May sees the results of this year's Knights News Challenge, the American initiative which offers up to $5,000,000 in grants to community and journalism projects.

Proposals, such as Aron Pilhofer's DocumentCloud and Paul Bradshaw's Help Me Investigate.com, must focus on helping specific geographic communities through digital, open-source technology.

In the run up to the results, Journalism.co.uk looked back to one of last year's entries, David Johnson, an assistant professor at American University, Washington DC, to see what progress had been made with his 'For the People' initiative.

Though Johnson is still seeking funding (an estimated $5,000,000), he is certain his idea, which focuses on using computer games to make news more accessible, could benefit the public.

Using Microsoft's XNA framework, he wants to develop a Sim City-style game based on the politics of Washington DC with avatars of real, elected officials placed inside federal buildings. Topical information, for example from news organisations, could then be streamed into the system.

The idea could be expanded to cover other localities, says Johnson.

"While certain experiences will be built modelling point-of-view gaming experiences (...) Real data will stream into the experience live over the internet, creating links to current news sources and archives of information," Johnson tells Journalism.co.uk. 

"While a 'Second Life' potential for interactive community could exist within the model, rather than focus on the novelty of the interface, the goal will be to attach vast databases of public information to the virtual space."

Users would be able to visualise complex issues and be presented with political data in a more accessible way through the gaming platform, he adds. 

"Avatars will be connected to the congressional record, speeches, public statements and news searches. Overlay maps will show current and pending budget allocations by buildings and departments," says Johnson.

This is not Johnson's first foray into social media and political coverage: he recently joined forces with NPR and CBS news to report personal accounts (in the form of tweets, stories, photos and video) as part of the Inauguration Report project; and manages and directs Scripps Howard News Service, which includes an online news and events community.

With 'For The People' he hopes to engage a younger audience in current affairs through gaming and reach out beyond the stereotypical male, computer-lover.

"Marketing research shows that console ownership and PC gaming are far more widespread across age groups and sexes. Any person in any district in the nation will be able to use the virtual interface to walk into their senator or representative's office building and see what is happening that day, or track the dollars in play for projects that concern them," he explained.

Despite a 2008 Pew Internet study of 1,102 teenagers aged 12-17, which found certain educational games helped young users learn about important issues, including political matters, and developments such as the New York Times' Represent, traditional media has been to slow to respond to the growth in gaming, according to Johnson.

Having made attempts to bring his ideas to the attention of media companies some years ago, he says he was disappointed in their failure to see computer games as anything more than 'software'.

"Executives didn't see that games were immersive storytelling platforms and failed to recognise that, writing them off as fanboy entertainment was akin to leaving film to the keystone cops instead of using it for documentary journalism," he said.

But Johnson is clear the application would not be merely a 'game', but instead a platform that seeks to 'advance media and journalism' and communities' interaction with it.

"For the public good, we hope that this is a way to show the hyperlocal media that it is important to cover Washington from a regional aspect. For industry, we hope to show that games are a viable advertising medium as well."

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