2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

Bogost et al Newsgames


Journalism at Play

Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer

The MIT Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts london, England

1 Newsgames

Piracy off the coast of the east African nation of Somalia has run rampant since the start of a civil war in the early 1990s, but attacks have become more frequent and more daring in recent years. By the spring of 2008, pirates were venturing well away from the Somali coast in order to reach the higher-value vessels that enter and exit the Gulf of Aden, gateway to the Red Sea and eventually the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

With numerous international governments concerned about the safety and viability of their shipping routes, the United Nations Security Council established Resolution 1838 in October 2008, calling on member nations to "deploy naval vessels and military aircraft" in support of maritime security in the region.' Regular conflict spurred an increase in worldwide coverage of Somali pirating. Most news outlets filed stories under international polities, as reporters cut the hull of a nation in anarchy through the waves of global commerce, defense, and other bastions of centralized authority," Others offered human interest stories about the "fear and terror" that accompanied lengthy hostage situations on overtaken vessels.'

But Wired magazine's writers sailed a different tack in their July 2009 feature on Somali pirates, choosing to focus on economics over politics or personality." In "Cutthroat Capitalism: An Economic Analysis of the Somali Pirate Business Model," Scott Carney observes that Somali pirating expeditions had become not only more frequent, but also more profitable. Payouts from ransom and plunder surged to levels one hundred times greater in 2009 than they were just four years earlier." It stands to reason, argues Carney, that this escalation had arisen not from the depths of new wickedness and anarchy, but from the changing economic dynamics of piracy itself.

Unlike its more mainstream counterparts in the New York Times or the Guardian, Wired's coverage looks more like a spreadsheet than an investigative report. It features eight full-color pages of text, infographics, and diagrams, all meticulously illustrated and annotated by Siggi Eggertsson and Michael Doret. The graphics are playful, their rounded-edged pixel art abstracting boats, people, and maps into actors in an economic system (figure l.1). The coverage itself takes a procedural rather than a narrative approach: it is divided into sections that describe the different steps of an attack, each section offering a textual description, an infographic, and a ledger or algorithm describing the economic dynamics of the topic.

The article's info graphics run the gamut from mundane to remarkable, from bar graphs and pie charts to fever charts and a full-page map. The piece also deploys unusually complex typography to highlight different economic forces. Taken together, the spreads illustrate how a piratical Chief Financial Officer might witness a highjack-and-ransom attack from the vantage point of a ledger rather than a skiff. Each step calculates and summarizes its value proposition, and in so doing the feature explains the risk-reward system of ransom piracy by showing how the Somali pirates act according to a highly logical, if disruptive, self-interest.

Much about "Cutthroat Capitalism" reminds the reader of a videogame.

Its visual design riffs off the blocky art of early coin-op and home console games, a method commonly used on screen and in print to apply videogame aesthetics to serious topics. But something else makes this decidedly static print feature resemble a game more than a column. Good games depict system dynamics rather than narrating specific accounts. Instead of telling a story about a particular pirate crew or hijacked freighter, the article characterizes the economic system of Somali piracy in general.

Of course, "Cutthroat Capitalism" isn't a game. It's a set of descriptions, formulas, and tabular data that describes the behavior of a system rather than simulating the system directly. A reader of Wired could get out a pencil and paper to determine a strategy for a hypothetical pirate raid, but it would be much easier to let a computer do the work.

Wired realized as much, so they paired "Cutthroat Capitalism," the article, with a Web-based game of the same name, one that operates under the same mathematical logic the article describes. The game puts the reader at the helm: "You are a pirate commander staked with $50,000 from local tribal leaders and other investors. Your job is to guide your pirate crew through raids in and around the Gulf of Aden, attack and capture a ship, and successfully negotiate a ransorn.:" The result effectively simulates capture and negotiation, synthesizing the principles of the print spread into an experience rather than a description.

The player begins on a map of coastal Somalia. The ship-represented by a skull token-starts in the city of Eyl, a pirate haven north of the capital

of Mogadishu. When the player clicks on a part of the map, the pirate ship moves. Once in the Gulf of Aden, players click on passing ships-depicted as colored dots representing different classes-moving the pirate vessel toward a target. If the player's skull token intersects with one of these dots-be it container ship, cargo ship, cruise ship, tugboat, or one of five other classes-the game presents a chance to capture the ship and proceed with ransom negotiations. If the player fails to intercept, the crew is forced to sail back up the coast to try again.

The negotiation process consists of turns in which the player can choose a behavior to exhibit toward the hostages aboard the ship (feed, threaten, beat, or kill), a stance to take with the negotiating party (be cordial, erratic, aggressive, or walk out), and a ransom demand of up to $30 million. The game rules remind the player that the highest ransom ever paid was only $3 million." A complex calculus of these choices determines the health of the hostages, the mood of the negotiators, and the likelihood of a


Hijacking a ship turns out to be a process just as methodical as buying

a car. Negotiation proves effective only when the player quickly divines the value of the ship and its hostages, and then works carefully and methodically toward that monetary goal. If the player successfully negotiates a ransom, the reward (covered by the vessel's insurer) is split between the local government, the tribal leaders and investors who staked the journey, and the crew. But if the pirate crew abandons ship or the player's forces are overrun, the negotiation ends in failure.

A smart player will rarely fail-and that is the strongest rhetorical point presented in the negotiation process. If a ship can be captured, its hostages and cargo are always worth something. Failure arises mostly from poor planning or greed. The game helps players recognize this fact, encouraging them to optimize for many small bounties of one or two million dollars instead of fewer, larger ones-a realization that also frames the increasing number of attacks as matters of economies rather than wickedness. A $5 million settlement from a particularly lucky negotiation provides a smug sense of satisfaction, but it's rarely worth the risk of getting caught or losing bounties in order to spend the time needed to negotiate a ransom

of that size.

Admittedly, the game does not simulate all of the elements of Somali

pirating discussed in the article. The risk of capture after a ransom has been paid doesn't make it into the game, nor do the costs of maintaining a crew or mounting an unsuccessful attack (a real mission costs $30,000 per crew member, but normally only a quarter of missions are successful).8 Some of the subtleties that make the system rich (and make the article fascinating) are lost in the game-a situation probably attributable to the designers' desire to make the game manageable, learnable, and playable in short sessions. Nevertheless, the article provides only a disconnected, mathematical account of piracy, while the game offers a synthetic experience of the practice, one that unifies the disconnected algorithms of the print piece into a holistic account.

Cutthroat Capitalism (the game) explains how a pirate crew's modest, persistent efforts will produce significant results within the economic and social system of sea commerce that it disrupts. The print article addresses the issue from the perspective of the shipping industry. Somali piracy is just a modest cost of doing business for global freight. The time and money saved by going through the Suez Canal rather than around the Cape of Good Hope, combined with the relatively low cost of insurance compared to that of private security, makes good business sense for shippers. The game makes the case from the other side-that of the pirates. But it does something more, too: the game forces players to understand piracy by experiencing it in abstraction. The player quickly learns that the pirate's best strategy is to attempt a series of small ransoms, making the total cost to each ship low. Only 0.2 percent of vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden are successfully boarded by pirates, a fact that feels much more startling for the player of Cutthroat Capitalism than it does for the reader of its companion article."


Cutthroat Capitalism shows that video games can do good journalism, both as an independent medium for news and as a supplement to traditional forms of coverage. But what methods exist for creating and using such game in journalism? Are there different genres, forms, or styles? What are the editorial and publishing considerations for a news organization interested in pursuing such games? And why would such organizations want to take up such a practice in the first-place?

Given the financial state of journalism today, everyone knows that a change is coming. Newspaper advertising revenue was down nearly 30 percent in 2009.10 Some papers, especially smaller ones, have had to cut staff or shut down completely. Community bloggers and big city newspaper publishers may not agree on the best format for news, but they do agree that digital media will play an important role in its future. Yet, most of the discourse about the way news and computers go together has focused on translations of existing approaches to journalism for the Web.

For that matter, despite the differences in popularity and accessibility afforded by Web publication, much journalism practice remains the same online. Online news sites large and small still publish written stories similar to those inked onto newsprint. They upload video segments like those broadcast for television. They stream monologues and interviews like those sent over the radio airwaves. The tools that make the creation and dissemination of news possible have become more simple and widespread, but the process remains almost identical: stories still have to be written and edited, films shot and cut, audio recorded and uplinked.

But as Cutthroat Capitalism suggests, there is something different about videogames. Unlike stories written for newsprint or programs edited for television, videogames are computer software rather than a digitized form of earlier media. Games display text, images, sounds, and video, but they also do much more: games simulate how things work by constructing models that people can interact With, a capacity Bogost has given the name procedural rhetoric." This is a type of experience irreducible to any other, earlier


For this reason it is necessary to understand the uses of games in the

news, both new and old, on different terms. This book offers an introduction to newsgames, a term that names a broad body of work produced at the intersection of video games and journalism. In the chapters that follow, we explore the ways games have been used in the news from past to present, covering the different applications, methods, and styles of newsgames. We also make projections and suggestions for how news games might be applied to journalistic practice now and in the future. Each chapter takes up one key genre of newsgames. Some will feel like adaptations of traditional news content, while others take the first steps into

unfamiliar terrain.

In 2003, Uruguayan game studio Powerful Robot released a game called

September 12th, about the war on terror." Its lead designer Gonzalo Frasca envisioned short, quickly produced, and widely distributed newsgames about current events, the subject of chapter 2. Editorial games like September 12th offer the video game equivalent of columns and editorial cartoons, conveying an opinion with the goal of persuading players to agree with embedded bias-or at least to consider an issue in a different light. Other forms have emerged as well, from tabloid games that offer a cruder form of opinion to reportage games that strive to reproduce the unvarnished goals and style of daily news coverage. This chapter also covers the many issues that arise when creating current event games, including timeliness, accesSibility, and editorial line. Creators of these games typically strive to release such a game while the story it covers is still relevant, a challenge that increases with the depth of the simulation and the complexity of the event.

Chapter 3 explores infographic newsgames. Visual matter has long done journalistic work by visually representing data and thus synthesizing information. At the start of the twentieth century, larger newspapers began integrating visual representations of data into papers to help the reader draw connections between complex networks of information and events. The resulting "information graphics" come in many formats, from the traditional forms of pie chart, line graph, data map, and diagram to more experimental forms produced for digital consumption. The adaptation of infographics into computational forms has broadened their scope in addition to changing their methods of authorship. As digital infographics mature and become more interactive, they are becoming more like games. Players can explore information to find surprising new revelations, engage with processes that depict how information arises or interacts, reconfigure information to replay possible scenarios, or experiment with information for the simple enjoyment of play itself. Some infographics might take the form of proper games, while others are merely gamelike, adopting some of the conventions and sensations of games.

Current event games cover isolated stories in a short and accessible way, but longer, more detailed treatments of the news are also possible. In chapter 4 we present documentary newsgames, titles that engage broader historical and current events in a manner similar to documentary photography, cinema, and investigative reporting. Usually larger in scale and scope, these games offer experiences of newsworthy events, something impossible to capture in print or broadcast news. In the case of past events, they recreate times, spaces, and systems that one can otherwise only understand from archival film footage or imagination. We discuss different types of documentary games, including those that recreate the setting and progression of particular events and those that attempt to create procedural (rule-based) accounts of the logics of social and political situations.

Serious news coverage notwithstanding, it's worth remembering that games have been a part of the news for almost a century, since the first "word-cross" puzzles appeared in the New York Sunday World in 1913Y By the 1920s, the crossword was a sensation, becoming so popular that it even incited a moral panic. When the New York Times finally revised the form and made it more "literate" at the end of World War II, the public was sold. Since then, many newspaper readers look forward to the puzzles as a joyous and intellectually engaging part of the day. Puzzles have not always carried news content, but experiments such as editorial crosswords and news quizzes have tried to do so. The past, present, and future uses of such puzzle newsgarnes are covered in chapter 5, from digital adaptations of traditional news puzzles and quizzes to the popular online casual games that represent both a threat to and an opportunity for news publishers.

Journalism comprises a set of values and skills that must be learned somehow-it is a literacy, a set of rules for reading, writing, and critiquing a particular domain of knowledge." The first steps of journalism practice are traditionally taken in classrooms or at school newspapers, but certain qualities of videogames make them ideal supplementary media for a journalistic education. In chapter 6, we discuss literacy newsgames, those that offer direct or indirect education in how to become a good journalist, or for understanding why journalism is important to citizens and their


Speaking of communities, at first blush videogames might seem to

oppose cooperative action. When we think of games, from tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons to board games like chess and Risk to video games like Super Mario Bros. and The Sims, we normally think of them as private affairs. We play games indoors, at tables or televisions or computers. Even if we play with others, it is only in small groups. And while recent innovations in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) can support many hundreds or thousands of simultaneous players at a time, those players are usually widely distributed geographically. In chapter 7, we explore new genres of community newsgames that create and nurture local populationsoften by situating games wholly or partly in the real world rather than in

front of the screen.

As the technology with which news is created and disseminated changes,

the very form of journalism alters itself. While the genres of newsgame just mentioned represent immediate opportunities for news organizations, many more might be developed in the future, either in response to technological shifts or as entirely new inventions. In chapter 8, we explore newsgame platforms, systems for the creation of new forms of game-based journalism that might supplement or replace current coverage in the future. In its most basic form, a platform is something that makes it easier to build other things." The newspaper itself is a platform that supports research, writing, printing, distribution, and feedback from the public. The format of the evening news is a platform that describes how to order stories in a useful or compelling way, how to integrate advertising, and how to consistently produce a televised show. Starting from familiar yet alternative platforms for news like fantasy sports, we speculate on the novel news gaming platforms (and new applications of existing computational platforms) that might support journalism in the future. They range from the familiar to the bizarre-what if a news organization released a documentary game "yearbook" about the changes in a local community? What if Yoshi the dinosaur from Super Mario World needed health care, and he had to buy insurance at the going rates? What if the dynamics of New York City racketeering laws could be operationalized in Grand Theft Auto? These possibilities suggest how journalists might think about what they do in new ways, instead of simply translating old media for digital distribution. It is on this note that we conclude the book, with a call to action for journalists and news organizations in chapter 9.

Many of the types of newsgames this book covers are already established forms. Cutthroat Capitalism matches five of the seven genres of promising newsgames just mentioned: infographics, editorial, documentary, puzzles, and platforms. Though it might not be the best possible example of any of these individually, the amalgam shows how Wired attempted to integrate a game into actual journalistic coverage of a topic, not just to supplement a print edition with an online throwaway."

The game's connection to infographics is obvious. The article makes extensive use of information displays, and the game's map draws on the tradition of abstracted information set geographically. While the link to infographics is primarily aesthetic, the fundamental purpose of both article and game satisfies noted information designer Edward Tufte's goals for information visualization: inform the reader, reveal insights into information that would otherwise be obscured, and synthesize complicated information into a legible format." The infographic transforms raw data into visuals, while the game transforms that data into mechanics.

Wired's approach takes up documentarian goals as well. Stories about piracy off the coast of Somalia mostly enjoy coverage in the United States when events directly affect its citizenry and commerce. The seizure and subsequent standoff on the Maersk Alabama in April 2009 was notable for its violent resolution-Nary SEAL snipers shot and killed three pirates. Coverage of this incident certainly brought the issue of piracy directly to the American public's attention. But rather than pursue the issue further, the three pirate deaths and one capture provided journalistic closure: the evildoers "got what was coming to them." Cutthroat Capitalism directly challenges this tale, examining the structures of global trade that embed pirate attacks as a part of doing business.

The piracy game serves as both investigation and expose. Its documentarian stance may not appear to take on the traditional firsthand infiltration of a global situation in progress, but it very much does: by uncovering the dynamics and injustices of an economic system. At a rudimentary level, it even provides a "day in the life" account by putting the player in the shoes of one of its actors. By taking the role of a single pirate embedded in a complex network, the player comes to understand the logic by which all other pirates in that same system operate.

