Five years ago, on the 12th of January of 2010, the capital of Haiti was devastated by an earthquake of a 7.0 magnitude. The destruction of infrastructures and livelihoods in Port-au-Prince and further communes in the southwest of the republic was immense, resulting in a crisis. The international community showed an immediate response to the catastrophe: various governmental and non-governmental organisations sent funds and relief supplies to help the population and reconstruct the capital city. However, the complexity of this titanic task was not always self-evident: how to start? How to invest the money received? What are the priorities? This complexity of taking the right decisions in order to achieve mid and long-term benefits for Port-au-Prince and its citizens, is what the newsgame “Rebuilding Haiti” (Maurin, 2014), which is analysed in this thesis, aims to transfer to the audience. At the beginning of the newsgame, the reader — or better said, the player — is asked the following question: “If you were part of the process, would you be able to make the right choices?” Throughout this thesis I explored the reasons that bring some journalists to use playful and interactive1 formats like the one used in “Rebuilding Haiti”. This particular newsgame is an example of the new forms which journalists and media companies use in order to navigate through the liquid modernity described by Zygmunt Bauman which is hallmarked by a permanent state of change and uncertainty (Deuze, 2006, p. 3). Furthermore, “Rebuilding Haiti” shows how innovative formats that take advantage of the Internet’s interactivity possibilities can become a medium to convey complex topics like global development.
In a context where the ubiquity of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is shaping new social and cultural practices among citizens and institutions, journalists and media organisations have struggled and are still struggling to find the right formula to adapt to new audience’s practices and expectations paradigms. According to the media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006; 2013), the change can be explained as a process of media convergence and establishment of a new “participatory culture”. In this participatory paradigm, the public is not passive anymore and, thanks to Web 2.0, many-to-many communication flows appear, giving voice to citizens and leaving the traditional top-down or one-to-many schemes behind. The boundaries between producers and consumers blur and journalists have to get beyond an “arrogant occupational ideology and a deeply self-referential professional culture” (Deuze, 2008, p. 857). They are challenged to accommodate the shift towards a “more interactive, participatory and collaborative type of mediamaking” (Deuze, 2007, p. 257).
Following Jenkins and Deuze’s theories, the newsgame “Rebuilding Haiti” should be seen as a natural step within the new media context, which, more and more, rewards interactivity and openness. The term “newsgame” is still rather new and its definition is vague and different depending on the context of employment and research. Nonetheless, Miguel Sicart (2008, p. 1) offers a good starting point to conceptualize newsgames, stating that they are journalistic approaches which “utilize the medium with the intention of participating in the public debate”. In other words: newsgames are the result of combining game mechanics and traditional journalistic techniques in order to convey relevant information and to go beyond the pure entertainment. It is important to note that the use of playful elements in media has a long story, for instance, crosswords — which are entertaining but demand a certain understanding of news events — have been used in newspapers for almost one century (Burton, 2005, p.88). As this thesis shows, digital newsgames have the ability to engage the user with the complexity of, not only concrete news stories, but with bigger system dynamics (Bogost, Ferrari & Schueizer, 2010, p. 2) and can trigger the curiosity of the audience in a way that would hardly be possible through traditional journalistic formats.
However, there are still many questions, controversies and concerns concerning newsgames and they have not been fully exploited by news outlets. Besides the fact that their production is more expensive and time consuming compared with other publishing formats, games are sometimes seen as a “frivolous medium” (Burton, 2005, p. 95) with regards to news. Hence, the adoption of newsgames in newsrooms require a mindset shift by the journalists, who have to accept that the audience is more demanding and wants to participate (Burton, 2005; Deuze, 2008; Bogost, et al., 2010). Mark Deuze (2006) coined the term “liquid journalism” in order to explain this new context in which journalists have to navigate. As he explains, concerning media production, we will see a “mix of ‘one-size-fits-all’ content made for largely invisible mass audiences next to (and infused by) rich forms of transmedia storytelling including elements of user control and ‘prosumer’-type agency” (2006, p. 6). Newsgames belong to this second category. They are user-centric, the player will have the freedom to make choices and explore the news story on his or her own, while the journalist’s voice and point of view will be hidden behind the set of rules and mechanics of the game.
In my analysis I addressed why and to what extend development journalism may beneficiate from newsgames outputs. Development journalism is devoted to serve citizens, to analyse development projects with a critical perspective, to raise awareness and, if possible, to provide long-term solutions to the problems that people face mainly in African, Asian and Latin American countries (Xiaoge, 2009). As I show, the answer to the previous question is therefore in the essence of development journalism itself, because it actively strives to impact and involve the audience ‒ an aim which can be facilitated by games. In this context, I looked at a particularly relevant feature of newsgames: in many occasions, they are “un-winnable games” (Burton, 2005, p. 91) with a “metaphorical end” based on the fact that “I lose, therefore I think” (Lee, 2003).
