Why video games have a place in journalism

The second day of the Online Journalism Symposium at UT Austin starts with what some may consider an unusual topic for a journalism conference – video games.

Suzanne SeggermanSuzanne Seggerman, president of the non-profit Games For Change, offers an overview of games as a medium. She starts off by noting that parents, educators and the media approach games with fear.

Her argument is that but people don’t understand that games are a young medium and don’t have anything that are inherently corrupt. She goes over how people reacted to other types of young media at time, such as the written word, novels and film, decrying them at the time.

This is all well trodden ground for anyone who knows about games, saying games are growing up, played across board by both men and women. It is slightly depressing that even at a conference like this, there is still a presentation justifying why games should be taken seriously.

Still, it is a good overview for newbies and Seggerman cites several games that tackle political, social and cultural issues, such as Peacemaker, Ayiti and Darfur is Dying.

Ian Bogost, associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner of Persuasive Games, takes the stage of focus on the notion of newsgames. He describes these as simulation meets political cartoons.

In his presentation, he provides a valuable insight into the issues that come up doing news games. He defines these types of products as editorial games, which encompass journalistic news values such as currency and impact.

So he has produced games tied to news events such as rising gas prices, e-coli in spinach and the airport security.

But tackling news raises all sorts of editorial issues. For example, in the airport security game for Shockwave, he had to negotiate what sorts of things could be included in it. Hummus was fine but not a copy of the Koran. Or a penis pump or anything remotely sexual.

The problems were much worse when Bogost tried to do editorial games for the New York Times. He says the paper got cold feet very fast. A game about steroids in baseball was delayed until they could not release it. And proposals for games on gun violence, campaign finance and the cult of Apple were rejected.

Bogost says the experience was “something of a nightmare” as the commitment was not there from the paper.

“We got completely screwed in this deal,” he recalls. In his view, the problem was that the New York Times didn’t understand idea of editorial games so none were published.

Bogost’s presentation raises all sorts of journalistic questions. It shows there may be unease in newsrooms about using something that games that may sit uneasily with editorial values such as impartiality and fairness.

Howard Finberg, executive director of Poynter Institute’s NewsU.org, makes a case for the place of games in journalism.

He argues that the retention rate when you are actually doing something is 70 to 80%, compared to 20% for written material and 50% retention for text and some kind of audio/visual component.

Finberg argues that news games offer a way for news outlets to keep audiences involved and inform them by letting them do something.

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