Cutthroat Capitalism might not seem much like a puzzle, because newspaper puzzles take very specific forms. But if puzzles refer to simple, abstract logic games pursued for mental pleasure, then aspects of the game start to fit the bill. The negotiation phase is reminiscent of a game of probabilities like rock-paper-scissors. The player plays three cards, the computer plays three, and the outcome alters the dynamics of the negotiation. Something more complex is at work here, too: the system boasts a preexisting state, as if the player is playing his or her cards against a given (but hidden) hand. The player must then reason about the state of the freight owners, and how they might respond. This casual noodling bears a resemblance to the chess or bridge problems that often appear alongside the crossword or cryptoquip. Negotiation in Cutthroat Capitalism satisfies our desires to outwit a system by finding the optimal moves.

The relevance and interest of piracy notwithstanding, the game's journalistic significance comes from more than its content. By publishing a print story tied directly to a game, in which each is based on the same factors, Wired has shown how a periodical can integrate games into its workflow. This workflow can become a model that might enable the regular production of these kinds of artifacts through organizational, rather than technical advances. The print and digital versions tell the story in two different but complimentary ways, allowing the writers, artists, and designers to share more than just a topic. Given journalism'S troubled present and uncertain future, proving the feasibility of producing new and different media artifacts is perhaps even more important a task than creating new media artifacts themselves.

All of the topics discussed in this book make a common assumption: that 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.

2 Current Events

From somewhere in the sky, you peer down onto a bustling town in the Middle East. Among the women and children going about their daily routine in the marketplace, you spot the caricature of a familiar figure: white keffiyeh bound tightly to his forehead, shrouded in a black robe, AK-47 in hand. You control a reticle with your mouse, the kind of crosshair seen when playing a first-person shooter. Your targeting circle is relatively large, much bigger than the buildings and people below, who move rapidly as they go about their business. Carefully isolating your target, you wait for the terrorist to walk into an uninhabited sector of the city and you click, expecting instant gratification and success. Instead, there is a delay. The terrorist begins moving away. A woman, two children, and a dog walk into the targeted area.

Finally, a missile strikes the marketplace. It does not discriminate, shattering bodies and buildings alike. Bloodied human limbs litter the streets. Smoke settles from the rubble. When civilians pass by the dead, they drop to their knees, crying. Eventually, mourning turns to anger, and a citizen morphs into a figure with black robe, keffiyeh, and automatic rifle-a new terrorist is born (figure 2.1).

The game is called September l Zth, and the only way to win it is not to play in the first place. For every terrorist the player kills, many more rise to fill his place, indignant at the thoughtless slaughter of innocent passersby. It's an argument against "tactical" missile strikes, conveyed in game form. And its opinion is clear: terrorism cannot be attacked surgically, and violence begets more violence. The elegance, directness, and novelty of September 12th were exceeded only by its timeliness. Released in the autumn of 2003, six months after the start of the Iraq War, the game enjoyed considerable coverage in the mainstream news. I September 12th also enjoyed considerable attention in scholarly and exhibition contexts. Bogost offers it as an example of a procedural rhetoric offailure, a design that comments upon a political situation by denying players a victory condition.2 Miguel Sicart argues that the game has the ability to turn its player into a moral being, by stimulating ethical reasoning rather than telling the players its message outright.' Six years after its creation, lead designer Gonzalo Frasca received a lifetime achievement award at the Games for Change festival's

Knight News Game Awards."

Political games have been around since the early days of computer

gaming. Titles like Balance of Power, a cold war diplomacy game, and Hidden Agenda, a postrevolutionary simulation set in Central America, enjoyed commercial success in the 1980s. Indeed, politically themed board games have been common for decades, among them 1959's Diplomacy, a preWorld War I strategy board game that John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger

both called their favorite."

But such games had disappeared from the public imagination by the

early 1990s. Balance of Power and Diplomacy are games for adults, about adult topics, an audience the commercial videogame industry had abandoned in favor of titles for children and adolescents. Tepid, forgettable "edutainment" titles had further marred the public perception of games beyond entertainment.

It took the open publishing environment of the World Wide Web and the turbulent polities of the post-September 11 world to make such games viable again. AI Qaeda's attack on American soil and the preemptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed became the most visible public policy issue in the United States and abroad, leading to an explosion of opinions online. This was the fertile soil into which Gonzalo Frasca planted September 12th, and the genre he named to house it.

Frasca called them newsgames, a genre he described as "simulation meets political cartoons.:" We have adopted Frasca's term, but we also expand its scope: for us, "newsgame" suggests any intersection of journalism and gaming. Frasca's games do engage with the news, of course, in the same way as do reporting, editorial, and cartooning. This specialization in mind, we suggest the name current event games to describe titles like September 12th. Current event games are short, bite-sized works, usually embedded in Web sites, used to convey small bits of news information or opinion. They are the newsgame equivalent of an article or column.

Types of Current Event Games

Frasca's first experiment with this challenge came before September 12th, although it was inspired by the same events. Frasca had been on a plane during the attacks. Just before boarding again to return home, he had heard a news report about the war in Afghanistan, in which American supply drops had crushed people and structures as they fell from the sky. 7 Outraged at this mix of violence and humanitarianism, but charmed by the black comedy of the situation, Frasca created Kabul Kaboom. It is a simple game that asks the player to catch falling hamburgers while avoiding bombs. The name Kaboom comes frorri the game's inspiration, an Atari 2600 title from 1982 called Kabooml, in which-the player moves water buckets across the bottom of the screen to catch bombs thrown by a prisoner at the top. Kabul Kaboorn changes the water buckets to an iconic figure from Picasso's Guernica and adds hamburgers in addition to bombs. Picasso painted his masterwork in response to the bombing of the city of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Frasca's piece thus makes explicit historical connections-U.S. airstrikes and funding of the Northern Alliance in order to topple the Taliban are analogous to the involvement of foreign air forces in the Spanish Civil War.

Like Kabul Kaboom, many current event games borrow from simple arcade, home console, and casual games. Layoff!, created by Mary Flanagan's Tiltfactor Lab at Dartmouth College, offers another example. It comments upon the economic effects of the 2008-2009 recession on the workforce. Borrowing the mechanics of the popular match-three game Bejeweled, Layoff! editorializes about the mind set of the corporate downsizing specialist (figure 2.2). Players match "redundant" worker units (those with similar job descriptions) to clear them from the board into the unemployment line. The game generates a name and a backstory for each worker matched and fired, personalizing the experience. Layoff! adds another constraint atop the Bejeweled ruleset: the banker, who cannot be moved or matched. The combination of personalized workers and impersonal, immovable bankers forms the game's commentary: honest workers lose their jobs in order to preserve the livelihood of the same fraudulent economists who caused the downturn in the first place.

September 12th, Kabul Kaboom, and Layoff! are modest games. It takes no longer to play them than it does to read a news article or to peruse a comic. But current event games can also take more complex forms, the equivalent of features instead of columns.

Killer Flu offers such an example. The game was commissioned by the UK Clinical Virology Network (the British equivalent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to educate the public about pandemic influenza. Originally conceived to explore both seasonal and avian flu, the game was released in time for the HINI "swine flu" panic of 2009. Killer Flu offers a serious, factual treatment of flu in a surprising way: rather than managing the response of health professionals or government officials, the player controls the spread of the virus itself, by enhancing its capabilities and guiding it between populations. Critiquing the manufactured pandemic flu panic that swept the world, Killer Flu shows players just how difficult it is for pandemic flu to mutate and propagate. The game also explains how seasonal flu spreads, and why it affects so many more people than animal flus. With generated geography and hundreds of simulated characters, Killer Flu is more technically complex than Layoff! and September 12th. Yet, it can still be played in a Web browser, just like the latter two games.

Current event games have low system requirements and wide distribution at online game portals in addition to the Web sites of their sponsoring organizations. They are often created in Adobe Flash, a multimedia technology with nearly universal access that can be embedded directly in Web pages." Producing a current event game does not pose technical challenges, but logistical ones. Their creators must balance timeliness with quality, deciding whether games should cover an isolated political issue or an ongoing social issue. Because they are short and compact, current event games have to work hard to ensure their players immediately understand the context and constraints of the topic and the game's approach to it. Some current event games explicitly state the facts via text or video, whereas others follow Frasca's lead and attempt to sway opinion through play alone.

We distinguish between three subtypes of current event games: editorial games, tabloid games, and reportage games.

Editorial games are current event games with an argument, or those that attempt to persuade their players in some way. September 12th and Layoff! offer examples, as do titles from independent developers Persuasive Games and La Molleindustria. Editorial game makers feel strongly about the issues they cover and use their games to express opinions. Some editorial games


Chapter 2

offer simple, one-note commentary (Kabul Kaboom) akin to an editorial cartoon, whereas others make a more complex statement, like an op-ed column (McDonald's Videogame, discussed below). These games can take anywhere from one day to a few months to create.

Tabloid games are playable versions of soft news-particularly celebrity, sports, or political gossip. Within hours of Zinedine Zidane's disgraceful head butt at the end of the 2006 World Cup final, an anonymous Italian football fan created Hothead Zidane. Players control the titular antihero, who can be moved around a part of the pitch as clones of his Italian adversary Marco Materazzi come at him waves. After a few successful head butts, a red card is thrown and the game is over. The result offers neither entertainment nor commentary (the game lacks even a score), but it does capitalize on public interest, earning tra~fic as a result. Within a week of its creation, online game portal revamped the game with a score system and multiple levels of hit detection, better graphical fidelity, and enhanced sound effects. They also released the source code so other designers could make their own versions." Tabloid games, because they are so easy to make, are often improved and reinterpreted by other amateur game designers.' ?

Reportage games fall somewhere between editorial and tabloid games.

They strive to emulate factual reporting, producing the videogame version of a written article or televised segment. Reportage games are carefully researched, with an eye toward factual description. For this reason, they are far less common than editorial and tabloid games. Unlike editorial games, they seek not to persuade players, but to educate them. And unlike documentary games (discussed in chapter 4), they are of smaller scale, and released while an issue is still current.

Although they were published in the paper's op-ed section, two games created by Persuasive Games for the New York Times offer good examples of reportage. The first, Food Import Folly, deals with insufficient numbers of FDA inspection personnel and their inadvertent role in food contamination outbreaks. The game challenges players to inspect agricultural imports at ports nationwide. Each level corresponds with a year in the decade 1997-2007, during which food imports increased from two million to nine million shipments, while FDA personnel and resources remained roughly constant." By experiencing the increasing mismatch between imported goods and inspection resources, the player develops an abstract sense of the problem, independent of any opinion about its cause or solution.

Current Events


Another game, Points of Entry, clarifies the behavior of the merit-based green card award system proposed in the 2007 McCain-Kennedy immigration bill. The bill proposed a federal standard for worker visa awards, based not on individual achievement, but on a single, standardized system for all immigrants. Some critictzed the bill for rejecting family ties, others for putting business interests in the hands of the government. The bill never passed, but during debate about it, details were infrequently covered in the press beyond isolated examples.P The game goes further, asking players to configure hypothetical immigrants within a time limit such that they just outqualify a competing candidate (figure 2.3). By playing through rriany scenarios, Citizens develop a more sophisticated understanding of the legislation the bill proposes, without the baggage of a particular opinion on the matter.

Figure 2.3

This match-up from Points of Entry visualizes the reductive force of the proposed immigration scoring system. Clothing and accessories change as the player alters values in order to attain a desired score, here matching a food service worker with a graduate degree against the "more desirable" medical technician with a bachelor's degree.


Chapter 2

Easy to Pick Up and Easy to Put Down

Before citizens tuned in or logged on for the news, they picked up a paper, reading it at the breakfast table, in the recliner, or on the commuter rail. Newsstands sprung up on street comers throughout the cities of the world for a reason: news must be widely available and highly visible in order to draw the attention of busy pedestrians. All newsgames face the challenge of distribution in a noisy market, but only current event games demand timely distribution to ensure their relevance.

Although Frasca created his own Web site to host September 12th, he relied on links from news Web sites and blogs to generate traffic. Still, the game's primary purpose was to editorialize, not to generate revenue. By contrast, tabloid games often take advantage of a popular controversy to tum traffic into ad impressions. During the 2004 U.S. elections, innumerable political "whack-a-mole" clones appeared, allowing players to bonk their favorite foreign enemy or least favorite politician." AddictingGames .com-owned by media conglomerate Viacom-often seeks out games like Hothead Zidane, paying developers small fees (around $500) for rights to publish the games with pre-roll video ads. More recently, independent creators of current event games have been able to take advantage of usercontributed game portals like, where they can earn a share of revenue from advertising.

Not only are current event games easy to create and distribute, they are

also easy to play. And for good reason: they need to appeal both to people who regularly play games for entertainment and to people who don't. One strategy for drawing in potential players is to borrow tried-and-true game mechanics: match puzzle pieces, avoid falling objects, run and jump, point, shoot, and click. If players already know how to playa game, they might better absorb the news it contains.

This in mind, some current event games deliberately copy commercial

games. Released just before Thanksgiving 2008, Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals is an "unauthorized PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] edition" of the popular Majesco cooking simulation series. The game urges Majesco to create a vegetarian version of Cooking Mama, while educating players about the consequences of their upcoming Thanksgiving feasts. Through a series of sequences that ape the Nintendo Wii platform's motion control system, players pluck and gorge a turkey while mixing spare parts into stuffing and gravy. The process is presented as disgustingly as possible: blood, feathers, and offal drip out of everything (even the chicken eggs). The game's cartoon gruesomeness footage of the American turkey industry, including depictions of animal drugging and live slaughter.

After preparing the bird, mixing the stuffing, and rendering spare parts into gravy, the player unlocks a "bonus round" wherein Mama decides to go vegetarian by preparing a meal of Tofurkey and steamed vegetables in one-third of the time it took to cook the traditional meal. It argues both for the humanity and the relative ease of the vegetarian lifestyle. Accompanying links distribute vegetarian recipes and a pledge to "go veg." PETA, never an organization to be upstaged in public relations, rewards players who complete the experience with wallpapers, banner ads, and the ability to download the game or host it on their own Web pages.

Mama Kills Animals is both editorial game and reportage game. On the one hand, it offers openly biased commentary against meat eating, simulating processes that don't usually concern the Thanksgiving chef, such as the plucking and beheading of the bird. On the other hand, the game uses the platform of commentary to showcase extensive research in an accessible manner. It also manages to be fun in a way that many games of this genre aren't, copying the mechanics of a popular children's game exactly while making the player conscious of and complicit in a grotesque act that we all take for granted.

PETA's game is timely because it takes advantage of a cyclical event, the Thanksgiving holiday. Following this lesson, current event game publishers can plan for the creation of games in .the same way they might plan for traditional stories. New York City's Gotham Gazette, an online newspaper published by the Citizens Union Foundation, was one of the earliest news sources to start producing editorial games. In 2004, they created a suite of games on the theme of that year's upcoming election, called Voting Arcade. The hook: New York City's voting booths had been around since before Atari released Pong in 1972. As shown in figure 2.4, these games res kin arcade classics (Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug), and they mix trivia content with procedural rhetoric to great effect.

Dig Dug Kellner is a stripped-down-verston of the classic coin-op, featuring the iconic mining protagonist and theme music but none of its other mechanics. The player moves around, running into rocks that represent the ridiculous aspects of the voting apparatus: language limitations, a mandatory twenty-five-day preregistration period, misplaced registration applications, and untrained poll workers. The lack of authentic Dig Dug mechanics breaks the game in a purposeful way. It argues by extension that the voting system itself is missing key functionalities required to make the process fair and democratic.

