Sunday, February 3, 2013

Newsgames, infographics, and journalism: A short review

When I was a teenager, my father used to say that I wasted too much time playing Sid Meier's original Civilization, RPGs —the pencil-paper-and-twenty-sided-dice kind, such as Dungeons&Dragons,— and ultra-complex board games like Empires in Arms, The Republic of Rome, and Third Reich.

I used to reply that those were educational experiences. That was not why I played them, of course, but it is true that I inadvertently learned quite a bit about history, geography, graphics, storytelling, interaction design, and English thanks to them —manuals were almost never translated to Spanish. I became a pseudo-scholar of late Republican Rome, Visigothic Spain, and Napoleonic warfare, for instance. Moreover, for an introverted kid, they were the perfect excuse to meet with people with shared interests. Some of those games encouraged team play to beat a common foe; they led to solid, lifelong friendships in the real world.

Today, saying that games can and should be used in education is not anathema. Game-based instructional strategies have been implemented in schools at all levels. They seem to be quite successful. Even games that were not designed to be used in the classroom could be recommended to study a particular subject. My personal favorite today is the Europa Universalis series, a very detailed simulation of the modern world that requires not only a good understanding of its convoluted mechanics to win, but also some historical knowledge.

Games have entered the news, as well, as shown in Newsgames: Journalism at Play (2010), by Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer, a book that I read a while ago and that I revisited after meeting one of its authors (Bogost) in person last week. Besides being a good overview of an emerging and multidisciplinary field, Newsgames offers one of the best definitions of journalism I've ever read:
Journalism is not an industry, nor is it a profession. It is a practice in which research combines with a devotion to the public interest, producing materials that help citizens make choices about their private lives and their communities.
In the prologue, the authors disclose their main goal and perhaps prove to be a bit too optimistic about the foresight of media owners and managers:
Journalism can and will embrace new modes of thinking about news in addition to new modes of production. Rather than just tack-on a games desk or hire an occasional developer on contract, we contend that newsgames will offer valuable contributions only when they are embraced as a viable method of practicing journalism —albeit a different kind of journalism than newspapers, television and Web pages offer. Newsgames are not a charmed salve that will cure the ills of news organizations overnight. But they do represent a real and viable opportunity to help citizens form beliefs and make decisions.
They then propose a taxonomy of newsgames that begins with standalone interactives which tackle current events (September 12th, an aggressive cartoon), and finishes with advanced community and documentary games. They also discuss incorporating video game features and mechanics into infographics and visualizations, a mainstream idea nowadays —see old graphics by The Sun-Sentinel, NYTimes, and even El Mundo almost a decade ago. According to the authors:
(An) infographic transforms raw data into visuals, while (a) game transforms data into mechanics.
The core of the book is the explanation of what games really are, and of the functional and ethical challenges their creators often face, which are similar to those found by infographics and visualization designers. I found these paragraphs particularly valuable:
Videogames are good at representing the behavior of systems. When we create videogames, we start with some system in the world —traffic, football, whatever. We can call this the "source system." To create the game, developers build a model of that source system. Videogames are software, so the model is constructed by authoring code that simulates the behavior of interest (...) Procedurality is a name for this time of representation, for computers' ability to execute rule-based behaviors. 
A video game thus boasts a source system and a procedural model of that source system with which the player needs to interact, providing input to make the procedural model work. When the player plays, he forms some idea about the modeled system, and about the source system it models. He forms these ideas based on the way the source system is simulated, which varies based on why it was chosen (...).
The inherent subjectivity of videogames creates dissonances, the gaps between the designer's procedural model of a source system and a player's subjectivity, his preconceptions and existing understanding of that simulation. This is where videogames become expressive: they encourage players to interrogate and reconcile their own models of the world with the models presented in a game. While videogames are often considered playthings, this charge toward reconciliation can also make games challenging or disturbing.
Find the book in It's worth it. Don't forget to visit its website.

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