Why do journalists focus on story so much? There are other ways of gaining and transmitting understanding.

Stories are necessarily limited. A narrative has to use characters, locations, a clear plot. These are necessarily artificial – an abstraction of reality.

What about complex systems? Like climate change. Like the national budget. The arms trade. Or industrial/political graft networks. These stories are super important. But they’re difficult to tell stories about, because they’re so big and so complex.

The story is in the user.

There are other ways to do it. Civilisation is a great example. Lots of high school teachers in the USA are using it to teach world history. The game is randomly generated every time you start up – there’s no pre-set story, like in a lot of games. Users create the story, as they play. They explore their world, they discover new lands, they wage war, they discover technologies. They’re gaining understanding through interaction.

Global history is a really complicated system, but like any system it runs on principles and rules. You can’t build an ironclad navy if you don’t have access to iron and coal. You can’t build nukes unless you have access to uranium. By interacting with the system, you understand how it works.

It’s about encoding an understanding of the system in another abstraction – not a story, but a game. If the rules of the game accurately reflect the interactions that happen in the real world, the user’s learning is genuine.

I’ve blogged about lots of examples of this here, like Budget Hero, Six Days in Fallujah, MP for a Week, and Trafalgar: Origins. The last one is a history title, but it’s a really excellent game built on a genuine understanding of history, and conveys factual information just like journalism. (History is just old journalism, after all.)

There are a lot of issues about using games in journalism. (Six Days in Fallujah raised a furore with veterans’ groups when it was announced.)

This is where journalism should go.

7 thoughts on “news:rewired

  1. History is just old journalism. Loved this presentation at news:rewired yesterday. I wish more journo’s thought like this. They do get VERY protective about the old way of doing things and it’s only going to be peeps like us rocking the boat that will steer this “death star” of an industry kicking and screaming into the new millenia!

    Great words about using interactive experiences to enhance the story telling / journalistic process. Never thought of that before but as a concept it totally kicks ass.

    LOVE your blog. Will be sure to follow. Keep up the great work – I’m sure I’ll see you around.

  2. Glad you liked it. I absolutely agree with what Kevin Anderson said in his presentation after mine – “Tradition is not a good business model.”

    We humans are communicators. We work together, it’s what we do. Journalists have an absolutely vital role in this system, because shared understanding is essential to teamwork and communication.

    But communication itself is changing, and in a way as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press or even writing itself. In the midst of this sort of upheaval, all bets are off. The way we used to do things may be valuable, or it may not. Frankly, I don’t think that’s a relevant discussion.

    What I do think is relevant is making sure that the best understanding reaches the most people. That’s journalism. And if interactivity is the best way to do it, then we as journalists should be open to that.

    Video games are abstractions of reality. So are stories, whether in text, audio or video. Each has its strengths and weaknessess, and individual journalists can be especially good at one or two of them. It’s important to keep an open mind and realize when the public – the community – can be best served by a story, and best by an interactive experience.

  3. I also really enjoyed your piece at news:rewired (possibly because I really love playing Civilisation).

    I agree that journalism can learn a lot from games. User experience is something that the games industry gets right – they have to make things ‘fun’ or else it’s not a ‘game’. Publishers should try to make their content and presentation just as engaging. But, as you mentioned with the Fallujah game, there’s a perception that game=frivolous=inappropriate.

    I took a game-oriented approach to an interactive my team made for
    All of the data of where the UK’s carbon emissions arise from underpins a dashboard where the user can experiment with ways to reduce carbon emissions; choosing how to generate power or change travel choices. I think it’s a really nice way of presenting the issues around climate change that is more user-focused than an article could be.

    The problem with this approach is that applications like this are difficult and expensive to produce, and need specialist resources that often aren’t available to a news organisation. It’s really hard to get support for these types of projects unless it’s on a really big, ongoing topic like climate change.


  4. Indeed – making games and interactives is time-consuming and resource intensive compared to, say, reporting in print or making an audio piece. But it compares favourably with television documentaries and current-affairs pieces. As the technology progresses, toolkits and processes will evolve to make it easier and simpler to make games for journalism – see The Cartoonist example from the previous post.

    On the frivolity point, I agree – this is essentially a function of the medium’s youth. Games haven’t been around for so long. Only now are people who play them reaching positions of power in any real numbers. Once most of our mayors, directors, presidents, bosses etc. play games as a matter of course, the medium’s reputation will be quite different. Most people I know already consider games a serious medium.

    When they came on the scene, radio and television were also derided as distractions, incapable of being used for serious journalism. It’s only a matter of time.

  5. That’s true, TV documentaries are a good comparison. Same issue with requiring specialist skills, too.

    Generational change will see games becoming more accepted, I agree. I always understood Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions as being “things change because old people die eventually”.

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