Donkey Con (Elephant Evasion) is a Donkey Kong clone about tackling incumbent officeholders for the hearts and minds of lazy constituents. Each tier of Kong's tower represents a different set of obstacles for the challenger: ballot access, party politics, name recognition, the incumbent powers of media relationships, and campaign cash. Unlike the original, the challenger can't get a hammer power-up to smash through the descending perils. There is a custom death message for each tier, contextualizing abstract obstacles through concrete examples. The game also features a curious exploit: an invisible ladder, which represents running as a Reform candidate, provides a protected route from the bottom level to the top. The game seems to suggest that most of the obstacles of incumbency are

Current Events


surface effects of the two-party system. For somebody running on a Reform ticket, the Gazette argues, campaign cash is the only major concern.

These simple arcade games forsake complex narratives in favor of familiar and evocative experiences. In so doing, they encourage reflection rather than enjoyment. Following playwright Bertolt Brecht's practice of breaking down theater's fourth wall, Gonzalo Frasca argues that players must be able to maintain a critical distance from the subject matter of a political game." In commercial games, immersion threatens this distance, often through complex, carefully crafted narrative structures. IS One of the ways games can immerse players is through a well-crafted narrative structure; therefore, Frasca suggests focusing on simulation instead of storytelling. Simulation lends itself to multiple playthroughs, a wide variety of end states, and a flexibility of values. This is why Frasca made September 12th an abstract simulation of the origins of terrorism, not a narrative on the same subject. Avoiding narrative also contributes to the casual nature of current event games, making them "easy to pick up and easy to put down." Simulation often distinguishes editorial or reportage games from tabloid games; the former two tend to offer an experience of a model (the economics of Somali pirating), whereas the latter often recreate an event through a short narrative (a head butt at a World Cup match).


In thevideogame industry, conversations about business ethics and quality of life are common." In particular, game studios often demand extremely long hours at the end of a videogame's development cycle to complete a title in time for a predetermined ship date. Industry insiders call it "crunch time." These standards seem especially cruel when compared to the labor conditions of other industrial arts, film and television, whose practitioners enjoy union protection and overtime pay. Yet long before game corporations concocted crunch time, reporters burned the midnight oil to bring breaking news to the public. In a w

The twenty-four-hour news cycle puts a strain on current event games.

Although game designers are no strangers to toil, few current event games are actually released within a day or two of the event they cover-a key period, after which many stories reach saturation." Even veteran designers and programmers would be hard pressed to craft a game worth playing overnight. Gonzalo Frasca was able to create Kabul Kaboom in only a few hours, not bad for a videogame cartoon. But more complex procedural arguments require more time. Even though it may seem fairly simple, September 12th took three months to perfect. IS Perhaps the most successful rapidly produced current event game is Madrid, which Frasca and his studio Powerful Robot Games created in the forty-eight hours following the terrorist bombing of a subway train in Spain's capital on March 11, 2004. Instead of depicting the event or mounting an argument, Madrid solemnly asks its player to remember the tragedy that transpired.

The game presents one screen to the player: a candlelight vigil. Its attendants wear T-shirts commemorating major cities that have suffered a prominent bombing: Madrid, Baghdad, Oklahoma City, and Buenos Aires, among others. A steady wind is Madrid's only sound effect, cueing the player to the slowly dimming candlelight. The player must click the candles to keep them lit, and doing so methodically for an extended period results in "victory." It is actually quite difficult to keep the candles lit and reach the win state, and for many players the game offers a poignant lesson that remembrance requires non-trivial effort.

Madrid provides no information about the bombing itself; players have to come equipped from previous news coverage to comprehend it. The same could be said of Hothead Zidane, which also offers no context or explanation. Should a current event game be held to the same standards of timeliness as the news? Perhaps, although commentary takes time to develop. A current event game need not be timely in the way a breaking story is timely. Frasca envisioned current event games as adaptations of editorial cartoons rather than features, but other options suggest themselves." Mike Treanor and Michael Mateas have suggested that current event games need not release when a story breaks, but only while the issues they cover are still pertinent, a sentiment that dovetails with a journalist's duty to "make the significant interesting and relevant." 2o Treanor and Mateas expand on Frasca's proposal for playable editorial cartoons by differentiating between social comment cartoons and political cartoons.

Social comment cartoons, they explain, focus on a broad and easily identifiable social issue, such as global warming, and encourage the viewer to acknowledge the issue with a smile." Political cartoons, by contrast, take a specific news event and use it to comment on a larger issue. A video game analogue of the social comment cartoon would enjoy a much more leisurely production schedule than a political cartoon game, because it could tap into an ongoing issue able to maintain public interest over time.22

The tabloid game So You Think You Can Drive, Mel? illustrates the difference clearly. Created by the Game Show Network in the aftermath of Mel Gibson's widely publicized ethnic-slur-riddled DUI, it is perhaps the most well-designed celebrity sleaze tabloid game ever. A caricature of Mel's face hangs out of his car window as he speeds down the highway. The screen scrolls to the side, and the player can only control the car's vertical motion. The player's score rises slowly as the game wears on. Grabbing bottles of whiskey increases the score considerably, but it also raises Mel's blood alcohol level. In turn, it becomes more difficult to control player movement as the car lags behind, jumps forward, and bounces up and down.

There are two enemies in the game: Hasidic Jews and cops. The Hasidim throw Stars of David at Mel's car from the top of the screen, and if they score a hit the player loses twenty-five points. Running over a cop doesn't decrease the score, but once the player hits five of them the game is over. The rhetoric is clear: Mel has a single-minded obsession to drink, he despises "Hollywood Jews," and he sees the law as little more than an inconvenient obstacle.

It is ironic that a game about an isolated celebrity blunder might offer the best example of timeliness in political cartoon games. One can't imagine it helping players make decisions about their own lives, yet So You Think You Can Drive, Mel? is not only timely, but also a timeless documentation of an event now forgotten by most of the media and public. By contrast, a social comment rendition of this tabloid piece would require a broader perspective; the fallibility of celebrities could serve as a hook to draw attention to the fact that no one is immune to the dangers of drunk driving.

Timeliness in other current event games follows this model. Madrid's poignant commemoration of tragedy is more likely to become unplayable due to changes in technology than it is to become irrelevant, while Kabul Kaboom is inscrutable absent supplementary information about airdrops during the Afghan war. Social comment games often cover highly visible, ongoing public policy issues; thus, they remain relevant as long as the situation covered persists. In th€ case of September l Zth, the war on terror itself has remained a pressing issue long after September 11. The game can continue to be played as long as civilian deaths from missile strikes remain a part of the contemporary milieu. Additionally, daily newspapers serve an archival purpose. More so than even popular and academic history books, archived newspapers preserve a record of daily, lived experience. Any current event game created becomes a peculiar ludic commentary on the trials and tribulations of a specific moment in time.

Editorial Line

Whether editorial or reportage, cartoon or social comment, all current event games derive their content from actual events. Just as news stories don't reinvent common forms of composition like the inverted pyramid with every publication, so newsgames don't always reinvent forms of the videogame. Today's commercial videogames may sell millions of copies, but they still reach a far narrower population than a major news broadcast or Web site. As many of the games discussed above show, current event games can focus their players on journalistic messages by borrowing from classic videogames.

Consider a plaintive example. In his book on game design, Raph Koster

imagines how the experience of playing Tetris might be different if its iconic tetrimino blocks were transformed into the bodies of genocide victims being packed into a mass grave." Some years later, Brazilian artists realized a similar idea in a political game about execution, Calabouio Tetrico (Dungeon Tettis). The game can only be "won" by allowing the torture victims to climb out of their pit and assault the player's avatar, driving home a moral rhetoric one can never undo the atrocities one commits. In game development, reskinning is generally denigrated as uncreative derivativism. But Calabouco Tettico shows that serious commentary can arise from repurposing familiar games.

Less graphic examples exist, too. One widely circulated current event game of the 2008 U.S. presidential election was Super Obama World, a reimagining of Nintendo's Super Maru: World. The game replaced Mario with Senator Obama, goombas with corporate crooks, and koopas with pork barrel politicking pigs. Each zone in the game covers a foible of the McCain campaign. In one, Obama trounces villains while leaping over a series of high-end clothing stores, commenting on Cindy McCain's wealth and Safah Palin's then-scandalous use of campaign funds to buy clothes for public appearances. In another, the player runs for an annoying length of time on an empty bridge that abruptly dead-ends into a ravine, highlighting the absurdity of the "bridge to nowhere" Palin backed as Governor of


Controlling an Obama avatar as he stomps on crooks offers a reasonably

effective message, but adopting the form or mechanics of a familiar game hardly guarantees journalistic relevance. Years before creating his first current event games, Frasca remarked that "the design of consciousnessraising videogames is not as simple as replacing Nintendo's Mario and Luigi with Sacco and vanzetti.' ?" To trade gimmickry in favor of

Current Events


commentary, a current event game must tightly couple its content to its mechanics. A current event game takes a mechanic that is primarily expressive (communicating a feeling from the game to the player) and makes it persuasive (communicating the operation of an idea), thus creating the videogame equivalent of an editorial line.

Simulations have varied complexities. Much of their meaning rests on which facts an author decides to include and exclude. Journalists embrace objectivity by including all the reliable facts, whereas editorialists pick and choose in order to persuade their readers.

When creating a simulation game, a designer accepts the need to omit some facts or possibilities from the model. Instead of hard-coding each important aspect, the programmer crafts algorithms that create an impression of the represented system, along with a gulf between it and its real referent. Bogost has called this gulf between the real system and the game's model of it the "simulation gap." 2S With this representational chasm in mind, Miguel Sicart argues that the "ideology of a newsgame ... can be found in the way the original topic of the news has been translated into the game system.":" Creating an editorial line in a current event game involves a process of including or excluding specific information from the model, of creating a simulation gap. In the case of the pro-Palestinian editorial game Raid Gaza!, much relevant information is excluded to make a succinct political point. The game addresses neither Palestinian terrorists' reasons for shooting missiles at settlements nor the motivations of rogue Israeli settlers. Instead, Raid Gaza! focuses all its effort on claims that Israel uses undue force and that the United States will never cease military and fiscal support of the country. The game carefully picks its fight and then plumbs the depths of possible, relevant consequences.

There is much work left to be done to accomplish such tasks successfully. Failure is still common. Persuasive Games' Arcade Wire series, published on and Shockwave. com, attempts to contextualize its editorial heft by beginning games with the image of a newspaper's front page, the headline presenting a comedic one-liner on the subject matter at hand (figure 2.5). These games also feature extensive tutorials that ease players into the experience. Yet despite this effort, a short glance at the comments on the Web pages containing the games shows that a Significant number of players expect vanilla leisure, not thoughtful commentary.

One of the greatest examples of cinema's failure to convey an idea to its audience was the "intellectual montage" Sergei Eisenstein employed in many of his films. Eisenstein contended that the essence of cinema could be found in the juxtapositions made possible by linear editing. One of his first proofs-of-concept was a scene in The Strike: he inter cut the Tsar's slaughter of revolutionary workers with images of the butchering of a steer. In Eisenstein's mind, this simple cross-editing would communicate directly to his viewers the idea that the revolters had been senselessly slaughtered without any means to defend themselves." Upon viewing the film, audiences were confused or infuriated. Why? Eisenstein was an intellectual, his audience the Russian peasantry. In rural communities, the slaughtering of a steer was a happy occasion resulting in a rare dinner of meat instead of grain. It is a misunderstanding akin to that of the audience expecting a casual distraction and receiving an editorial exegesis. These games must be carefully framed to avoid confusion.

Perhaps the best example of the clash between a designer'S ideology and player expectations can be found in La Molleindustria's McDonaLd's

Videogame. Its designer, a young Italian subversive named Paolo Pedercini, harbors anticonglomerate and prolabor politics, advocating strikes and corporate sabotage in his life outside making games. 28 McDonald's videogame hopes to demonstrate the abject corruption required to maintain the profitability of a multinational fast-food organization. In the game, players control fields in South America where cattle are raised and soy is grown, a factory farm where cows are fed and controlled for disease, a restaurant where workers have to be hired and managed, and a corporate office where advertising campaigns and board members set corporate policy (figure 2.6). The game starts out like most business simulations-set up a steady supply of meat and soy, build a workforce, run television advertising. Costs quickly outstrip revenue, and the player must take advantage of more seedy business practices. These include razing rainforests to expand crops, mixing waste as filler in the cow feed, censuring or firing unruly employees, and corrupting government officials to minimize public outcry against the above actions.

Interestingly, many players-especially those who are technically minded and enjoy mastering their videogames-find themselves lamenting the difficult job of McDonald's executives, rather than incensed by their corrupt corporate policies. Keep in mind that Molleindustria's games are well contextualized, both on their own Web site and on game portals,

thanks to sophisticated introductory statements about the political opinions of the game and its creator. Still, players manage to recast their contexts; well-crafted simulation gaps always admit unexpected reactions. The incredible difficulty of Madrid has lead players to conclude that it addresses the futility of remembrance rather than its necessity." And September 12th could be read as a call for a full-scale military invasion-bombing creates more terrorists, and they're not going away on their own, so a ground strike might be the only path to success.

Exploits-loopholes or modes of play unforeseen by the design teampose additional trouble. Since a game requires player interaction, it is never possible to anticipate the myriad ways someone might "break" a game. Treanor and Mateas note such an exploit in Persuasive Games's Bacteria Salad, which addresses issues of food safety in industrial farming.' ? In it, the player must maintain the crops of five contiguous farms, defending them from agro-terrorists and disease as they attempt to provide a steady stock of two types of vegetables to consumers. But the game is easily compromised and mined for points: players can just raze a farm and quickly replace it every time a contamination event occurs. A critical player may ask whether this behavior is part of the game's commentary or an unintended effect of the system. The power of interpretation, present in the experience of all other media, is amplified by the participatory nature of computational media.

Public Debate

Here's a question anyone using videogames for purposes outside entertainment will eventually hear: is a game really an appropriate way to address a serious issue? In the short history of current event games, the greatest fallout from such a query blighted Faith Fighter, a game about religious intolerance." La Molleindustria created the game in order to comment upon a string of anti-Islamic editorial cartoons in Danish newspapers." In the game, Molleindustria attempts to expand prejudicial claims about the Muslim penchant for violence to include every major creed, showing that those in positions of power use religion instrumentally, usually by inciting hatred among the faithful. The game even provides explicit instructions for how it should be used, as a cathartic way to exorcise religious hatred without actually doing real-life violence against others.

A number of concerned parties spoke out against the game, including mass media outlets and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). When negative attention for the game reached critical mass, designer Paolo

Current Events


Pedercini removed the game from his Web site and replaced it with a letter to visitors. In addition to linking to some of the many versions of the game others had posted online, Pedercini also accused the OIC of not having played his game before denouncing it. He found it impossible that they had played it, based on the statements made by the organization that the game could only be seen as inciting hatred between Muslims and Christians:

"This phenomenon is related to the still marginal role of the medium," writes Pedercini. "Commentators feel authorized to judge a game without playing it and just conforming to the common narrative depicting video games as violence generators.v'"

It's a common sentiment among the creators of current event games that the vanguard of privileged media uses its position of power to prevent the public acceptance of gaming as a form of sophisticated speech. But the Faith Fighter controversy also underscores a major problem for games as advocacy, because it shows that the parties a game addresses are the most likely to be offended. Pedercini understood the dilemma, and he created a sequel to share his insight. The result was Faith Fighter 2, a parodic appropriation of Frasca's mechanic of commemoration in Madrid: click on numerous gods from the first game to feed them with love and prevent their memories from fading away (see figure 2.7 for a comparison of the two games). Upon inevitable failure, the player is treated to the claim that many made against Pedercini himself: "Game Over: You failed to respect a religion, and now the world is a total mess!" It may be possible to keep a game of Faith Fighter 2 going indefinitely, as it doesn't appear to arrive at a natural conclusion. At some point the player must slow down or give up, a meditation on the possible futility of the endeavor.

