I played the news today, oh boy

The next frontier for video games: current events

(Greg Klee/ Globe Staff)
By Laura Bennett
July 3, 2011

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If you want to understand the problem of piracy, it is one thing to read a news story about pirates. It is quite another to steer your own ship through the blue waters off the Somali coast, ambush a fishing boat, and negotiate a ransom for the crew, all with a clock ticking.

The game Cutthroat Capitalism was published on in 2009, alongside an article that investigated the profitability of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. To play this game is to realize, as soon as you cast your anchor and board a chemical tanker, that a pirate’s life involves a pretty complicated cost-benefit analysis: bidding high, compromising when necessary, handling hostages just roughly enough to drive up the stakes. You end up grasping the economics of piracy in a surprisingly immediate way.

“We wanted to give readers a sense of what it was like to be a Somali pirate, if from a superficial level,” said former Wired editor Pam Statz, who commissioned the game.

Cutthroat Capitalism is one of several video games developed in recent years not just for entertainment, but for the specific aim of delivering news. In 2009, the BBC published a game called Credit Crunch to help illuminate the causes of the financial crisis. The New York Times has published a game to illustrate the difficulty of preventing outbreaks of food-borne disease from the perspective of an FDA inspector, and an immigration game in which players compete to award green cards under the system proposed by the 2007 McCain bill.

Although the movement to deliver news through games is still a fledgling one, it has attracted the interest of academics, media, and advocates all drawn to a perhaps surprising promise: that video games, when done well, have potential to do something new for our understanding of world events. With its speed and color, a video game is understandably attractive to news organizations looking for new ways to capture an audience. But for readers, or players, it can do something deeper as well: force a different kind of reckoning with the world, allowing people to see the news as a realm of choice and complexity rather than packaged information.

“The fundamental thing about video games that excites me is the ability to simulate complexity, to characterize systems and how they behave,” said Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

To see games this way gives us not only a new way to appreciate the news, but a new way to think about what our brains are doing when we play a game: how much they are absorbing, whether or not we understand it at the time.

In the recent book “Newsgames: Journalism at Play” from MIT Press, Bogost and two of his graduate students, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer, argue that video games are especially good at presenting the kind of messy, systemic questions that are hard to address in print. Bogost is also a founding partner of Persuasive Games, which creates games with an activist bent. A good game, Bogost says, can motivate players to wrestle with difficult questions, not to mention capture shrunken attention spans in our manic 24-hour news cycle. As the media frantically tries to reinvent itself, his work suggests, the Xbox controller could end up being a particularly valuable tool.

Traditional media are good at telling stories. Since human narratives are among the surest ways to recruit our emotions, it makes sense that news stories often focus on specific people and events. Where the media tend to struggle, says Bogost, is in representing inhuman systems: the mechanics of subprime mortgages or how nuclear reactors work and what can happen when they fail or the environmental factors that produce a deadly earthquake or tornado.

These are important issues, but frustratingly difficult to make into compelling stories. Charts and images can certainly be helpful, but even in their most sophisticated interactive versions, they lack the grabbing power of a narrative.

Playing a game, on the other hand, triggers a whole different relationship to the material. It summons what Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author of “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” calls “urgent optimism”: intense motivation, the desire to act immediately to tackle a difficult task that we believe we have a reasonable chance of accomplishing. When we play games, we tend to care very intensely - at least for a pulse-quickening moment - about the outcome of what we’re doing.

As we operate within the game, we also learn things, and not necessarily what we’d pick up from reading a story or watching a news report on TV. “We learn differently from content-driven media than we do from media driven by choice and problem-solving,” wrote James Paul Gee, a literacy studies professor at Arizona State University, last year in an article titled “Video Games: What They Can Teach Us About Audience Engagement.” “In content-driven media, we learn by being told and reflecting on what we are told.” In games, players are forced to reflect on information and digest it, because their choices concretely affect whether they win or lose.

As a result, devoted game players can end up learning immense amounts about the game environment. As players become more deeply entwined in the world of a complex game like Call of Duty or Halo or World of Warcraft, they necessarily grasp its dynamics and internal politics. Today, McGonigal has pointed out, one of the largest collaborative encyclopedias in the world is the World of Warcraft wiki - a site that currently lists over 90,000 pages of detailed information that players compile not as homework, but for fun.

