On the first day of class this semester at Arizona State's Cronkite School of Journalism, eight students didn't practice nut grafs, or read "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," or learn the basics of search engine optimization.
They played video games.
Specifically, they played TellTale Games' award-winning The Walking Dead, the epidemiology simulator Plague Inc., and the provocative news game September 12.
Retha Hill is the director of the school's New Media Innovation Lab, and this semester, her lab is making news-based video games.
"While journalism has long incorporated some kind of gaming into its culture with crossword puzzles, word searches, and even news quizzes, the potential for games for journalism is not fully — or even partially — realized," Hill says.
Two months into the semester, Hill's class has outlined an "enhanced interrogation" decision-making game that puts the player in the role of an American intelligence officer who has to choose the degree of physical force to use against a prisoner with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack. The idea is to teach the conflicts that give rise to the news through the principles of interactivity.
The torture game isn't on a screen yet; right now it's pages and pages of dialogue and the decision trees and branching rule sets that define the structure of the game.
It's effective, Hill says, because "you're drawing on your own moral code."
News games aren't totally novel; there are well-regarded games from Wired (Cutthroat Capitalism, which "explains the economics of Somali piracy by putting the player in command of a pirate ship"), and, reaching further back, Garry Trudeau (the 1996 Doonesbury Election Simulator put the player in the role of a campaign manager for either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole). The games academic Ian Bogost coauthored a book about them.
The problem with most news games, though, according to Hill, is that "they're not particularly compelling."
Another of the class's games attempts to address this problem. It borrows the frantic structure of Space Invaders but instead of alien lasers, the player is bombarded with spending requests and attempts to protect the federal budget. You lose, Hill says, "if you burst through the debt ceiling. Or if you raise the poverty level too high."
Hill, who cut her teeth in the 1990s at WashingtonPost.com (and helped mock up a never-released version of Sim City dedicated to D.C.), had long wanted to create a course dedicated to news games. The opportunity presented itself last year when Arizona State opened the Center for Games and Impact, which researches the intersection of games and society. She teaches the lab in collaboration with Juli James and Adam Ingram-Goble of the center.
The ultimate goal of Hill's class is to create an adaptable framework for newsgames that smaller news organizations, lacking in-house interactive staff, could easily apply to local issues.
"Not everyone is the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal," Hill says. "We want to give small companies tools to build their own games."