According to many editorial cartoonists, a publication that apologizes for a cartoon or removes it from their archives commits journalistic treachery." The purpose of a cartoon is to inspire heated discussion, and suppression does just as much of a disservice to detractors as it does to the artist. Pedercini was heavily criticized by some of his fans for "caving" to the demands of what they saw as a-bullying OIC; in reply, he insisted that the removal of the game didn't constitute self-censorship, but recognition that the game had missed its mark completely. Prominent editorial cartoonists, deploring the current state of the art, admit that most of the cartoons that never make it off the drafting table probably deserve to remain there." The greatest weakness of most rejected cartoons is their lack of clarity. In Pedercini's case, he set out to critique the negative treatment of Muslims in Danish political cartoons and ended up upsetting the OIC instead. He apologized not for making the game, but for the unfortunate circumstances leading up to its removal. Both his letter and the follow-up game further poke fun at the ridiculous mass media manufactured outrage, making the apology easier to stomach.

In both tabloid games and tabloid journalism, a fine line separates earnestness from sensationalism. The "red tops" of the United Kingdom, papers that focus on celebrity, sports, and political gossip with transparent ideological bias, might exemplify the former. For the latter, one need go no further than the supermarket checkout, where gossip rags publish outright fiction, selling sensationalism by means of the nastiest rumor possible. Hothead Zidane offers an example of the former, but relatively few examples of the latter seem to exist.

Perhaps a close cousin to supermarket tabloid schlock in current event games is Terri Irwin's Revenge, a game about "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin's death. The game, originally circulated by email, features Terri Irwin snorkeling through stingray-infested waters in a quest to slaughter the animals that killed her husband. Compared to Hothead Zidane, Terri Irwin's Revenge is much more complex-featuring opening and closing titles, two types of enemies, a "Croc bomb" attack that summons a beloved crocodile ally to clear the screen of rays, a life and health pack system, and a steadily increasing difficulty. Despite its polish, the game was so tasteless to most players that a significant outcry resulted in its total removal from the Web. Yet, even Terri Irwin's Revenge doesn't hold a candle to the offense of celebrity rumor papers.

Tastefulness is a long-standing problem among even the best editorial cartoonists, so it's no surprise that the challenges of refinement extend to current event games. Even bad taste is sometimes a good thing: in the case of editorial cartoons, crossing the line is often necessary in order to determine exactly where the line is." Political correctness is helpful when it protects oppressed minorities from the often unconscious denigration of the privileged, but it also tends to limit the playful expression that can elucidate unseen facets of an issue. Sometimes, generating public debate about an underexplored issue is the whole point of the enterprise.

Turn to the Games Section

Bias is inherent to opinion journalism. When flipping to the editorial page of a newspaper, one knows that facts take a backseat to persuasion. One must muster the same attitude when playing editorial games. Therein lies the difference: the editorial page provides a recognized context for opinion, often by highlighting a spectrum of differing viewpoints on a single page."

Editorial cartoons are refined, clarified, and expanded by accompanying columns, and vice versa. But no such setting yet exists for the editorial videogame.

Editorial games have been denied much of this organic discourse and oversight because of their relative isolation from other news. Most current event games have been relegated to curious corners of the Web, primarily sites specializing in casual games. Few efforts have combined editorial games with traditional online reporting and editorial. Even if heavy-hitters like the New York Times and CNN have dabbled in the form, none has offered more support than parenthetical hyperlinks to related articles for accompaniment. The series of articles and infographics on Somali pirates that accompany Cutthroat Capitalism may be the best integration of games into wider reporting to date.

Perhaps innovation in current event games will not take place in the United States at all, but in scrappier news markets. In 2009, the New York Times and the Washington Post published not a single game, but Brazilian newspaper Estado created two under the title logos de Susteniabilidade ("Sustainability Games"). These titles were produced for a series on recycling and conservation, and the editors embedded them in pages carrying informational articles, columns, and graphics on the same subject. One is a clone of the arcade game Elevator Action, the other a reskinning and revision of Kabooml, The latter simply educates players about the types of materials that go into each color-coded recycle bin, but the former uses a quiz format to test the player's knowledge of energy conservation in an apartment building. Halfway around the world, Madrid was cloned into the Turkish current event game Huys «((Hope"), a game that invites players to remember the murder of an outspoken Turkish journalist and the importance of journalistic freedom and integrity.

Divorced from their natural habitat of the front page or the editorial page, current event games are used all too often as rudimentary Web site traffic-grabbers. Most current event games are loss leaders, a way to draw visitors to the "real news" and to generate revenue through advertising viewership. The relative novelty of current event games ensures that blogs, forums, and even mainstream news outlets will circulate information about these games, particularly if they are controversial. Current event games can thus be used instrumentally, as attention-grabbers rather than as earnest journalism.

Nadya Suleman, the single mother of octuplets who dominated human interest coverage in early 2009, suffered no dearth of editorial cnticism." Among the many editorial cartoons that critiqued her plight, one riffs

Current Events


off the widely published photograph of Sulernari's enormous pregnant stomach, slapping ads and emblems on it, including donation requests via PayPal and Visa." Others connect her with a contemporary event, the Obama economic stimulus plan. One suggests that a large litter might help bear the burden of the stimulus plan's debt; the other compares the irresponsibility of Suleman with that of the Democrats by applying an overstretched womb to a donkey. 40

All of these cartoons are biting in their own way, but not one of them addresses the fate of the mother or the children. Other forms of written and spoken editorial took on this topic more than any other, puzzling over how one could care for fourteen children and what ill effects eight babies might have in the hands of a human mother designed to care for two at most.

The Octuplet's Game picks up here. The game's subtitle declares, "now you can be a milk machine!" Gameplay mimics Space Invaders, the player controlling the two breasts of a lactation device rather than a defensive laser. Eight babies line the top of the screen, each nestled into a color-coded test-tube to match its gender. Occasionally the babies cry, inching their way down the screen. Pressing spacebar fires milk, which placates the crying babies above. If an unfed baby makes its way to the bottom of the screen, the game ends. There's one catch: the milk machine can't operate continuously. A pump at screen right shows the machine's current power. Once it's depleted, the player must press the Band G keys in alternation to refill it.

As coverage and commentary, the game effectively communicates a few points. It highlights the inhuman act of technological mediCine, which transforms mother into machine. It questions whether such a machine can ably tend to so many children in the way a mother can, mirroring the concern expressed in other media about Suleman's ability to mother such a large brood. And it depersonalizes the children themselves, absurdly extending their test-tube conception to a cyborg-childhood. Indeed, it is hard not to see the babies just as fluid-sinks rather than human beings.

Even if it might not be the most sophisticated, scathing, or insightful example of public commentary, The Octuplet's Game functions effectively. Yet it wasn't created as news at all. The French interactive agency L'Agence Toriche whipped it up not on behalf of a journalism client but as a demonstration of their own services in e-marketing, realizing their prowess at "getting buzz" online by performing the act with their own product.

The Octuplet'S Game isn't quite yellow journalism, but it's hardly Pulitzer Prize material either. A journalist might want to present a more


Chapter 2

even-handed view of the Suleman situation. For example, tending to eight infants at once as a single mother is an idea worth experiencing rather than just pondering. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game has nothing to do with its journalistic quality, but with its context: a marketing agency rather than a news organization chose to produce and distribute it. The three types of current event games suggest a continuum, from tabloid sensationalism, through balanced reportage, to the biased conviction of editorial. Within this spectrum, newsmakers will have to make deliberate investments, lest the potential for earnest counsel in current event games become subsumed by crass marketing.

3 Infographics

"If you ever wanted to control where your tax dollars go, here's your chance to decide," proclaims Budget Hero, a game created by American Public Media. Budget Hero challenges players to plan for the nation's future by picking and choosing programs that reduce or raise government spending while avoiding excess debt and fulfilling player-chosen promises. Play involves reallocating funds from different budget categories, each allotment altering a twenty-year projection of the country's financial situation. Since budgets imply values, the player chooses goals in the form of "badges," among them health and wellness, national security, economic stimulus, and efficient government. The game judges the player's performance based on how well these chosen areas are developed over time.

Budget Hero's interface is a bar graph drawn to look like a cityscape (figure 3.1). It uses the skyline bar graph as a metaphor for the nation's health, stability, and size. By raising and lowering the constituent structures, the player helps to "define tomorrow's skyline." When the player clicks on a building, the game reveals a series of cards with budgetary subitems. One might choose to "Bring troops home soon" to save $210 billion, fund "diplomacy and foreign aid" at the cost of $390 billion, "increase mass transit funding" for $33 billion, or give a "tax break for first time home buyers" at the expense of $4 billion. There are 154 policy

options in all. ·r

The heights of the buildings change when the player selects a card or drags a marker across a timeline, displaying the projected budget over a twenty-year period. Players can see their progress on three meters measuring the deficit/surplus level, the relative size of the government, and the national debt. Another display shows the "Budget Bust," the year when the combined costs of health care, Social Security, and debt interest overtake revenue, breaking the bank. After selecting budget options, the player submits the budget to see what results it would produce. The game then passes judgment on the budget, evaluating the three categories just mentioned, as well as the goals chosen at the start of the game. The player can then go back and tweak settings to achieve better scores or to fulfill more completely the promises represented by the badges.

Budget Hero extends beyond the cityscape as well. American Public Media provides detailed explanations about its assumptions on the Web site that hosts the game, including an extensive FAQ that discusses how they got their numbers, why different categories were chosen or omitted, and how results were calculated.' They also describe the uses of data culled from playthroughs of the game, analyzing trends such as player demographics, the most frequently pursued badges, popular bipartisan badges, and the policies and decisions that most players enacted.

At its heart, Budget Hero is a spreadsheet with a fancy skin. It is but one of many types of information graphics or in{ographics-visual depictions of data used for reasoning about inforrnation.i' Budget Hero offers a good example of what can make an info graphic playable. With its bar graph and timeline, it incorporates a deep data set that can be manipulated on multiple axes. The graphical display itself is dynamic, changing in real time to provide visual feedback. One does not manipulate the display haphazardly, but with a goal in mind: a budget with the greatest longevity and highest compatibility with player values. It is an example of directed activity: a graphic that guides the user through the information so that the component parts can be synthesized for understanding. The measures of successdeficit/surplus, government size, and national debt-provide universal goals, while the badges make the effort of playing personally relevant. And it offers an example of free-form exploration, thanks to the large space of information around the game's primary goals of budget longevity and badge values. Replaying the game encourages the user to explore the depths of the data, examining the causes and effects of decisions or trying out different badge goals. The sheer number of possible priorities that arise from replay may make the game's most important statement about the national budget: it's complex, and riddled with conflict.

To understand the relationship between infographics, journalism, and play, it is useful to look at the history of the infographic's form and function. Infographics have appeared regularly in the news since the late 1930s.3 It was USA Today who popularized the infographic among newsreaders with their "Snapshots," graphics appearing in a sidebar below the fold on the front page of every issue. Compiled from national surveys, the daily snapshot usually displays the results in a simple fashion that visually evokes the topic in question. For example, a snapshot printed in the November 24, 2008, USA Today explains changes in radio listening habits among 14- to 24-year-olds, based on a survey." The results are rendered as a pie chart on the circular top of a studio broadcast microphone. Though the infographic makes for front-page -cye candy, USA Today hardly takes full advantage of this technique as a tool for explaining issues.

Statistician and information designer Edward Tufte helps us understand why. Whether artist-drawn or computer-produced, Tufte warns, information graphics should not be used to "show the obvious to the ignorant"; instead, he urges us to see them as "instruments for reasoning about quantitative information." ? Good infographics make sense of data through visual display, illuminating insights typically obscured in text and numbers. They transform raw data through statistics and design, making complex


Chapter 3

ideas clear and precise. Charts like the USA Today Snapshots present information, but they fail to provide instrumentation or to inspire reasoning. Budget Hero, by contrast, offers a detailed context for budgetary information, as well as a set of challenges that inspire players to reason about that data.

Tufte studies the use of information graphics in any domain, but Budget Hero suggests that journalism offers a particularly salient domain for making sense of information. As designer Alberto Cairo explains, news infographics demand sound journalistic effort as much as they require competent information design." Infographics place data in context to assess cause and effect, to allow for quantitative comparisons, to present alternatives and contrary cases, and to assist in decision making.' They are used to inform, ,to reveal details in information that would otherwise be obscured, and even to persuade readers to see new relationships between actors and systems in the world. The news infographic designer thus embraces the journalistic value of synthesis, condensing complicated information into a legible format."

Tufte's and Cairo's ideas are hardly new. William Playfair, an infographics pioneer of the late eighteenth century, published tracts on economics and politics in an attempt to eke out a living as an independent journalist." Over the course of his career, Playfair pioneered the graphical forms that are now familiar parts of our mathematical education: line charts, bar graphs, and pie charts. The beautiful charts in Playfair's Commercial and Political Atlas inspired Charles Joseph Maynard, designer of the famous map of Napoleon's 1812 march into Russia." Maynard transformed a plotted course of Napoleon's path into a statistical map representing the dwindling size of his army, valuing data over geography. Edward Tufte claims that this map "may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn. Ill!

Most early infographics were used in economics, mathematics, and the SCiences, but it was not long before they found broader application. In the 1920s Otto Neurath, inspired by Swiss modernist design, espoused information graphics as a form of communication that could potentially rival the written word." His isotype movement sought to create a universal language of symbols featuring abstracted shapes best compared to the human silhouettes on the doors of restrooms. The purpose of the movement was to find the most effective form of visual communication-a kind of "prose graphic." !"

At the same time Neurath worked to popularize pictorial language, infographics began to appear in American newspapers. On the front page of its November 3, 1920 edition, the New York Times demonstrated the results of the presidential race by mapping them onto an image of the United States in the familiar style of today's election returns maps. J4 Rather than using an alphabetical list of states and their polling results, the map makes visual connections between geographic areas and their political alignment. According to the map, the America of the roaring twenties was split along an old geographic wound-the South voted for Cox while the rest of the nation voted for Harding. Simple maps like these were the most prevalent infographics until the influx of immigrants in the 1930s brought the European style of infographic design to the United States.

Thanks in part to Czech information designer Ladislav Sutnar's role in the 1939 New York World's Fair, continental graphic design took off in America by the outset of World War That year, Fortune magazine published a page of graphical bar charts based on a business survey it had conducted, using simple outlines of people to illustrate the survey's choices." While major publishers possessed both the resources and the technology to pursue infographics, the field remained untouched by smaller newspapers and publishing outlets.

As the war years gave way to the prosperous 1950s and 1960s, a more creative take on infographics unseated the isotype style. The New York School "chartoon" style, popularized by Nigel Holmes in the 1960s and 1970s, reacted against the overly functionalist graphics of the mid-century. Chartoons dress up displays of graphical data with cartoon-like illustrations and extraneous detail to make the graphics more visually appealing, a precursor to the high-gloss, low-synthesis graphics of the USA Today."

A large supply of professional artists entering the rapidly expanding fields of print publishing and advertising further emphasized illustration over information. IS Edmund Arnold, considered by many the father of modern newspaper design, was among them. A graphic designer and journalist, Arnold incorporated images and infographics into the routine of the newsroom and into the more than one thousand newspapers he designed." In 1977, Time magazine underwent a redesign that included frequent pop-data graphics contributions from another news diagram


innovator, Nigel Holmes. Even though he deployed a less technical style

than Playfair had two centuries earlier, Holmes reinvigorated infographics as a legitimate branch of journalistic endeavor." Between 1965 and 1980, the New York Times frequently published sophisticated infographics, becoming the main proponent of the form in newspapers for decades." But the info graphics in the Times of this period, and the purposes they served, were altogether different from those the USA Today would popularize in the early 1980s by publishing them daily. The latter's need for daily


Chapter 3

data forced the paper to turn to simple polls, trite little info-nibbles. It was part of a move that earned the USA Today the name "McPaper" for its focus on soft and inconsequential questions. Figure 3.2 shows examples from the evolution of journalistic infographics.

