Gaming is mainstream, and there are billions of people who chose to consume stories through the medium of video games. But even with some very high-profile newsgames and a demonstrable audience, few news publishers are making the most of the medium to share news. That’s a wasted opportunity – but hopefully things are turning around.

There are hundreds of games about journalism. The role of a reporter is an active one, and lends itself nicely to the medium of video games. There’s an entire genre of games all about taking on the role of an editor and determining what side of a story gets shared with the public. Some of them even make a point of demonstrating the difficulty of juggling the commercial needs of the paper or news station with the need to accurately inform the public.

But those are games about the news. And we know that publishers already invest heavily in digital games to be bundled within their apps and ecosystems. But what about newsgames – games that actually explain the news?

Games as a viable way of doing journalism

Over the past few years something fun has been occurring in journalism; the rise of the newsgame. Only yesterday the Financial Times published a newsgame to coincide with Earth Day: players were tasked with deciding which policies and social endeavours were worth investing in to mitigate climate change and reach Net Zero by 2050.

It’s a genuinely fun (and tricky) way of illustrating the multifaceted problems that come from transitioning from where we are now to Net Zero. With a limited number of ‘effort points’, where do you invest your pool of resources to ensure that Net Zero is achieved? It’s not a perfect model of the issues – but what it does excellently is educate the player as they go.

Before playing, for instance, I didn’t know that global methane emissions account for about one-third of human-caused warming. But I do now, because the game got me to invest in methane mitigation tech.

And while the player might have learned that from a text-only article, the interactivity of the newsgame means they have a greater understanding of how all those climate concerns interact, and have a much clearer idea of exactly how challenging it is to solve it – because they tried themselves.

Think also about CNN’s newsgame in which players took control of the Evergiven as it attempted to clear the first part of the Suez canal. As with the FT’s climate game it isn’t a perfect model – nor is it trying to be – but it provides valuable information about the strictures of navigating the Suez canal and uses its interactivity to engage the player. And since the vast, vast majority of newsgames are playable in-browser, they are widely accessible and under the total control of the publisher.

In the blurb for the book ‘Newsgames: Journalism at Play’ the authors note: “Videogames do not offer a panacea for the ills of contemporary news organizations. But if the industry embraces them as a viable method of doing journalism – not just an occasional treat for online readers – newsgames can make a valuable contribution.”

That’s especially true as more people become, if not ‘gamers’ by their own definition, then at least habituated to playing digital games. According to research from Facebook Gaming, every third person on the planet now engages with games to a greater or lesser extent. Mobile gaming accounts for the vast majority of gaming, and the audience cohorts that game on mobile are far broader than you might expect, crossing gender and demographic bounds to deliver a true representative cross-section of the public.

Newsgames, then, are for everyone in much the same way that news video or podcasts are. People don’t need to be taught how to play them, or educated in what a video game looks like. Everyone just knows now.

The player perspective

Moreover, some news games can teach journalists themselves more about how the public sees us. While we’re all at least anecdotally aware of how mercenary our requests for comment or permission to use images can appear, actually playing the role of the person being bombarded by messages is eye-opening.

Following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing Dan Hett, brother of one of the victims, made a browser game titled Sorry To Bother You. In it, players take on the role of a person being asked for comment by journalists – and have to filter those messages out from those sent from family and friends.

Hett told BuzzFeed: “One of the things I set out to to do was use games to set out what it was like in a way that I don’t think I could have by writing about it. The fact it becomes unplayable within a few minutes was a conscious choice.

“If I wanted people to take anything away from it, it’s just for it to become a talking point – I’ve had a few of the original journalists reach out saying ‘I was one of the thousands of people and it’s made me reconsider and re-think, and we need to do better’.”

So nobody’s going to argue that every article or issue need to be turned into a newsgame. That would be costly from a development time point of view and would probably dilute the appeal of the ones that we do get. But as those above games demonstrate, in addition to the raft of other newsgames that already exist, there is a growing audience for the medium. Publishers could quite easily get them sponsored, secure in the knowledge that a well-produced newsgame is a big audience draw.

Gaming as a medium is well established. It’s well past time that news publishers start using that to their advantage. If nothing else, it’s a new avenue for journalism to explore.

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Header image via the FT’s Climate Game
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