Even though there is an abundance of literature on serious games and on how the new cultural and social practices brought by ICT have affected journalism and news consumption, the field of newsgames is yet rather unexplored, especially from the perspective of media and journalism studies. For this reason the aim of this thesis is to bring the characteristics that make newsgames a response to participatory culture to the surface and, more specifically, to answer how and why some journalists employ newsgames to disclose complex information on global development topics. I approached the question first through a literature review, followed by an analysis of two case studies: the aforementioned “Rebuilding Haiti” (Maurin, 2014) and “Follow the Money 2” (Bompan, 2015). In the Italian “Follow the Money 2” players are asked to decide how and where they would like to spend the 280 millions of Euros that Italy allocates in international cooperation. In both cases, “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2”, the projects were funded by the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme (IDR), which seeks to push the boundaries in development journalism through innovative and original approaches.
In the following literature review, I explained the background in which innovative forms of journalism are emerging, discussing the concepts of participatory culture and liquid journalism conceived by Jenkins and Deuze. The literature review continues by exploring the new narratives and news production processes based on interactivity and collaborative practices and afterwards I narrowed the discussion on newsgames as a particular type of serious game. I provided a definition and addressed newsgames’ advantages, risks and limitations to convey relevant information for the public debate. Next, I gave an overview of development journalism and the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme linking this type of reporting to the use of newsgames. Subsequently, I described and analyse the newsgames I already mentioned from a user perspective but also based on interviews with its producers, Florent Maurin for “Rebuilding Haiti” and Emanuele Bompan for “Follow the Money 2”.
To conduct my research and analysis of the two newsgames I combined an autoethnographic approach with qualitative interviews, hence I show how the user experiences the games and what is the point of view of the journalists who created them. Many authors argue that it is imperative for the researcher to play the game he or she is analysing (Consalvo & Dutton, 2006; Aarseth, 2003) and autoethnography, as a form of reflexive ethnography, is useful to give an insight of how a user may
experience playing a certain game. According to Ellis and Bochner (2014) autoethnography refers to “research writing, stories, and methods that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social and political” and “considers personal experience as an important source of knowledge in and of itself” (p. 254). Moreover, the qualitative, semi-structured and one-to-one interviews to Maurin and Bompan, gave me access to their attitudes, values and interpretations, allowing a complex analysis of the topic (Byrne, 2004). This thesis aims to explain the production process of newsgames about international cooperation topics: show how and why they were created and compare its initial goals with my actual experience. I shed light on this emerging and exciting media format, but I also raise critical questions and address controversial debates.
Conceptual framework and literature review
In this thesis I explain and analyse newsgames as an example for the interplay between journalism and contemporary sociocultural paradigms that emerged within new practices of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) usage. On the one hand, journalists react to new technologies; on the other hand, they shape their exploration and thus the ensuing media landscape. In order to understand how and why newsgames are being developed and to address the case study “Follow the Money 2” and “Rebuilding Haiti”, I will first establish a conceptual framework and then address the existing literature on newsgames. The conceptual framework draws the new context in which newsgames are embedded and from which they can be seen as a natural response. According to the scholar Henry Jenkins (2006)., one of the main characteristics of the current social and media context is what he called “participatory culture” However, before introducing Jenkins’ theory I will briefly describe the “networked society” proposed by Manuel Castells (2000), this is a broader background necessary to understand the rise of the participatory culture and, ultimately, the development of newsgames. Subsequently, I will introduce the concept of “liquid journalism” (Deuze, 2006) and then turn to a ludification of culture argued by scholars like Joost Raessens or Eric Zimmerman to continue with a review on the existing studies of “serious games” (Michael & Chen, 2005; Raessens, 2014; Sicart, 2008; Stapleton, 2004) and newsgames in particular. At the end of this section, I will also give an overview of a specific type of reporting, namely development journalism, to then proceed with the analysis of my two case studies.
Liquid journalism in times of participatory culture
The flourishing of the World Wide Web in the earlier 90’s brought promises of democratization among citizens and was one of the elements that contributed to the rise of what Manuel Castells identified as the “networked society”. According to Yochai Benkler (2007), this new scenario “locates its central characteristic in the shift from groups and hierarchies to networks as social and organizational models — looser, flexible arrangements of human affairs” (p. 177). Castells (2000) points to six main interrelated aspects in order to understand this “new society which is made up of networks” (p.693–694).
First, the advent of new information technologies as an embedded characteristic of our society that enables, for instance, the emergence of new production forms; secondly, and also as a consequence of the first point, we witness an unprecedented globalisation of the components that conform the multiple systems in which society is organised; as a third point, Castells places the emergence of the hypertext as a key element in the shaping of experiences in a new culture of real
virtuality; forth, the previous globalisation of economic or cultural systems, for example, provokes a transformation, even a dissolution, of the traditional sovereign nation-states, since they are now bypassed by the new global framework; another social change is the crisis of patriarchy, state, and family and thus the creation of different values and collectives; finally, the sixth change is the impact that progress in science has on society, a clear example of this is the spreading of a new ecological consciousness (see Castells, 2002, p.693–694).