Despite their questionable value, the USA Today's daily graphics raised the bar on the form by changing expectations. The growing accessibility of desktop computers in the 1980s led to the faster production of more affordable graphics, but early software was still too primitive to be used quickly in newsrooms. By 1988 editors were clamoring for graphics, and news wire services entered the race." Moving from telephone lines to satellite delivery systems, the Associated Press, the Knight-Ridder-Tribune News Service, the New York Times News Service, and the Gannett News Service began offering graphics just as they offered news stories bywire. Infographics not only improved readers' comprehension of information, they also sold papers, adding visual flare to an otherwise text-heavy medium.

The journalistic yang to USA Today's yin would emerge in the digital age. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel brought on Don Wittekind in 1996 to head their interactive graphics department. Wittekind expanded the department to create info graphics to complement stories from the print and online news departments. Another early adopter of digital infographics, the online edition of Spain's second largest newspaper El Mundo ( founded its online graphics department in 1999. Alberto Cairo, a founder of the department, has written extensively on the transition from print to digital infographics, with a focus on journalistic integrity over novelty of implementation.23

Uses of Digital Infographics

In print, infographics are static by necessity. Digital infographics, by contrast, involve computation and user manipulation of underlying information. At its simplest, a digital infographic might layer ancillary information visually, such that additional detail is revealed when a user moves the mouse pointer over a particular object. But genuine digital infographics make interaction a part of understanding: analog info graphics are read, whereas digital info graphics are operated. Maish Nichani and Venkat Rajamanickam coin the term inieractives to underscore the differenceexplanation through mteracnon."

According to Nichani and Rajamanickam, the interactive has the potential to free information from the rigid constraints of the printed word. They offer four categories of interactive graphics: narrative, instructive, explorative, and simulative. Narratives are used for telling straightforward stories, instructives provide step-by-step directions to reach a single goal, exploratives allow the user to engage in their own processes of sense-making, and simulatives allow the reader to grasp the processes of a system."

By becoming active participants in the unfolding of information, readers can develop a deeper understanding of the underlying logic of an issue. Budget Hero offers an object lesson: instead of depicting trivial details about the budget as would a USA Today snapshot or even a static bar graph, Budget Hero allows players to experience the difficult trade-offs required to promote particular social programs. Nichani and Rajamanickam's categories may offer useful ways to group examples or guide production, but we prefer to focus on the possible uses of info graphics.

We propose three primary patterns of use for info graphics, both digital and nondigital. Explanatory infographics depict specific data for simultaneous consumption. Exploratory (or free-form) info graphics allow participants to draw a variety of conclusions by manipulating data according to personal goals or ideas. And directed info graphics guide readers through data in a specific way, leading to a shared experience of synthesis.

Explanatory graphics display synthesized information in a relatively static form. They value results over processes, abstracting discussions about how a journalist arrived at a particular conclusion. Such information might be quantitative, qualitative, or narrative in form. Consider the New York Times front-page graphic from December 16, 1965, which shows a diagram of the Gemini 6 and 7 flight crews' rendezvous while orbiting Earth." It illustrates the orbital paths of the two ships, and comment boxes attached to points on the paths describe key steps in the process. A single reading of all the details offers sufficient explanation.'s May 2009 feature on the construction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft offers a digital example of an explanatory infographic. An exploded view of the 787 makes its constituent parts easier to identify." Lines direct the eye to these elements, and hovering over dots on the graphic reveals information about where a particular part is manufactured. The purpose of the graphic is to illustrate the global production of the aircraft, a business decision that had been required to accomplish Boeing's engineering goals, but which had also introduced unexpected logistical delays.

Exploratory (free-form) graphics show data that is meant to be synthesized by the user independently of the creator's expectations. Both Tufte and Benjamin Schneiderman encourage the use of information graphics to offer multiple levels of granularity for maximum flexibility. Tools or controls allow the reader to arrange, filter, or zoom data. For example, a map of the world produced by Dan Smith in The State of the World Atlas represents a country's size not by its geographic mass but by its population." A few textual notes detail general trends in population growth, but it is up to readers to discover how the maps might clarify their particular situations. The graphic features a high density of information presented in multiple formats that encourage the reader to explore, make comparisons using the different graphics, and draw conclusions about the world's population.

USA Today's 2008 "Presidential Primary Delegate Tracker" graphic offers a commendable example of an exploratory digital Infographic." The graphic depicts a map of the United States, timelines of Democrat and Republican events, and a bar graph with the total number of delegate votes cast for each presidential candidate. ROlling over states on the map shows how many votes each delegate won. Mousing over points on the timeline highlights the states whose primaries approached, while also masking previously decided states. As users approach the map by means of these different tools, they develop a better sense of the unfolding drama of the primary.

Directed infographics guide the reader through a dynamic data set toward a conclusion synthesized beforehand by the designer or journalist. Spatial, temporal, or process-heavy stories often lend themselves to directed graphical rendition. The front page of the January 26, 1986, USA Today features a large color graphic explaining the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger/" An explanation of liftoff appears, with increments of time detailing the one minute and fifty-one seconds before the shuttle exploded. It uses an insert map of the Cape Canaveral area to situate the event, and two cut-away diagrams of the shuttle-one of the rockets and one of the shuttle's cockpit-to add detail. Directed activity encourages constrained exploration. The Challenger infographic guides the reader through the chronology of the tragedy, while providing supplementary information that might offer detail and fontext.

In digital info graphics, direction can prompt the user to explore abstract or generic information from the perspective of his or her personal situation. Imagine a hypothetical family that lives in East Orange, New Jersey. A wife, husband, and their one child have been renting a house, but the wife has been offered an opportunity to be transferred to her engineering firm's new branch in Reston, Virginia. Her husband is self-employed, so he has the freedom to work from anywhere. When they first moved to East Orange they assumed they wouldn't be able to afford a house, but a few


Chapter 3

years of savings plus the raise she would receive upon transferring have turned their attention to the possibility of home ownership. Does it make financial sense to try to buy a home in Virginia? They would rather not see a financial planner without first exploring some options, so they search the Web for information. There are thousands of generic mortgage calculators online, but they stumble on a more robust tool: the New York Times rent-buy calculator, "Is It Better to Buy or Rent?,, 31

The calculator is an interactive infographic that compares the relative costs of renting and buying equivalent homes. The graphic contains fields to enter rent cost, home price, down payment, mortgage rate, and annual property taxes. Additionally, it uses two sliders to adjust annual changes in home value and rent. As shown in figure 3.3, a timeline at the center shows how many years it would take to justify the cost of buying a home, paying property taxes, and settling a mortgage versus simply renting. The calculator even accounts for more specific costs: condo or home-owners association fees, costs of selling a home, maintenance costs, rent deposit, rate of return on investment if the money used to buy a home were invested elsewhere, and so on. Though the results of the calculator shouldn't be taken as gospel, they offer a concrete starting point for people looking for homes in an uncertain housing market. The tool directs use by prompting the user to enter personalized information.

Information graphics find a close relative in the world of computing: information visualization or infovis. While both fields concern the visual representation of data, information visualization values computational innovation first, elucidation second." It is used to for "exploiting the dynamic, interactive, inexpensive medium of graphical computers to devise new external aids enhancing cognitive abtltties.":" Whereas information graphics generally entail hand-drawn materials produced by an artist, infovis artifacts use computers both for processing large quantities [i of data and for rendering that data. In a data set with thousands or millions of individual elements, a computer's speed, power, and accuracy are required to produce a viable rendering. As such, infovis has traditionally taken place among computer professionals-experts with experience analyzing problems in a specific domain, and with the know-how to write software to render the results of that analysis.

By and large, infovis has found root in highly technical contexts, where scientific information is both large and complex. However, Zachary Pousman, John Stasko, and Michael Mateas have coined the term "casual infovis" to suggest a broader role for information visualization in less professional contexts." Examples abound, aggregated from the corners of the Web on sites like Their "5 Best Data Visualization Projects of the Year" for 2008 features a static infographic, dynamic infovis,

and even two video projects."

The wider availability of both graphic design software and software

development tools has drawn the practices of both info graphics and information visualization into increasing overlap, despite their differences. On the one hand, infographics deploy the artist/journalist as an information synthesizer. The author of the graphic provides direction and prompts specific user engagement. Infovis, on the other hand, makes use of large data sets that can reveal underlying patterns that might be difficult to identify without visual arrangement. But because info graphics have a long tradition in journalism, we have chosen to use the term inclusively, to encompass both traditional applications of infographics as well as the increasingly complex information-processing techniques of information


Playing with Infographics

The history of journalistic infographics highlights not only their on-again, off-again relationship with intricacy over simplicity, but also the changing attitudes toward their purpose and execution. Infographics started as a tool for economists, sociologists, and scientists-serious data depicted seriously. The rigidity of the form loosened as designers sought to make visual presentation more compelling for popular audiences-the silhouetted outline of an iconic woman from a pictographic language transformed into a style of popular cartoons and comics. Today, infographics range from graphically formal to stylized, rational to emotional, serious to inconsequential. Their power for visual appeal and explanation is well acknowledged in 10urnalism, but infographics still have not fully exploited computation as a medium for behavior as well as visualization.

Video games offer a new model for infographics, one that might combine the analytical sophistication of Playfair's and Maynard's early infographics with the emotional context of later approaches. Digital info graphics intersect with the world of games when we can play with them.

Play has been defined in many ways. Anthropologist johan Huizinga called it a "free activity" standing "outside 'ordinary' life," one that is "not serious" but at the same time absorbs the player intensely and utterly." Roger Caillois refined Huizinga's definition: play is "free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe.I''" But game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman offer the best general definition



of play: "free movement within a more rigid structure.v" Even if they are not games quite like Pac-Man or The Sims, infographics can become gamelike, exploiting the properties of games in numerous ways: to encourage the manipulation of information for replayability, to allow pleasurable engagement with a system, or to invite exploration.

We might call them playable infographics: works that adopt infographics' principles but add layers of gameplay around them. In particular, playable infographics embrace a synthetic amalgam of directed and exploratory infographic design principles. Consider Budget Hero once more. The game offers a directed experience, in which the player must create a budget that extends as far into the future as possible without going bust, while maintaining a reasonable debt ratio and accomplishing personal political goals. Players cannot simply move budget sliders around willy-nilly, as if budgetary commitments existed only on an annual basis. Nor can they make allocations without the appropriate tax receipts or debt obligations to support them.

At the same time, Budget Hero offers an exploratory experience. Unlike explanatory infographics, which offer no choice whatsoever, and unlike narrative games, which offer a progression through a set of challenges that tell a story, Budget Hero won't do anything without player intervention. The player can make a range of choices: exploring the requirements of different budget-goal badges, browsing the policy and taxation cards, and researching the pros, cons, and impact of public policies associated with those cards. The player can pursue some, all, or none of these options at any time. The best playable info graphics offer specific direction in the context of broader information exploration, using the space of experimentation as the "free movement" that produces play.

Budget Hero is instructive, but it offers only one example. What other types of playable graphics are possible? In print or online, common infographics formats from the newspaper, television, and the Web take different forms for different functions. Eric K. Meyer summarized these forms in his guide to designing infographics. We have modified them slightly to better apply to interactive digital infographics (see figure 3.4 for the forms in practice).

Graphs compare quantities of information in familiar formats: bar graph, line graph, a pie chart, fever chart, or in more complex combinations. equential graphics, Maps display geographically situated data rather than physical geography itself. A map might conform to traditional depictions of spatial arrangement, or it might distort the area for aesthetic or informatic effect. Diagrams present a piece of information in order to explain its individual components. A diagram presents an object, concept, event, or scene, and describes the illustration with labels, comment boxes, iconography, and other explanatory figures. Renderings, exaggerations, exploded views, and cutaways are examples of diagrams."

These formats are not mutually exclusive. Bar graphs can appear on a time line, process graphics can show geographically situated steps, and a diagram can depict a dynamic process. Furthermore, different formats can explain a subject in different ways. Consider a volcanic eruption. A bar graph might compare the amount of ash thrown into the atmosphere to other eruptions in the past. A volcano's geological birth might form the basis of a process graphic. A temporal graphic might situate the events just after the eruption, such as the dispersal of ash and the movement of the surrounding population in response to it. A map might illustrate the path of a molten lava river, while a diagram might show a cutaway of the volcano's interior and its various geological components.

Playable infographics derive from these common types of traditional or digital info graphics, adapting their forms, features, and benefits for use in directed exploration.

Playing with Graphs

When Laura Wattenberg published a book on baby names, her husband Martin, an infovis designer at IBM Research, created a visualization tool called NameVoyager to support its release.' ? Powered by lists of the thousand most popular names for boys and girls from every decade from 1900 to present, NameVoyager graphs complete or partial names on a timeline of popularity, instantly updating its view as the user types (see figure 3.5). Though NameVoyager is clearly not intended to be a game, as more people used it, Wattenberg noticed that they talked about exploring the data playfully, "identifying trends and anomalies and forming conjectures.:"" For example, one Web site commenter suggested: "For a challenge, try finding a name that was popular at the beginning of the sample, went out of style, then came back into vogue recently." Wattenberg calls the tool's usage patterns "strongly social" and "more closely related to those of online multi player games than to a conventional single-user statistical

tool. ,,42

Wattenberg noticed trends in user activity that he aligned with Richard Bartle's four categories of players in online games-explorers, achievers, socializers, and killers." Such an idea disrupts the traditional view of information visualization as a task-oriented, problem-solving activity. NameVoyager is playable because its users have invented directed goals within the exploratory context of the visualization. The achievers in NameVoyager used the tool for its primary function: to pick out a name




for their baby. "We want something slightly retro, nice, and not too popular," one woman wrote, "and this visualization gives us all that." NameVoyager socializers are users "whose main concern is their interactions with others, and who place their data exploration in a personal social context," often searching for their own name or friends and family names and commenting on the results in context of their experiences. Some of the explorers particularly enjoy discovering odd names or unusual groups of names. Finally, the "killers" (aggressive, acerbic players) take pleasure in mocking the names they find, seeking out targets to ridicule. As one killer comments, "Britney, Brittney, Britany, Brittany, Brittani, Britannie, Britni. Enough already."

These behaviors do not quite make the visualization a game, particularly since NameVoyager's "players" have to invent their own goals. But they do suggest that playful, game like habits developed around the work. It is not hard to imagine an even more playable implementation of NameVoyager: the graph could be treated as a puzzle, and an author could set specific goals: find a name popular in the 1920s that returned in the 1990s, or find a name equally popular for boys and girls in the 1970s. While the freedom of open exploration might seem preferable, a guided experience would help retain users who might not know where to begin when confronted with an unstructured visualization.

Playing with Sequential Graphics

A vivid example of a chronological graphic comes from a news story that rapidly unfolds over a matter of minutes. Built atop the popular flightsimulator X-Plane, Sully's Flight is an iPhone game that puts the player in the cockpit of US Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Chesley Sullenberger, which was forced to land in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. The player begins on LaGuardia Airport runway four in the cockpit of an Airbus A320. The path of the flight is outlined on the screen by green reticles, through which the player must pilot the aircraft. The screen animates with objects hitting the windshield at the proper moment the geese were said to have struck the airplane. The engines lose thrust and it is up to the player to make a successful river landing.

Sully's flight was widely covered, but mostly from the vantage point of heroism in general. Understanding the quickly unfolding events of the emergency itself offers a different perspective. The re-creation of the plane's flight path helps, but the game's reproduction of cockpit radio transmissions between US1549 and air traffic control best accentuates the flight's urgency. The live audio is far more effective than a static infographic with

a timeline of events or a written transcript. Even with perfect hindsight, successfully making a landing proves challenging, offering a powerful illustration of the improbable accomplishments of Captain Sullenberger.