To turn all that energy in the direction of news, of course, requires transforming reality into a game. When this is done for non-news purposes, people sometimes find it distasteful: After the Japanese earthquake, one gamer created a version of the post-apocalyptic action game Fallout 3 in which players could explore the wreckage of the power plant Fukushima Dai-ichi. And shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed, an independent game developer generated an eerily faithful version of the compound in Abbottabad for the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike: Source. When The New York Times posted an item about it, several commenters were outraged. “This is so horrible - trivializing murder. I shudder as I read this,” one wrote.

Beyond those extreme examples, though, a sense of real-world stakes has long driven video games. News-based simulations first appeared in the early years of computer gaming. Balance of Power, a game of geopolitical Cold War strategy and nuclear brinksmanship, was released in 1985, and Hidden Agenda, about post-revolutionary Central America, three years later. These games took the real-world environments of classic games like Risk, and enriched them with details about contemporary events. Though not designed with journalistic intent, they’re seen by many current newsgame makers as evidence that a game can drive engagement with an issue, rather than just provide a diversion.

One example of a new-generation newsgame is PeaceMaker, released in 2007 by Impact Games, which develops educational games based on current events. The player assumes the role of either the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister and works toward brokering peace. From a thicket of research on the Middle East peace process, including real video footage, the game creates a vehicle for understanding what both sides have at stake - and why it’s so hard to make progress.

Winning the game requires reaching a peace agreement, but Asi Burak, cofounder of Impact Games, notes that players often begin by simply obliterating the other side - bombing them, wrecking their cities, taking the most extreme possible path through the game.

First, players fail, he explains, “then they go back and play the game again with a much more educated and balanced approach.”

Newsgames do present a few complications from a journalistic point of view. One of these is a problem also faced by traditional media: bias. The term “newsgame,” in fact, originated not with a newspaper or TV network but with an activist - video game developer Gonzalo Frasca, who coined the word in 2003 when he launched for games with a political message. Several months after the Iraq war began, Frasca released the simulation September 12th, in which the player aims a crosshair at a Middle Eastern village and attempts to target solely AK-47-toting “terrorists” in a crowd of civilians. His game is intended to be a sort of interactive op-ed, a bold statement against the US military’s tactical missile strikes.

Burak, of Impact Games, is also copresident of Games for Change, a nonprofit that promotes the use of video games to inform the public about social and political issues and which recently hosted its eighth annual conference in New York. And his PeaceMaker game has a specific goal in mind: Players win by reaching a two-state solution.

But even the most evenhanded games produced by mainstream news organizations run the risk of inflating or distorting facts. No game about Israel and Palestine, no matter how thorough, could possibly capture all the nuances of the relationship in a way that makes all sides happy.

“It’s very hard to be nonbiased on game design because you are always setting limits,” Frasca said. Cutthroat Capitalism, Statz explained, ultimately had to overstate the maximum ransom that pirates tend to demand for the sake of a more interesting game. “I was most worried about stretching the truth, modifying what actually happened in the news,” she said.

And from the perspective of a news organization, there are also practical concerns of cost and timing when developing games; their design can be expensive, and lengthy gestation periods mean that it can be difficult to finish them in time for the news cycle. By the time a publication developed a decent game about a political or natural disaster, the crisis could well be over.

So could games really become part of our normal info-diet? In order to keep pace with events, Gee envisions a basic, flexible game engine on top of which users could “mod” new levels with contemporary relevance. He imagines a World War I game that could have a simulation about Libya quickly built into it, or a game based on the Great Depression that could be updated with a level about the current financial crisis.

Even games that oversimplify or stretch the facts, Gee says, often succeed at motivating players to seek out more information on the topic at hand. A recent study by Stephanie Fisher of York University found that teens who played World War II video games were more interested in learning about history - looking up historical terminology, identifying costume and weaponry, and researching particular battles - than teens who did not play the games. So at the very least, playing a game might encourage us to read the news.

“A game may not teach us everything,” said Eric Klopfer, who researches games and education at MIT, “but it drives our interest to learn more.”

Laura Bennett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.