News Games Made Cheap?With Serious Revenue Potential

By: Nora Paul And Kathleen A. Hansen

News organizations have toyed with “serious games” for several years as a way to engage news audiences. Whether the topic is solid waste disposal (Gotham Gazette’s “Garbage Game”), U.S. food inspection policy (The New York Times’ “Food Import Folly”) or balancing the federal budget (Minnesota Public Radio’s “Budget Hero”), news games share one characteristic: they are expensive and time-consuming to create and launch. They also require additional time, money and programming to update or refresh after launch.

That is the problem we proposed to solve as part of the inaugural class of Knight News Challenge grantees. We didn’t anticipate that we would also create an iPhone App as part of the bargain.

The Knight News Challenge, launched in 2006, awards up to $5 million a year for innovative ideas to develop content platforms, tools and services to engage communities.

Our proposal, “Playing the News,” envisioned a “build tool” for games a newsroom could launch on a variety of topics without enlisting an army of software developers. The build tool also had to allow staff to easily “migrate” information already generated by the newsroom to any game they created. We were awarded $250,000 over two

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years to explore this idea.

To stick with the notion of “serious games,” we focused on a topic with many perspectives, one that is typically covered with an on-going, process-oriented approach by a news organization ? the use of ethanol as a fuel.

After a number of false starts and dead ends, we settled on two different types of games to design and test.

One game had the player move around in an online simulation environment, interacting with different characters that provide facts and a variety of perspectives about using ethanol as a fuel.

The second game used an online game board that exposed the player to the important facts and perspectives of different “stakeholders” in the issue. The player was dealt cards and then moved a marker to the appropriate area where the answer might be found. Once in the area all of the answer cards were activated, allowing the player to see all information on that perspective before choosing the right answer.

Initial testing showed that the board game was far more engaging than the simulation environment. We turned our attention to the “build tool” for that version of the game.

Working with University of Minnesota programmers, we created a Java-based utility that news staff can use to plug in their own information for the Q&A challenges on any topic and add photos, graphics or video as clues in addition to text. Best of all, newsroom staff can build the game themselves rather than relying on specialized game designers and programmers.

We also launched a “proof-of-concept” version of the game as an application in the iPhone App Store with the help of an interactive design firm, Clockwork Active Media Systems in Minneapolis. You can find the game under the app name “Topic Tiles” and download it for free to see how it works. The build tool for either a web-mounted or iPhone version will soon be available as part of the Knight News Challenge project, complying with the funder’s requirement that all “inventions” be shared free of charge with any interested organization.

The “ethanol as fuel” topic is not ideally suited, it turns out, for this type of information delivery, based on our user testing. It is a bit too serious and dry for a serious game. But other themes such as a city tour of various locations, trivia about politics or public affairs, feature topics such as “should I get a dog or a cat as a pet?,” or similar ideas could be easily tailored for this game application.

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