In other circumstances, chronology is less critical than process. Consider the unpredictable dangers of hurricanes to Florida coastal residents. The events of a past disaster might be instructive, but less so than the process by which hurricanes develop and move. What better way to understand such a storm than to make your own? The South Florida Sun Sentinel's Web site offers just such a tool, a "Hurricane Maker." 44 It presents the user with a map of the Atlantic and coastal regions of the Americas. It then invites the user to place a storm on the map, choosing a body of water with a higher average temperature to ensure the hurricane will form. Wind shear can be set at different altitudes, and humidity levels around the storm can be tweaked. Once the player is satisfied, a button press sets the hurricane in motion. If all the proper conditions have been met, the little storm animates into a fearsome hurricane. If not, the infographic explains reasons for the user's failure and offers a chance to try again. Hurricane Maker has playful qualities: players attempt to achieve a goal by adjusting a system. It teaches users through trial and error, by directing their interaction. Still, even if it might satisfy intellectual curiosity, Hurricane Maker disappoints as an overall experience. Its hurricane never moves nor makes landfall, abstracting the average reader's concern about safety and property into an unsatisfying binary of success or failure.

"The Earth Impact Effects Program" (EIEP) offers a better example of a

procedural infographic, albeit for a less likely catastrophe." Developed by researchers at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, EIEP is a text-only Web page that allows its users to tweak the parameters of an inbound doomsday asteroid to estimate "the regional environmental consequences of an impact on Earth." 46 Like Hurricane Maker, EIEP plays on our fascination with disasters, daring users to orchestrate the greatest destruction possible. Hurricane Maker makes an all-or-nothing gambit: players either create a hurricane or not. EIEP, by contrast, encourages players to trigger all its various scenarios of destruction, hom seismic

effects to thermal radiation.

In gaming terms, EIEP is more replayable. While game makers prize the

trait as a virtue of good game design, replayability isn't necessarily a journalistic value unless it encourages broader and deeper understandingY EIEP describes the results of the user's input in far greater detail-the size of the crater, seismic activity, scattered debris, and global climate change. It lists the relevant parameters of several famous asteroids to give players a sense of scale, to provide context, and to guide subsequent choices. By playing with it multiple times, one develops a sense of the plausible outcomes of an asteroid cataclysm. In that respect, EIEP's merit as news might seem suspect (until an asteroid actually threatens the Earth). Yet it shows the untapped potential of playable infographics like Hurricane Maker.

Playing with Maps

The ReDistricting Game challenges players to redraw fictional Congressional districts along party lines. Red and blue dots of varying density show concentrations of partisan populations, and colors on the map itself indicate elected officials' current districts. The player must recolor the map such that each official is satisfied with his or her district, districts are of proportional sizes, and a chosen party enjoys election Victory. The ReDistricting Game focuses on geographic data manipulation as a political strategy, providing directed gerrymandering goals along with an exploratory map.

While The ReDistricting Game characterizes a process, the New York Times' Hurricane Gustav interactive map and the Minnesota Bridge Collapse map offer event reporting via geographical infographic." Released soon after the tragedies, these maps allow people affected by these events to attach text and multimedia to nodes on a map of the area. The Hurricane Gustav map is simple: it's just a Google Map covering some the states impacted by the hurricane. Users can click on points on the map that link to video, audio, or photos of the disaster. The Minnesota Bridge Collapse map is far more sensational. Prom a helicopter or satellite's point of view, we look down from the sky at the destroyed bridge. Nodes appear for survivors and victims. Family members can leave messages of grace or sorrow, adding humanity to the traditional list of names and statistics.

While the Minnesota Bridge Collapse memorializes a current event, the Pittsburgh Bike Map aggregates the experiences of user contributions to paint a landscape of the issues of biking in a major city." This map offers a hub for bikers in Pittsburgh to learn ifbout current biking conditions in the city. Different types of information-including nodes for bike shops, trails, and accidents-can be turned on and off. One can zoom in or out to get a better sense of the area. Of particular note are the map's crash reports. Unlike a crime map that reports violations without detail"burglary, grand theft auto, larceny"-the bike map's reports are fleshed out so others can understand the extent of the problem.

Playable maps like these are not intended to be experienced in a particular order, nor does the user have to engage with all possible data. The user identifies with stories the map traces, constructing relevant meaning from fragments. Story maps like Minnesota Bridge Collapse aren't games in the traditional sense, but their format encourages exploration and narrative construction. The Pittsburgh Bike Map inspires an unusual kind of play, one that takes place both on and off the computer (a topic addressed in detail in chapter 7). Users consult the map to optimize their strategy outdoors in the city. After testing routes and forging new paths, they return to update information and tactics for the benefit of other users.

Playing with Diagrams

The Sun Sentinel's Virtual Butterfly Ballot works like an interactive diagram. Re-creating the experience of the confused Palm Beach County voter during the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election, the interactive graphic reproduces the ballot used in that county and challenges the user to cast a vote correctly for a specified candidate. so If the intended and actual candidates do not match, a message explains possible reasons, clarifying how perceptual conundrums might have caused real voters to make unintended choices: ballot punch holes don't line up well with names and arrows (see figure 3.6). A voter reading top to bottom on the left side easily might have intended to mark the third hole to vote for Al Gore, but inadvertently selected the second, voting for Pat Buchanan instead.

Though not grounded in fact or journalistic intention, Effing Hail by Jiggman and Greg Wohlwend of Intuition Games is a Web game that looks like an infographic. sr It is an isometrically positioned diagram of the atmosphere sliced into fictionally named sections (the cleverly invented Aiesphere through Effingsphere). The player's mouse-clicks create strong updrafts of wind that can lift falling precipitation into the upper atmosphere to form large hailstones, which then pound the defenseless buildings on the ground. The game asks players to craft armies of hail, pummeling an increasingly stronger set of buildings and objects in the sky within a time limit.

Though the game is not intended to teach users about the meteorological phenomenon, it (imprecisely) uses the process that builds hail in the atmosphere as a physics mechanic and indirectly (and again imprecisely) educates the player about such conditions. This educational facade arises largely from the game's infographic aesthetics. It is not only the type of design one might find in a popular magazine or Earth studies textbook, but also what we might see in a newspaper article about a recent storm.

Synthesis in Playable Data

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have argued that fast access to detailed information, particularly information gathered online, has made it too easy to ignore the foundation of a news story." The lurid dissonance of comments, blog posts, tweets, and other speculation can occlude the important elements of a topic. Infographics offer a possible reprieve from the anonymity of information, particularly when the exploratory and directed uses of the form are combined.

At first blush, journalists might think exploratory infographics like "Is It Better to Buy or Rent?" work best when they are unfettered, when users can do whatever they want with them .. J'hey certainly seem more flexible that way, too: an individual can configure the infographic for any purpose whatsoever. But total freedom is not always illuminating. It can fail to point out the particular examples of a system, such as home ownership, that might offer punctuations of clarity.

For example, what if the Rent-Buy Calculator offered optional but explicit goals, like the ones Wattenberg catalogs from NameVoyager adopters? "Find a city with a population larger than 500,000 where buying a 250,000 home won't payoff in five years," or "Find the town in Idaho


Chapter 3

where home ownership is the most effective for families with a monthly housing budget of $1,200." By acting more like a game, the infographic could provide insights into the situations of particular citizens, while still allowing users to apply it to their own situations.

When authorial direction guides exploratory activities, the author can "sift out the rumor, the innuendo, the insignificant, and the spin," while focusing effort on what makes the story important and relevant." The journalist's role is to make sense of facts, but without author synthesis the data remain raw and undigestible. Though an interesting visualization may be visually appealing, forcing the user to do all the work putting it together results in research, not journalism.

Another New York Times info graphic, "How Different Groups Spend Their Day," offers an interactive graph of daily activities performed by eighteen demographic groups in twenty categories of daily activities, chronicling them over the day in ten-minute intervals." It has enjoyed the sort of "viral" response on blogs and Twitter that many publishers and citizens mistake for journalistic impact. Among those who commented on the link, game designer Raph Koster wrote that "it invites exploration; it feels fun to mvestigate.?" Others underscored the "fascinating" results that emerge from the large quantities of information in the data set." Yet, the graphic itself does little more than compile a lot of data in one place, wrapped in a clever interface (figure 3.7).

Why, then, do people like it so much? Each reader has some stake in the data presented by the visualization. Although its use is not directed by instructions, the graphic's categories suggest goals-everyone fits into at least some part of the demographic survey. An employed white male aged 25-64, with an advanced degree and zero children, has five initial categories to start exploring. He might then branch out to other demographic groups, perhaps those of friends and family, to compare results. Users can drag a mouse over the graph for more detailed information, or click on areas of the chart to isolate them for examination. Perhaps that is what people are attracted to: the sheer amount of seemingly precise data.

In the end, it is difficult to say what a reader is supposed to take away from the visualization. Does it reveal something important? Will the average reader even remember what he or she saw in the graphic? Ought it to be used for scheduling? For self-improvement? For mockery? The New York Times puts all the data in one place, yet fails to synthesize its meaning. The accompanying article says little about the results of the survey, and the textual information displayed while browsing the graph amounts to little more than "fun facts," which mayor may not be related to the data being examined." The article describes the results of the survey as "striking," yet there is no effort to expand on what counts as striking in this


An experiment on CNN shows how context can add synthesis to raw

data. During the 2008 U.S. presidential primary elections, CNN premiered its "Magic Wall," a large interactive screen on which current and historical electoral information, mostly in the form of maps, could be displayed." Like Apple's iPhone and iPad, the screen offers multitouch capability for fluid, tactile operation. Instead of leaping from one bit of data to another by clicking a hyperlink, the user transforms the screen's image by direct

application of several fingers.

Because elections are complex, media outlets have tried to help citizens

understand the electoral process using graphical representations of the electoral data-most frequently in the form of maps and charts. CNN deployed the Magic Wall for just this purpose, to better explain the dynamics of election data using a technology that allowed for fluid transitions between different levels of intormanon." During the 2008 primary, CNN National Correspondent John King seemed more interested in the novelty of the system than its potential as a reporting tool. He played with the multitouch features like a child with a new toy on Christmas morning, moving the map around to show off the technology rather than to use it for information. Criticisms, including a Saturday Night Live send-up, may have inspired the network to reconsider their use of the map."

By election day, King had moved past the device's novelty and began to use the screen for information analysis. As polling returns flowed in over the course of the evening, King used the screen to show regions-including individual counties-with the potential to influence the election's outcome. Calling up data from previous elections, King compared historical results with projections and polls to form hypotheses on the magical screen. In a climactic moment, King used the map to show viewers why Republican candidate John McCain could not win the election based on returns alone, rather than projections. King used the screen as a data simulator but treated it as a puzzle, in which he played with states that the Republican candidate might earn in order to reach the needed 270 electoral votes. The presenter even gave states to McCain that were predicted to be won by the Democrats as a way to show that in the unlikely event the candidate might win those states, McCain still could not emerge victorious.

This simulation made the outcome of the 2008 presidential election visually clear, but it also showed how technology can be used to clarify the meaning of data, not just as newfangled gimmickry. The screen helped King discover and explain the unseen details of the process while unveiling patterns that would be invisible on a static map. This multitouch interactive infographic worked because it facilitated the journalist's process of performing this synthesis through dynamic contextual material on a live broadcast.

The frequent absence of synthesis draws attention to a quandary in contemporary information journalism. In recent years, technology advocates have called for "open data"-systems or services that publish the data they use, giving anyone the ability to download, evaluate, modify, and reuse the information as they please." In October 2008, the New York Times launched its Visualization Lab, which "allows readers to create compelling interactive charts, graphs, maps and other types of graphical presentations from data made available by Times editors.t''" Built atop IBM Research's Many Eyes platform, readers of the Times can download data, create their own visualizations, and share them on the Web. The Times proclaims that "users could bring their insight to the process of interpreting data and information and discovering new and innovative ways of presenting them. Just as readers' comments on articles and blogs enhance our journalism, these visualizations-and the sparks they generate-can take on new value in a social setting and become a catalyst for discussion.v'"

It sounds great in theory. But in practice, the output of these visualizations is less insightful: tag clouds of frequently used words in the Democratic and Republican national convention speeches, basic line graphs of infant mortality rates, and word trees of political party affiliation by religious tradition fill the pages of the Visualization Lab's community Web site." Few visualizations have been rated by members, and even fewer have elicited comments. Users have the option to look at visualizations made by the community or visualizations from the editors of the New York Times, but the content of both sections looks identical. With a limited number of data sets available and the finite number of Many Eyes output formats, the "democratic" open data appears to offer little more than good publicity. The mere availability of data is rtot enough to qualify as good journalism.

To be fair, the Times' visualization system is limited: users can match one of twenty data sets to an output graph. They cannot manipulate the data outside the template, nor can they introduce new data to the existing data for comparison or correction. But even open data without such limitations often suffers the same synthetic failing. Creators of playable infographics should take care to heed the advice of Edward Tufte, who warns against needless, misleading, and deceptive graphics." Thanks to the rising popularity of info graphics online, Web sites like Flowing Data and the aptly named spread visualizations as entertainment. A "cool" visualization with a strong graphic design will just as readily spread as one that illuminates something fascinating and important about the


Playable infographics won't solve the problems of data synthesis, but

they can contribute to a solution. By addressing a set of information as a context for specific types of actions and goals in the context of broader exploration, data can gain both context and relevance. Infographic games like Budget Hero offer both freedom and perspective. It is not only the source of the data that is important, but also why the output format was chosen, what tools were used to produce it, how they might affect the outcome, and what service the resulting artifact claims to provide for


We might conclude that infographic games help players distinguish

data from information. Data describe raw sensor readings, direct observations, and collected metrics. Information adds context and interpretation to the data, imbuing them with meaning. Creating an infographic is no longer just a matter of making data visual. Instead, it involves the creation of a tool to help understand that visual data by synthesizing it through


4 Documentary

Peering through the scope of a rifle, you focus on a tum in the road. You look up from the scope and out the window to the street six floors below. A vehicle turns the corner, moving toward you. The window of opportunity is small, so you must act more quickly than in most videogames. Police motorcycles pass by, followed by a few cars, and then you see your target:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy. After you've squeezed the trigger a few times, the heart-thumping authenticity of the situation turns to cold statistics: a breakdown of the projectile ballistics of your shots, where each bullet struck, and what damage it caused (figure 4.1). You've just attempted to recreate Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination of the president on November 22, 1963. The game is called JFK Reloaded, and its creators offered a reward of up to $100,000 to the player who most closely matched the ballistic data in the Warren Commission reports. I Traffic Games hoped to put to rest the many conspiracy theories about JFK's murder by inviting thousands of players to accurately re-create the single gunman account of the assassination.

Five years later, at the 2009 Games for Change Festival in New York City, University of Southern California professor Tracy Fullerton announced her plans to re-create Thoreau's Walden as a game. A year into the design process, Fullerton described her intention to translate events from Thoreau's story into plot points within the game-while crafting game mechanics that would force players to live by the rules of his personal experiment. She hopes to avoid reward-based gameplay or "simulated material gain," which would be antithetical to Thoreau's goals when he went to live away from society.' The structure provided by the historical events and mechanics might re-create and interrogate Thoreau's philosophy of simple living.

On the surface, Walden and TFK Reloaded might seem to have little in common. But the games share similar goals: they seek to record an event, its space, and its stakeholders for posterity. Following their cinematic counterparts, we might call them documentmy games. In an early article on the form, Fullerton uses the genre as an umbrella term for commercial war games that feature fictional recreations of World War II battles, like Medal of Honor, as well as with shorter, independent games that stage historical events, like JFK Reloaded? The notion suggests a question: can videogames represent actuality in the way that cinema, photography, and nonfiction

writing have done?

In videogames, "realism" has typically referred to the way something

looks. Continuous advances in real-time 3D graphics since the mid-1980s have made it possible to create immense, verisimilitudinous environments. Such capabilities are impressive, but documentary does not necessarily rely on visual fidelity to capture the truth of a situation or event. Alexander Galloway has suggested that videogames are also capable of social realism, a kind of realism orthogonal to visual realisticness." Social realism finds its roots in photography and film, where it refers to artistic attempts to render the gritty reality of lived experience-not just the gloss of perfection found



in Hollywood blockbusters or lifestyle magazine spreads, but also the trials and failures of hardship.

