Interactivity, Role Playing in News Games Engage Readers

If interactive games make you think of car chases and gunfights instead of conversations between world leaders on serious issues, see the gaming platforms created by two news-loving entrepreneurs.

Using audio, video and interactivity, Eric Brown and Asi Burak have created more than 100 games on “Play the News.” The games are designed to help people understand complex topics that range from the U.S. election, auto mergers, big oil in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With graduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon in Entertainment Technology, Brown and Burak venture that readers gain important perspective and better understanding by virtually standing in the shoes of world leaders.

“News consumers are starting to turn into RSS feed readers,” said Brown. “And while that means that people see lots of headlines, it doesn’t mean that they’re engaging deeply with the content. So the question is how do you create value with the resources that you have that will compel people to come past that?”

In this edited interview, CEO of Impact Games Brown describes the reporting, editing and development process his company uses, and the efficient tools they’ve produced to help newsrooms engage the public.

Sara Quinn: Would you say that the idea of the gaming environment is that you immerse people in the situation so that they can see a lot of perspectives?

Eric Brown: Right. You can put multiple perspectives around an event.

By playing the game, people can see the cause and effect relationships in their choices as they relate to the event. Adding timelines, geography and highlights of the different groups and leaders that are involved and talked about in news articles, helps the understanding.

One major project you’ve created is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, right?

Brown: Yes, Peacemaker. The feedback that we’ve gotten from Peacemaker is that people really have been able to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — because of the game interface –- in two to four hours, instead of reading the news for years and years and years.

You’ve had a number of different researchers working with you to report and outline the various perspectives. How did you go about hiring those people?

Brown: The writers that we’ve worked with are journalists. The whole medium of interactive journalism is sort of a young medium, so we had to do a little on-the-job training.

Can you explain the process for one story or project? Do you use sort of a template?

Brown: The way that Asi and I go about it is to think of it in steps:

  1. What is the underlying issue that you want to explain?
  2. Who are the groups and leaders who are involved?
  3. What are the roles, moving forward?
  4. What types of actions could they possibly take?

So, we built out the framework for interactivity with the goal of trying to create these things on a daily basis. That’s the key to making news games –- something that can be turned around on deadline.
Much like a newsroom, we had a morning meeting to pitch what events had happened that we wanted to address. What news played well into the type of platform that we created?

Then, we’d create quick outlines to sort of hash out what the key things would be. We’d meet with the artists, continue to report and write the content to sort of fill in the holes throughout the day, and then publish.

A lot of conventional newsrooms lack the interactive skills that you’re describing to create something quickly –- conceptualizing, story boarding or visualizing and putting it into any form that’s not a traditional form. It’s obviously not easy to incorporate the interactivity.

Brown: Of course the editing is important; to look at the full text to make sure it all flows and makes sense, that we’re not missing any key information.

At the end of the day, with our publishing tool, technically it would only take about 10 or 20 minutes to plug and play the images and things like that.

It was sort of a tough undertaking for us, to address every issue. We’d have to go out and research and report; to vet and source as well as we could.

We have a feed from Reuters. We’d use video and images from them and from open source communities.

So many of the projects you’ve created rely on such deep background. You provide a real primer on the issue with lots of perspectives.

Brown: That’s the reason that we want to partner with other organizations and journalists. If it’s an issue that involves a reporter’s beat -– let’s say it’s an article about an event in Zimbabwe -– that deep understanding would make the process so much easier and faster.

It’s the concept and forms that we’ve developed that can help people understand the issue: looking for the underlying issues and then projecting into the future what the possible roles and actions might be.

There’s really a craft to boiling it down to what the potential options are in a situation, so that you’re covering all perspectives and options that someone (playing the game) would want to choose. The options that are feasible and in the realm of possibility.

The real editorial part of it comes in what we call the “adviser” text -– that’s generally quoted from other, expert sources, different groups and leaders.

Most of the background involves archival material, pulling out facts and events in a way that’s digestible.

The key to your idea is the way it’s presented.

Brown: Yes. When you package it in this way, you’re engaging someone with an interactive. You’re increasing the likelihood that they’ll come back because they care about the story. Or the likelihood that they’re following the story because they want to see the next event in that string of actions.

Is it the engagement of participating that keeps people coming back?

Brown: Seeing multiple perspectives, engaging with the story and the community over time. Our work to this point has shown that people are interested in engaging, in commenting on events, in creating sort of a social/political profile for themselves online.

What’s next for you?

Brown: I’m out there, trying to find a partner who would want to use the tools that we created. A lot of our Beta community has been important to refine the process, refine some of the technology and to show that the tools are flexible.

At the end of the day, the gaming format can help to create deeper, richer content that engages. We think the content that news organizations already produce can work well with this process.

We’re interested in working with journalism schools to possibly allow them to use our platform within the schools — to sort of play around with the tools we’ve created. It would be a way for them to see what it’s like to write articles in these forms. It’s a way to dissect a story in a way that allows for interactivity.

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