want that “Aha! I got it!” moment so badly. Every time you hit that moment, you get a little shot of dopamine in your brain. That feels good; dopamine is the satisfaction chemical.

The corollary to this is that there is no game that is not educational. So that’s the second reason news organisations should be interested in games. ‘Cause they’re one of the most powerful educational devices known to our species.

You know what else gives you a little hit of dopamine when you do it?

Crack cocaine.

In neurochemistry terms, games are like crack. Only instead of destroying your family and leaving you peniless and desperate on the street, games leave you with more skills and understanding than when you started.

What you gain those skills and that understanding about depends entirely on the game design. A game like Halo 3 or just teaches you to aim and fight. (Just? well, maybe not ‘just’ – otherwise the US Army wouldn’t be interested in this sort of game.) But there are many games that teach sophisticated skills and subtle understanding. Some are interesting in the journalism context – like JFK Reloaded, September 12, Global Conflict: Palestine, and Sim City. There are links to them all on the right.

If you’d like to know more, take a look at the slides.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. Happy playing!

2 thoughts on “Why we need to use games for Journalism

  1. Well, I would argue that even mainstream games can be informative – I learned a fair bit about the sengoku period playing “Shogun: Total War” and “Deus Ex” required you to get familiar with buckyballs and grey goo. A few months ago I watched a CNN story about nuclear reactors in north korea. “Oh,” I thought, “they must be worried about the Yongbyong 5mw installation.” Thank you, “Mercenaries.”

    Further, there have been a few games that have informed my opinions about storytelling – a crucial subject, if you’re me – “Beyond Good & Evil,” “FF3,” and “Deus Ex” again, just to name a few. I’ve also learned that tanith6227 will occasionally whore kills in tactical games if he gets frustrated, and that you always break right through doorways when we breach in a fps.

    On the whole I am happy to agree with this post, and excited for you that your job allows you to work in the area. Down with luddism! up with the man-machine interface! up with using machines for the man-man interface!

  2. Indeed, mainstream games are informative in the way you describe. But let’s take Shogun as an example. I’d argue that the more importatnt lesson you learned while playing it was pre-firearms field warfare tactics.

    While playing Shogun, you got better at the game. At first you sucked, like we all do, and then by playing battles over and over with bigger and bigger armies, you got better. By now you’ve played enough of the game that you’d actually be a halfway decent field commander for a real-life army, if you were ever put in that position. That’s because playing the game has taught you real tactical principles like flanking, the use of terrain, which type of soldier (pikes/horse/archers) to use against which, and so on.

    The process of playing the game allows you to explore the way battles work in a very real way – only without losing life and kingdom if (when) you fail. In a way, games allow you to learn through the creative exploration of failure, because you can fail without cost. By doing so, you learn real skills. That’s why games can be so useful.

    Think of chess: it teaches real lessons in strategy and planning, despite being so abstracted that it doesn’t really look like a real battle, at all.

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