Social realism has often entailed social critique, a feature documentary photographers and photojournalists have long embraced.' Consider, for example, Dorothea Lange's famous images of the Depression, or any of the many journalistic photographs awarded the Pulitzer Prize since the inception of a photography category in 1942. Though it is still uncommon, Galloway suggests a few examples of social realism in games, including the rioting game State of Emergency. He insists that this form of realism in games comes not from presenting realistic environments or stories, but from affording realistic player action."

Along with theater, documentary is one of the two origins of cinema.

Edison's first Kinetoscope films, relegated to peeping booths in the turnof-the-century version of the arcade, were little more than recordings of staged dancing and pantomime. Because Edison's camera was hefty, it was confined to his New Jersey studio. When the father of Auguste and Louis Lumiere first viewed an Edison film, he returned to his factory in Lyon, France, and demanded that his sons conceive of some way to "get the image out of the box." ? The result was the Cinematographe, a combination camera, projector, and printer that could be picked up and carried by a single operator. The Lumiere brothers recorded snippets of French daily life; films of farmers, dockhands, soldiers, and factory workers recorded the mundane lived realities of the working class. Eventually the brothers hired operators to take the camera abroad, allowing international audiences to enjoy moving images of faraway lands such as Egypt and Vietnam.

Unlike cinema, videogames arose from the histories of recreational play and computing. Perhaps these different media genealogies explain why social realism has taken so long to gain a foothold in games. As media coexist more closely, they bleed into one another. Joost Raessens suggests that the early development of documentary games has relied partly on naive popular conceptions of documentary film as an "objective" depiction of reality." And scholars at the University of Abertay Dundee argue that the form has emerged from a larger media environment of interactive television documentaries and "quick-time event" games such as the laserdisc coin-op Dragon's Lair?

Playable Realities

Games enjoy good company among media that discovered social realism when they were already mature, among them literature and journalism.


Chapter 4

The muckraking of the Gilded Age is perhaps best exemplified by author/ journalist Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, which offers an extended, fictionalized editorial on labor conditions among the immigrant working class.' ? Muckraking of this kind developed into journalistic watchdogging, a practice best known by the name investigative reporting." Investigative reporting has earned a bad reputation in recent decades, however. Local television news is a prime culprit, offering stories of consumer protection, local business, and personal safety that frequently devolve into sensationalistic fear-mongering. The same has taken place in film documentary, the cinema verite documentaries of the 1970s having given way to the flagrantly manipulative work of Michael Moore. Perhaps journalists and game designers can root out the popular mistrust of investigative reportage and documentary by reinventing it in videogame form.

Here we consider three ways that videogames can engage actuality: through explorable spatial reality, which makes the environments of events navigable; through experiential operational reality that re-creates the events themselves; and through procedural reality, or interactions with the behaviors that drive the systems in which particular events take place.

Spatial Reality

Four decades before Schindler's List recaptured the horrors of life in Nazi concentration camps, Alain Resnais's famous documentary Night and Fog took viewers through the halls of Auschwitz with a series of steady tracking shots." Many had read about the immensity of the tragedy, but the camera's ability to slowly capture row upon row of bunks, furnaces, and housing blocks made its horror simultaneously immediate and incomprehensible. Space provides a context for actions and systems; its contours hold the memories of past events and the possibility of future occurrences. Although the cinema's camera has the ability to dissect a space, doing so requires rigorous planning through storyboarding, complex camera setups, and multiple takes. A documentary crew must transport gear to a site, make decisions about lighting and film stock, and edit footage together to recreate a space faithfully. These working realities are something that television news crews can relate to as well.

With the advent of real-time 3D game engines, spatial exploration has become an intrinsic feature of videogames. Long takes and depth of fieldpainstakingly chased-after ideals of Andre Bazin's cinematic theory of objective reality-are a native and mundane actuality for players, no matter the game." Even a relatively early 3D game like Doom offers a freedom of movement far greater than the Steadicam." Later games allowed players to pan and tilt at their own volition, uprooting the camera from its tracks to let it bob and weave through space.

Documentary games allow players to experience spaces of conflict that are difficult to engage with in the abstract. A basic example shows how the experience of space itself can be clarifying. Berlin Wall re-creates a stretch of the infamous wall that divided East and West Berlin, including watchtowers, Checkpoint Charlie, the Death Strip, and an underground network of refugee tunnels (figure 4.2).IS Players are encouraged to experiment crossing from East to West by jumping the wall, going through the checkpoint, or using underground tunnels, although the game does not accurately convey the danger of the crossing. Berlin Wall features the location's architecture, but it doesn't educate the player about the political purpose these civic projects served for the Soviet government. Likewise, it's detailed with the results of political resistance (a small section of graffiti on the Wall, for example), but it does not allow the player to enact such guerrilla maneuvers and experience the consequences. Instead, Berlin Wall is a minimally playable 3D recreation of a space that attempts to preserve a sense of what it would have been like to be present in a Berlin now decades gone.

Spatial documentary games extend cinematic mise-en-scene, or "things on the stage." All game development involves some aspect of mise-enscene, but it is normally relegated to a secondary aspect of design, subordinate to the more central concerns of playability and exploration." In some genres, such as adventure games that rely heavily on object interaction for the discovery of secrets, mise-en-scene serves a central role. In a text adventure, a room description might mention curtains, which would prompt players to experiment with commands such as "pull curtain" to reveal a hidden passageway. In graphical adventure games such as the King's Quest series, mise-en-scene becomes visually important because the player is often confronted with a room full of objects, some small or otherwise occluded, that might need to be moved or used. Of course, even the most sophisticated 3D engines cannot render a virtual scene in its entirety, down to every last detail. Choices must be made about which features are to be excluded, but how does a designer decide?

Imagine that you are modeling a college campus. Is it enough for the building facades to be the right color, or is the texture more important? Is the covered roof on a bus stop important, or just its benches? Should the space include pathways that pedestrians create by walking and matting down the grass, or just the concrete sidewalks? And how do you represent the people that typically populate such a space?

In his discussions of the development of news infographics, Alberto Cairo argues that a level of abstraction is necessary to preserve journalistic integrity when information is missing." Abstraction offers a method for both transparency and verification, preventing the work from claiming more than its creator knows. But abstraction offers more than an ethics check; it is also a design tool. Abstraction allows a work to focus attention on one aspect of an experience over another. Prom the perspective of social realism, it is less important to fill a space with photorealistic textures and high-polygon 3D models than it is to fill a less technologically advanced space with meaningful, naturally arranged objects.

Operational Reality

Berlin Wall creates a spatial situation for the player, one that offers navigational flexibility but relatively limited interaction. JFK Reloaded provides a similar environment, but it also offers guided activity for the player. By allowing the player to enact the role of a specific figure during an actual historical moment, these games avoid accusations of bias or fiction. It creates an operational reality, one that allows players to enact specific events, rather than explore them haphazardly.



The documentary game 9-11 Survivor abstracts considerable architecrural detail from its re-creation of an emotionally charged space. IS The game puts players in the shoes of someone trapped on a high floor of the World Trade Center during the September 11 terrorist attacks. Players can attempt to find an open stairwell, provided no fallen debris has blocked it, and run down dozens of flights to the bottom of the building, or they can do what many others did When faced with the same reality: jump.

News footage that fateful day captured the small specks that were office workers leaping from the towers as they collapsed. The sight was horrifying, comprehensible only through intellectualization. One could imagine the intense heat of jet fuel fires inspiring egress into the cool air, even as it meant certain death. But one couldn't really fathom what it would feel like to be faced with the decision to accept death and choose this method. At the time of its release, 9-11 Survivor was denounced by many as callous and exploitative, though its motive was to commemorate the memories of those lost by sharing the operational reality of their unrepeatable experience. In this respect, the game was a success, allowing the public to come one step closer to understanding what friends, loved ones, and strangers had felt in their last moments.

9-11 Survivor invites reflection about a traumatic event for the sake of memory rather than decision making. But traditionally, documentary has also invited viewers to examine an issue in order to form an opinion. Kuma Reality Games made such an effort to interrogate a contested historical record in one of the episodes of their news-inspired war game, Klima \ War. 19

John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid was marred by controversy surrounding the circumstances under which he was awarded the Silver Star during his service in Vietnam. As the official record would indicate, Kerry had strategically piloted a swift boat on the Cua Lon River toward a shore occupied by hostiles, thus reducing the impact of Viet Cong gunfire by narrowing the target and protecting the vessel's crew with the hull of the ship. But many veterans claimed that terry's strategic prowess had been greatly exaggerated by Naval command. The Kuma \ War simulation offers a playable recreation of the mission, suggesting that players could "decide for themselves" whether Kerry deserved his commendation.

As the mission begins, the player controls Kerry but has the ability to SWitch between three other unnamed "swifties" (see figure 4.3). The user interface features a few subtitles that set the exact time and place of the mission, as well as a simple display consisting of a mini-map, ammo, and health information. The foliage surrounding the river implies an expansive jungle, but the playable level deliberately constrains player action by means of invisible boundaries. The game feeds the player a series of objectives, just as a commercial tactical shooter might.

The first objective is to patrol the river on watch, examining the locals while looking for Viet Congo If the player shoots an innocent fisherman, the game ends abruptly-a design decision that reinforces the player's moral alignment with the game character." In the game, as in the actual guerilla conflict, it is often hard to tell the difference between innocents and the Viet Cong, no matter how noble a soldier's intent. Thus, the game expresses the difficulty of making decisions about the terrain and people in a guerilla conflict.

Continuing down the river, the player runs into trouble on one of the

banks and has to shoot enemies from the mounted turret on the swift boat. After killing a few hostiles, the objective display orders a beach landing, Steering the swift boat toward the shore, the game prompts the player to exit the boat and engage hostiles on the ground. Once the player and crew have eliminated the Viet Cong, a new objective requires the destruction of a weapon cache. Finding a rocket propelled grenade launcher on the body of a downed hostile, the player blows up covered munitions boxes, In the mission's final objective, the player must return to U.S.-controlled docks at the river's start without suffering any casualties.

This sequence of events precisely follows Kerry's own account of the mission. Instead of letting players manipulate the space to explore its dynamics or figure things out for themselves, Kumas; War forces the player to experience the mission according to the official record. One might question Kuma's affirmation of neutrality ("the players can decide for themselves"), since the game appears to endorse openly Kerry's own account. At the very least, it doesn't present opposing accounts. Still, unlike a cinematic rendition, these documentaries make their spaces operational.

Procedural Reality

Documentary games collide with a problem of participation. Can something qualify as historical documentation if the player is able to modify the actual course of events as they are known to have occurred? The Kuma>; War Silver Star mission addresses the problem by making the experience entirely linear: a progression down the river, a series of mandatory objectives, and a variety of failure states to enforce those mandates. However, linearity doesn't do justice to videogames' capacity to represent the behavior of complex systems. Linearity pushes a Singular, official version of events that discounts other possible readings. But procedural documentary games use rules to model the behaviors underlying a situation, rather than merely telling stories of their effects." It is procedural reality that holds the most promising future of documentary games.

Journalistic interest in the processes underlying news events developed slowly. In the 1960s and '70s, two journalistic traditions-literary storytelling and muckraking-coalesced. Both traditions eschew objectivity in favor of ideals native to each form: writing a good story and uncovering the truth, respectively. Popular magazines like Rolling Stone added depth and personality to popular culture, while hard-boiled scrutiny like that of Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein put investigative reporting at the forefront of the American popular imagination.F In 1967, Newsday established a team of dedicated investigative reporters whose sole job was to produce three stories a year, each of which ran over five days." The Boston Globe and New York Times also formed investigative teams in the latter part of the decade to satisfy the journalist's watchdog role.

Most commonly, investigative journalism weaves vivid stories of corruption, abuse, incompetence, or an institution's failure to serve the public, while ignoring the Kafkaesque processes of the system that gave rise to these problems. The Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting has been


Chapter 4

awarded since 1953, and its recipients-hard-boiled journalists like Gene Goltz of the Houston Post, who won the prize in 1965 for an expose of government corruption in Pasadena, Texas-have enjoyed well-deserved praise for probing malfeasance and revealing wrongdoing." Yet, even though stories like Goltz's overflow with detailed and irrefutable facts, they don't necessarily explain how a problem came to be, how it perpetuates in the structure of a social system, and what effects it has on the surrounding community beyond a few examples. Investigative reporting requires journalists to uncover the seedy underbellies of situations to derive their behavior, but the result of such reporting usually involves descriptions of specific injustices rather than discussions of the general processes that underwrite the injustices themselves.

In 2008, one of the two Pulitzers for investigative reporting was awarded to the authors of a series of Chicago Tribune articles on the faulty government regulation of toys, car seats, and cribs. Dubbed "Hidden Hazards," the stories are ghastly and sad, chronicling the avoidable deaths of infants at the hands of faulty goods. In one piece, Maurice Possley details the underlying structural causes of the neglect, attributing them to undermanned staffs at the regulatory agencies." These effects are hard to grasp. When Possley explains that the Consumer Product Safety Commission had recalled over a million cribs in response to the Tribune's investigation, readers and policymakers alike might consider the loop closed. But questions remain: how and why are government agencies understaffed? Is staffing really the problem, or is apathy and inaction the inevitable result of bureaucracy? Is there any reason to believe that a similar problem won't arise soon enough in another agency or corporation operating under similar logics?

A. \oumalist's story is fashioned not only from facts, but also hom vibrant examples that stir emotion. Consider the lede lor Possiev's article:

"Photographs taken of Liam Johns' crib by the Sacramento County Coroner's Office clearly show where it came apart." Emotional hooks like this may absorb, but they do not satisfy. No one would deny that the death of Liam Johns was both tragic and needless. It is easy to assign blame and call for reform, but change is complex. It is institutional. It cannot be interviewed one on one or filmed, head down, exiting a county court. A news article can describe a poignant story that exemplifies the problem, but it cannot handle the multitude of possible issues at stake.

Games excel at handling multitudes. The rules and parameters of game systems can be used to dramatically reveal information, to make concepti tangible, and to produce alternative scenarios for further exploration or.



comparison. Games thus offer a compelling form for the issues approached by investigative journalism, if those issues are unpacked into the behaviors of a simulation. The player of a procedural documentary game would come to understand not only the facts and outcomes of a story but also the underlying systems that caused it to come to pass.

The practice of doing investigative reporting is procedural, but creating procedural investigations is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. On the one hand, everything that goes into a good filmic or written investigation also applies to a good ludic one: collecting evidence, performing interviews, examining situations from multiple perspectives, and looking for relevant archive material. Good investigative journalism not only asks not only the "five WS"-who, what, when, where, and why-but also the procedural question: "how." Good reporting should elucidate how a situation arose, not just uncover the actors, events, and consequences of that situation.

On the other hand, a procedural documentary does not weave a path through evidence like a film or an article does, telling a story the viewer or reader grasps through empathy with its characters. Instead, a videogame models the behavior and dynamics of a Situation, treating character, setting, and events as side effects of an overall logic.

Consider Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation: What the AllAmerican Meal Is Doing to the World, an example of what John Pilger calls "investigative journalism that changed the world.' ?" Schlosser's tale features characters, both human and corporate, who perform specific acts that the author narrates as a story. As all good stories do, the book begins with a human character, in this case Carl's Jr. founder Carl Karcher. Schlosser tells the riveting tale of the restaurant chain's humble roots, early success, and inevitable excess. But, as Pilger summarizes, the book is not a story of men or companies; it is an account of "how industrial food production has transformed and endangered not only our diet, but btu enVironment, economy and culture, and even our basic human

rights. /127 -e:

Explanations of how something works can be described in written or visual argument, by mustering explanations and examples. This is precisely what Schlosser does in Fast Food Nation, and most documentaries and investigative reports do the same. But models can also address how things WOrk, not through explanation or example, but by showing the operation of a source system directly. If writing and film best realize their potential \V'hen they tell stories, then computers realize theirs When they model behavior, when they depict worldly processes through computation."


