When Scott Carney pitched a feature story about the economics of piracy to Wired in 2009, a video game wasn’t part of his plan. But the magazine came back with an idea to tell the story using formulas, and the layout inspired the team at Wired.com to develop a game.
Cutthroat Capitalism puts the player in the position of a Somali pirate captain. He needs to make decisions about which ships to capture, how much ransom to request and how to treat the crew of the captured ship. His negotiation skills determine whether a ransom is paid or your crew is force to flee.
“There were a couple ways that we could have gone with the pirate story,” says Carney. “It could have been a feature where I travelled to Somalia and met pirates, found hostages and talked to kidnapped people. But so many mags were already making great coverage of that type.”
It was the challenge of telling a story through formulas that appealed to Carney, although he found the process “very difficult intellectually”.
“It is very difficult to tell a feature story with equations … I did a ton of interviews that never saw the light of day because of the format.”
Using games to tell news stories forces journalists to think and work in radically different ways. But, these rich, non-linear narratives have the potential to push storytelling in new directions and engage audiences more deeply.
Video games are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global media industry – forecast by PriceWaterhouseCoopers to grow by a 10 per cent between 2010 and 4014. This is ahead of traditional platforms such as radio at 3.5 per cent, and newspaper and magazine publishing at less than one per cent.
There is also a growing notion that games, like journalism, can be used for the public benefit.
Serious games such as September 12th, Madrid and Darfur is Dying, are based on news events: the 9/11 attacks; the Madrid bombings; and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Projects such as World Without Oil aim to encourage debate and find solutions to peak oil; and the Games for Change community advocates making games with a social impact.
These “newsgames” are not games in the traditional sense – there are no levels and often you can’t win – but they show how game mechanisms can be used to encourage engagement in social and political issues.
In such games, the journalism often exists in the system the game describes or the results of certain actions.
For Philip Trippenbach, editor-in-chief of Citizenside, this is what gives games the edge over traditional narratives. He told a media event in London earlier this year that complex issues cannot be accommodated in a 300-word story or 90-second broadcast.
“Stories are very good at relating events, whereas it’s extremely important to understand systems. And the best way to learn how a system works is by interacting with it, by playing with it.”
It means journalists and editors need to change their approach to storytelling.
Shannon Perkins, Wired.com’s editor of interactive news technologies, spent about 400 hours on Cutthroat Capitalism. He stopped all other projects during the four to six weeks he worked on it. He describes the job as “rewarding but intensive”.
“It is a strong illustration of the principles discussed in the story,” says Perkins. “As you play it you get the sense of what was at stake, what the consequences of actions are. It seems to me that this happens on an emotional level.”
As journalism struggles to find its place in emerging technologies, Perkins thinks games offer a rich way for journalists to tell stories and for people to explore them.
Pamela Statz, who until December last year was Wired.com’s managing editor, oversaw the Cutthroat Capitalism project. She considers it one of the highlights of her time there, but says it is not something her team could have produced regularly.
“You have to choose your battles, you have to choose when you are going to use a lot of resources. Doing a project like this once in a while is great, it is a rare opportunity for us to do something really in depth … but there is no way we can do something like this on a month-to-month basis.”
She says Perkins’ “huge” range of skills made the project possible, but normally it would require three or four people, which increases costs. “It should have cost 10 times what we were able to pay Shannon.”
Cost and a lack of skills are hurdles to incorporating games into news production. But changing newsroom culture is a bigger challenge.
Paul Egglestone is the digital co-ordinator at the School of Journalism, Media and Communication at England’s University of Central Lancashire, which will this year launch a new module in its masters program focused on games and interactive narratives for journalists. As part of the planning for this module, the school collaborated with UK media companies and developers.
Egglestone says newsrooms are a long way from being able to produce compelling games-based news. “Deadline and story-driven newsroom culture won’t support this level of creativity,” he says.
He says existing workflows would need to be opened up considerably to enable newsrooms to add games. The most important element is people: “It’s not just about skills … it’s about how relationships and roles are defined. And it’s about how the public face of the news organisation interacts with its new audience. The game is just another content output.”
Steffen Walz, director of RMIT’s new Games and Experimental Entertainment Laboratory (GEElab), thinks newsgames are a “cool direction” but to make them viable, journalists will need to start seeing themselves as producers, rather that writers. These journalists will need training in multimedia and game design.
Walz says games, with their ability to reach audiences beyond hard gamers, makes them an important platform. “They are instilling themselves in the continuum of everyday life.”
But he says it is important for newsroom to know how they will measure success. “What do you get out of it? More subscribers? Is it an integral part of what you do?”
Audiences are increasingly incorporating new platforms into their lives. A survey last year by The Pew Research Centre for People and the Press identified a shift in the way people used technology. It showed that rather than abandoning old forms in favour of new ones, audiences were exploiting new platforms to interact with information in new ways. They were also consuming more news.
At the heart of a good game is good story, and John Welsh, who runs The Serious Games Consultancy in Adelaide, says narrative is vital to delivering the level of audience engagement that is the key strength of games. He believes there is a market for serious games “where ever gameplay can be intelligently delivered”.
“It is very exciting and I genuinely believe it is a revolutionary way of communicating, because anything which gives you a degree of experience has got to be better than something which is sedentary or passive. But equally, it is not always appropriate. You don’t want to turn everything into a game. Either it trivialises it or it is more effort to create a game than just to do it.”
Wired.com’s Perkins agrees: “The number one rule has to be to tell a journalistic story … the game has to add a layer of understanding. It can’t just be an adjunct to the story, it needs to deepen the understanding for the user.”
Carney thinks his pirate story worked as because it “was all about economics. About numbers,” but he says not all stories lend themselves to game treatment.
“There is a push within some magazines to go all infographic, and turn content into easily digestible nuts. Most stories just don’t work as info-porn.”
Egglestone sees potential. He thinks there could be thousands of ways to tell stories in future and “sitting journalists down with games designers and asking ‘what if’ is just the beginning.
“Add the user to the equation and create the right environment to foster creative play and I’d say there was a future for new forms of storytelling and this will be one of them.”