Credit: Alexey Savchenko on Unsplash

Journalists have used games to tell stories since the early 2000s but so-called newsgames, games that fold journalism into gameplay, are yet to convince editors to add them to their everyday coverage.

Instead, more typical digital reporting is attempting to ape what makes gaming so compelling and able to command consistently large audiences – and revenue.

User experience and design researcher at BBC Sounds, Nick Donaldson, said: "Games have wins and losses, and this is exactly what makes them so connected to your brain’s dopamine response.

"But that idea of a clear win and loss is not easily transferable to the world of media so it’s harder to replicate. Instead, the metrics are emotional: what makes us laugh, what makes us feel we understand the world."

Techniques first used to make games so compelling have started creeping into the thinking behind news apps, Donaldson explains.

The progress bar in a New York Times visual investigation or the reward of being in the top 10 per cent of readers on The Guardian site, for example, each shows the user that the next dopamine hit is only a few taps away.

"We sprint towards a finish line when it’s in sight," Donaldson said. "It’s the reason you buy coffees quicker at the tail end of your loyalty card."

Donaldson warns that although publishers can learn from game design, pure gamification, turning an audience’s broad motivations into simple-to-understand, quantifiable goals, may degrade the benefit of the journalism a publisher is trying to convey.

Users are cannier now about manipulative tactics and can be put off by the stress of maintaining a daily streak and the novelty of a new feature can quickly wear off, Donaldson explained.

"As a public service broadcaster (BBC), our job is not to maximise time spent but time well spent," he added.

"Gamification is about creating habits but it’s a very short-term solution. You can only really play the long game by making a platform that speaks to their real-world goals, whether that’s being more informed about the economy or discovering their new favourite band.

"There’s plenty of tools that get you to that more sustainably than streaks or progress bars."

Visual storytelling

Beyond the potentially superficial staples of most mobile games, editors and reporters have recognised the opportunity to hone their visual storytelling from games.

The New York Times has led the charge with visual stories that often mimic point-and-click games or provide branching narratives based on the reader’s interest.

Many publishers have adopted similar techniques, from Al Jazeera’s interactive maps to South China Morning Post’s self-contained and ‘completable’ series.

The first newsgame was 2003’s "September 12", in which players take control of a reticle trained on a town miles below and tasked with killing terrorists by firing missiles.

Each terrorist moves through a crowd so any attempt the player makes results in killing civilians too. It is quickly apparent that the only way to avoid collateral deaths is not to fire at all.

"The Uber Game", created by the Financial Times, won the Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling gong at the 2018 Online Journalism Awards.

You play as a member of the sprawling fleet of Uber drivers juggling running fares, maintaining your vehicle and making it home in time to help with your son’s homework.

More recently, "Testris" plots the story of the coronavirus pandemic across the globe. You start by choosing a character and seeing the myriad ways lives were affected depending on social status and location.

The Guardian’s visual projects editor, David Blood, who was part of the team that created "The Uber Game" said: "It seemed to enable audiences to identify with the Uber driver at the centre of the narrative on a personal level.

"One of our biggest takeaways from the project was that that sort of identification – empathy, essentially – may be something that games are particularly effective at creating."

Games routinely induce empathy, from "That Dragon, Cancer"’s narrative of coming to terms with the death of a child to "Night in the Woods"’ telling of revisiting childhood anxieties – worthy subjects but not exactly news.

News games are often released years after the events they depict. 2017’s "Path Out" and 2016’s "Bury Me, My Love" have you play as refugees fleeing the 2014 Syrian civil war for instance.

Few games can keep pace with the stories they convey and despite the success of "The Uber Game", Blood explains that games are unlikely to become a major part of everyday journalism: "Newsgames are very resource-intensive to produce. They make significant demands on the time of reporters, designers, developers, editors and others.

"Then there's the issue of the news agenda: if it's going to take a month or two months to produce a news game, will it still have sufficient journalistic value by the time it's published?"

At a time when almost every news publisher is feeling the squeeze, Blood said that the time taken to create a game is hard to justify when more typical forms or reporting are quicker, cheaper and less risky.

Not every story will lend itself to being told through a game and the accelerating conveyor of breaking news is unlikely to slow sufficiently to allow games to catch up, but the sparing use of interactive elements in journalism can create stories that connect with audiences on a deeper level.

The journalism we consume every day, especially audio and video, is typically ‘lean back’ rather than ‘lean in’ and for many, active participation is just not how they consume their news.

As publishers attempt to fold in the elements that make games so captivating they will need to be canny in how they bring readers along for the ride.

And with these new features demanding so much from the reporters, editors and programmers that create them, when they do hit, they need to hit hard.

This article was originally published on 16/11/2022.

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