Chapter 4

Think of a simulation game like SimCity. It dispenses with stories about particular citizens, bureaucrats, or corporations in favor of a rendition of city management. Even though it Simplifies urban planning considerably, the game addresses the social and political factors that encourage or discourage growth and prosperity. A documentary film set in SimCity might tell the story of how a small town neighborhood became a slum as new zoning policies encouraged the development of industry nearby. It might depict the life of one or more families in the neighborhood over time, showing how a once idyllic borough became a crime- and pollution-ridden backwater. It may well be moving and upsetting. But such a film would cover matters of bureaucracy and planning primarily to advance human interest. SimCity, as a game, works exactly in reverse: it abstracts specific human elements in favor of urban dynamics themselves.

Fast Food Nation begins with and returns to individuals by necessity: storytelling requires characterization. Indeed, in the 2006 film adaptation that fictionalized Schlosser's account of the fast-food industry, the specific experiences of various characters (illegal immigrant workers, cattle ranchers, corporate executives) rule the roost. But if the book and the film intended to cover the processes and consequences of industrial food production, then another approach might do a better job: putting the business, social, and political dynamics of industrialized food at the forefront, rather than in the subtext of the work.

We can find the start of such a design in Freedom Fighter '56! (FF56), a game about of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Through the experiences of three fictionalized "freedom fighters," players learn the dynamics of the revolt against the Stalinist government of Hungary, which killed 2,500 Hungarians and inspired another 200,000 to flee the country."

At first, the game seems like a digital adaptation of a graphic novel. It borrows that form's visual and narrative conventions, with hand-painted frames and inset text, narrated by voice actors in English or Magyar. As the game begins on October 22, 1956, an introductory scene sets the stage historically, covering the descent of Hungary into Stalinism after World War II and the resulting oppression by the secret police (Allamvedelmi Hatosag, or AVH), state censorship, and religious persecution. The player is cast as a young student present at the protests that started the revolution. Clickable objects in the scenes reveal additional information, and the game also allows the player to collect items for later use (e.g., the student manifesto, a Hungarian flag armband).

The game casts events as activities with specific behavior and consequences, not just as factual statements of historical progression. For



example, when players begin the student march to Parliament on October 23, they can traverse the city by any means they choose, rather than via a prescribed route. Historical events do make an appearance, including the toppling of the statue of Stalin near Varosliget park, the detention of students entering the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands, the A VH flash point that erupted soon after, and the general worker's strike that followed. But as these events unfold, the player must build a larger faction by persuading new participants to join the cause. To do so, the player must make a convincing argument using the inventory items previously collected as "premises." Once the player constructs an argument, the game shows the interlocutor's current alignment, the persuasive effect of the evidence mustered, and the resulting likelihood that the resulting argument will win him or her over (figure 4.4). a '56er might have done. But within this context, the player comes to understand the specific challenges of the resistance by experiencing their dynamics, rather than just by listening to their description or following along step by step. As they progress, players earn "Freedom Fighter Factor" points to show how well they have mastered the behavior of a freedom fighter, rather than how well their results match the outcomes of the revolution itself. Still, FF56 does not dip as deeply as it could into the procedural register of the Hungarian Revolution. Though the dynamics of the revolution itself appear in the game, the polities of Soviet-controlled Budapest remain in the background.

Another documentary game about geopolitical conflict does the reverse.

PeaceMaker is a game about the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict created by independent developer ImpactGames. The player can take the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the president of the Palestinian Authority. In either case, the goal is to bring peace to the Middle East by establishing a diplomatic resolution suitable to both parties. Here the game takes a strong position, as a two-state solution is the only one that the game affords."

To succeed, the player must win over the support of both their home and neighboring publics by building infrastructure, amassing political support, and, when necessary, meeting the demands of the opposing leader. Meanwhile, random events like insurrections, attacks, and protests often throw a wrench in one's plans, requiring the player to attend to local protests or to respond to unexpected attacks before returning to negotiations.

Play is abstract. On each turn the player can take action in response to a local event or take a variety of other measures in the categories of security, polities, and construction. Each leader sees things differently. The Palestinian president, for example, has to satisfy the world community (or at least avoid offending it), while the Israeli prime minister only has to satisfy the local citizenry. Moreover, the Israelis have more resources and can execute more direct actions, including bulldozing settlements and launching missile strikes.

Even though PeaceMaker includes real images and video to illustrate in-game events, the game primarily characterizes the diplomatic process of the conflict and its possible resolution, rather than particular historical events that have occurred within it. By so doing, it offers a lesson about the dynamics of international politics in Middle East conflict. As designer and critic Ernest Adams explains,



PeaceMaker illustrates some of the hardest lessons of leadership of all: that tough decisions are not always popular; that what the public demand in the short run isn't necessarily the right answer in the long run; that responding with overwhelming force to punish every outrage produces nothing but more outrages. Knee-jerk reactions usually fail. 31

In games like PeaceMaker, players do not ask, "What can I do next?" but instead, "How do the dynamics of this situation operate?" A procedural reality goes beyond the spaces or actions of an event, exploring the reality of a situation's behavior.

Human Interest

The promise of procedural documentary notwithstanding, games also have the ability to reconstruct personal emotional experiences rather than just describing them. Sometimes a newsworthy experience involves events and how they took place, as in the case of a timeline of the Mumbai terrorist attacks that occurred in late 2008.32 But in other cases, experience means something much more abstract: the emotional sensation of an eventwhat it felt like to cower in fear for hours in a guest room at the Ta] Hotel. A news story might become relevant only in the aftermath of an experience, whether it be tinged with joy, fear, desperation, or loss. Indeed, if citizens were able to experience the sensations of an experience through simulation rather than by description, perhaps they would better connect world events with the joys, fears, desperations, or losses in their own lives. Human interest games, we might call them.

All too often, the journalistic human interest story exudes cloying manipulation instead of earnest characterization. A personal touch should make a story human, rather than melodramatic. Perhaps surprisingly, home movies offer a better example of documentarian human interest than most lifestyle pieces. In 1959, Stan Brakhage shot Window Water Baby Moving, a film that documents his wife's first childbirth while conveying his own emotional experience of the event through editing and exposure effects. Brakhage uses a handheld camera and 8mm film stock, tools whose lo-fi aesthetic further personalizes his subject matter.

We can see traces of similar designs in the autobiographical games of Jason Rohrer, whose work reflects his own emotional experiences of certain events and processes in his life using a similar lo-fi, 8-bit visual style. Rohrer's Gravitation tells the sort of story one might hear on National Public Radio, a moral tale mixing sadness and joy before reaching a tiny revelation. A close friend of Rohrer's had fallen ill, lying "effectively brain dead" in a hospital bed while her son and Rohrer's family researched the affliction and the decision whether or not to pull life support." His previous game Passage was at that time experiencing its first bits of popular attention, so he was stealing time away to reply to new fans and critics. The complexity of these tragedies and triumphs led him to reflect on his own passions as an artist, what he calls his "mania," and how his moods and creative cycles affected his family. With another child on the way, he realized that the particular dynamics of the three-person family formed by himself, his wife, and his son Mez would soon be lost to him.

Gravitation interprets these sensations through the challenge of abstract, difficult work, and its interplay with the inspiration that comes from family interaction. Players begin in a largely dark, cold game world with two characters on screen: the player and a child. Playing catch with the child, the player expands the view around the avatar, melting the snow, exposing flowers, and expanding the soundtrack to an uplifting crescendo. Once the player successfully bounces enough balls back and forth, the avatar's "mania" overtakes him in the form of a fiery crown, allowing the player to leap great distances through a tight vertical maze in order to collect stars. The stars fall down and turn into blocks on the ground, which the player can push into a furnace to further fuel the artistic mania and increase the score. But the more blocks the player accumulates at once, the harder it becomes to shove them into the furnace, and the less time one has to play with the child to revitalize (figure 4.5). Eventually, after a third or fourth search for stars, the player returns "home" to the boy, but finds only his bright red ball lying alone on the ground.

On radio, television, and in print, human interest stories lack synthesis.

Recounting heart-wrenching facts through emotionally charged voices separates the story from its telling. This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass of Chicago Public Radio, manages to avoid most of these pitfalls. An episode at the end of the second season of the show's television incarnation offers lessons for human interest games.

In the episode, Glass weaves together the lives of seven men named John Smith throughout various stages of life. He compares their childhoods, their marriages, and their experiences with raising children. Montage is necessary here, as it would be impossible to track the life of one John Smith in its entirety. Part of the show covers the various Johns' experiences with videogames. One, age eight, unwinds with PlayStation 2 after frolicking in the yard. Another, age twenty-three, lingers in an arcade after being fired from his job as a line cook. A third, in his thirties, toils through another day of work at Microsoft's Xbox division. Glass cuts to a story of the child at school, playing a game in which everyone creates a small city in the gym and takes on ordinary jobs, "the jobs no adults actually want." The boy describes what amounts to a predigital version of the popular videogame series The Sims.

Much of the emotional power of the John Smith episode comes from editing together common or incongruous moments in the lives of the numerous men. Unlike narration, games like The Sims are capable of tracing the life of a single John Smith in its entirety. They can manipulate


space and time. Although The Sims is temporally and spatially linear, one

can imagine another version in which the player can jump between different moments in an avatar's life. Games create rule-based interactions that can underwrite a succession of emotional moments that the player can experience directly, instead of simply identifying with them abstractly.

Such models of mental or emotional space have even been attempted in mainstream videogames, such as Psychonauts and Dreamkiller, both of which invite entry into the brains of psychiatric patients confronting their personal demons. An early example of a documentary game attempting the same mental exploration is Mary Flanagan's [domestic], a first-person shooter modification (or "mod") that allows the player to confront the artist's traumatic childhood memory of her home burning down while she was at church." Working through a labyrinth of burning rooms, the walls of the virtual world of walls textured with photographic images and introspective text, the player attempts to extinguish the rising flames with a gun that shoots "coping mechanisms." Medieval Unreality, a collection of personal reflections on the infamous blood feuds of Albania, takes the same approach, but in a different context: a collaboration between game designers and the victims of the tragedy themselves." Both games use a violent first-person shooter to create nonviolent, personal meditations on loss and reconciliation, through the use of metaphor, evocative imagery, and spatial exploration.


Documentary games still struggle for legitimacy. Scholars like Fullerton and Raessans recount the challenges these games face in the popular imagination: they are seen as exploitative cash-grabs with little regard for human decency and historiographical intent." Some grumble in private or in the obscurity of blogs and Web forums, but others deride the genre in public. The most prominent might be late senator Ted Kennedy's one-word reaction to TFK Reloaded: "despicable.":" Kennedy's objection boils down to an accusation of bad taste, but it also carries tinges of ignorance and closedmindedness. Fullerton wonders, "Why don't we have the same reaction to a film like Oliver Stone's TFK, which goes so far as to use the much-derided filmic 'recreationr'":" Clearly, the general public is not yet ready for videogames that reenact charged events and memories.

The most controversial documentary game by far is Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a painstakingly detailed reconstruction of the Columbine High School massacre created by young Colorado film student Danny Ledonne, who had been deeply, personally affected by the tragedy. The game re-created Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's preparations that morning, their tactical takeover of the school, the murders and maimings they committed, their eventual suicide, and a fictional imagining of their descent into hell (figure 4.6). The game enjoyed considerable praise from prominent critics, as well as widespread scorn, including earning the number two spot on PC World's list of the ten worst games of all time." Two years earlier, Gus Van Sant's film Elephant, a fictionalized account of a school shooting inspired by Columbine, had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. Ledonne's game, by contrast, was ejected from the independent film and game festival Slam dance, despite earning a special commendation from the festival's film documentary [ury." Eventually, Ledonne showed his work at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. It wasn't the videogame he premiered this second time, but a documentary film he had made about the game's controversy, entitled Playing

Columbine. -;!.

TFK Reloaded and Super Columbine Massacre RPG! are independent games that endured mass-market controversy. In 2009, the first attempt at a mainstream documentary game was revealed to similar contentiousness. Six Days in Fallujah appears to be a first-person shooter much like any other. Almost a decade after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Middle Eastern setting had become old hat in commercial games." But, instead of hiding behind generic locations and scenarios in the interest of escapism and anonymity, the game explicitly casts itself as a playable documentary of the Second Battle of Fallujah-one of the bloodiest encounters of the Iraq War. Konami, a major videogame publisher, had initially funded the game's development and planned to distribute the title worldwide. But in the wake of widespread negative sentiment from politicians, military personnel, and the parents of soldiers killed during the operation, Konami pulled out of the project, casting doubt on whether it might eventually be released at all. 42

Controversy is nothing new for videogames-it is a medium that has been accused of inspiring prurience, brutality, and sloth for decades. Industry publishers often milk controversy, taking a "no press is bad press" position. But Six Days in Fallujan was different: it elicited a negative political reaction, not just a negative social one.

Developer Atomic Games made missteps in their early publicity efforts.

Their first error was rhetorical. Peter Tamte, the game's producer, foolishly proclaimed that the game would mix entertainment with education. Critics were suspicious of the appropriateness of turning a major battle into idle fun.f Military personnel and families of the deceased objected particularly, arguing that having "fun" during a bloodbath would disrespect the memories of men and women 10st.44 Of course, it might be entirely possible to create an engaging videogame about the Battle of Fallujah that would not produce enjoyment, but distress and reflection-a game more like Black Hawk Down than like Independence Day. But once the studio let the conversation turn toward "the entertainment problem," they had a hard time reframing the discussion.

After Konami pulled its publishing agreement, the public conversation about the game turned to realism and accuracy. On June 11, 2009, Fox News aired a panel with Tamte, the game's military advisor, and the mother of a fallen soldier from the Fallujah operation. Although the Fox pundits attempted to derail the conversation with inflammatory remarks about profiting at soldiers' expense, the discussion between the panelists focused on a different question: could a game realistically portray the horrors of war? What then would have to be done to ensure accuracy and yet engage players, making them want to keep playing the game?

As details emerged, two more problems arose for Atomic Games. First, the game was reported to implement a common first-person shooter mechanic: a refilling health bar." After taking damage in the game, a player can withdraw from the line of fire for a short time in order to fully heal. Even the military personnel supportive of the game's production were concerned that an unrealistic health bar would fail to convey the sense of real danger faced each day by soldiers.



Second, it was revealed that the game had been described as a "survival horror" game in marketing materials-a genre typically concerned with the slaughter of zombies, mutants, and other supernatural entities. Was the game meant to cast Iraqi civilians and insurgents as the undead or the inhuman, akin to stereotypical waves of mindless monsters? If so, it would surely offer a jingoistic view of Western involvement in complex foreign affairs.

In response, Tamte observed that a realistic portrayal of the battle must frighten the player, like a horror game might do. Soldiers in Fallujah had to comb city streets for insurgents, entering every building to root out strongholds. They would search numerous buildings futilely, but the occasional breach would reveal the barrel of a rifle. Tamte wanted to convey this reality with the game. Additional realism would come from fully destructible environments, a feature that would allow players to blowout walls selectively to reveal hiding insurgents. Finally, in an effort to make the game as fair as possible, Tamte revealed that Atomic Games consulted with a number of insurgents involved in the Battle of Fallujah. Though this knowledge would be necessary for a faithful account of the operation, it also instantly garnered accusations of "treason" from conservative pundits." Accuracy turns out to be a double-edged sword.

Atomic Games was forced to layoff a significant part of its staff in order to move forward with its production schedule without a major publisher." Supporters, and even some detractors, argued that the game ought to be completed, even if it didn't live up to the expectations of fairness, reality, and respect. As the prospects of the project reaching its full potential dwindled, another realization arose: it might be enough for the game to have been attempted and discussed, with or without a release. Although Fox's Gretchen Carlson dismissed the idea of a documentary game, the mother of a fallen soldier turned the conversation around when she expressed hope that the game, if made properly, might in fact honor her son's memory. Game developers might not yet have proven themselves as responsible commentators on-public issues, but with cooperation between the gaming and nongaming publics, videogames may yet become documentarian.

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38