However, for the purpose of my research, I will not go deep into the discussion of the network society proposed by Castells, but I will use it as a departure point in order to understand the participatory culture in which we are immersed today. As characteristic of the “evolving system of dynamic networks” (Castells, 2000, p. 697), Jenkins (2006) introduced the concepts of “participatory culture” and “media convergence” as part of a broader paradigm, the so-called “convergence culture”. As he outlines, this paradigm is characterized by the coexistence of multiple media systems, a hallmark that carries the following consequences:
The flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, the search for new structures of media financing that fall at the interstices between old and new media, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who would go almost anywhere in search of the kind of entertainment experiences they want. (Jenkins, 2006, p. 282)
In this new media landscape the crucial shift is in the role of the audience, since, in this model, audiences are “shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imaged” (Jenkins, 2013, p. 2). People do not only receive media content in the traditional top-down or one-to many communication flows, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), like the Web 2.0, allow the audience to become active, to rise their voice and be heard on a global scale. In contrast with the centralized and unidirectional links from mass media hubs to peripheral receivers (Benkler, 2007, p. 179) of the 20th century, today, anyone with a Smartphone can create and spread media content of any kind, from a pop song until a breaking news headline. Citizen journalism is a good example of how lines between producers and consumers are blurring and of how the roles of these become diffuse and interchangeable. Indeed, a common denominator here is the new proactive role of the audience; in citizen journalism for instance, the audience also participates in the production and dissemination of news. In the case of newsgames, as I will show in the follow-up sections, the audience engages with the content with an active attitude that creates a singular experience for each user.
Another concept introduced by Jenkins as response to convergence culture is the new transmedia storytelling (Jenkins, 2008). He defines it as the “stories that unfold across multiple media platforms, with each medium making distinctive contributions to our understanding of the world, a more integrated approach to franchise development than models based on urtexts and ancillary products” (Jenkins, 2008, p. 293). Jenkins identified transmedia storytelling in the entertainment industry, using as example the case of The Matrix (see Jenkins, 2008, p. 93–130) with which he illustrated how the audience became active and went beyond the isolated act of watching the movie. In order to fully experience the story, consumers and fans of Matrix organised themselves in communities that hold discussions online, they downloaded animated shorts from the Web and played the Matrix video game. As Jenkins puts it “The Matrix is entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium” (2008, p. 95). But as scholars like Alzamora and Tarcia (2012) started to explore, transmedia storytelling can also be applied to journalism, resulting in news stories told through various media and formats and where the audience becomes active in shaping the narration (Alzamora & Tarcia, 2012, p. 27). In this sense, newsgames can be considered as one of all these emerging transmedia narratives or extensions of a particular news event. Newsgames can complement other texts — an interview published in a magazine or an online photo gallery, for instance- about a same topic, providing a different perspective and experience and engaging the audience through different means.
Focusing on the new relationship between audience and producers, Mark Deuze (2007) elaborated an optimistic analysis of the impact of Jenkins’ convergence culture on the creative industries — like journalism, advertising or marketing communications. The scholar stated that “convergence must be seen as recombinantly driven by an industry desperate for strong customer relationships, technologies that are increasingly cheap and easy to use, and a media culture that privileges an active audience” (p. 244). Indeed, many journalists and news outlets find themselves in a rather uncomfortable position in this new landscape of media convergence and participatory culture. One of the reasons is the fact that their audience have become fluctuant and unpredictable; the new citizen-consumer of the network society is demanding and has access to infinity of content and resources in a constantly changing heterogeneous world (Deuze, 2006 and 2008).
Thus, journalism is being challenged by the “permanent revolution” (Deuze, 2006) of the individualised “liquid modernity”, a metaphor introduced by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In consequence, to explain and understand the role and practices of journalists in today’s society, Deuze framed the concept of “liquid journalism”. As the scholar argues, this journalism, one that can navigate in the present and adapt to the future, has to be fluid, engaging, and able to embrace the mix between top-down business practices with new peer-to-peer models. It has to accept that the audience plays a crucial role in collaborative production processes driven, mainly, by the Internet and social media platforms (Deuze, 2006 and 2008). Dan Gillmor (2004), a strong advocate of participatory or citizen journalism, goes one step further in the discussion and concludes that the audience actually has “the most important role in this new era: they must be active users of news, and not mere consumers (p.238).
Newsgames: Playing with a complex reality
Besides convergence culture and liquid journalism, there is another variable that we have to take into account in order to explain the pioneering production of newsgames. This is the “ludification of culture” or playfulness, that has been gaining ground in our society since the 60’s and which can be exemplified by the boom of videogames among a wide range of population, the use of gamification strategies — “exploitationware” if we apply Ian Bogost’s perspective (2011) –in marketing, the way we interact and build relationships in Twitter or Facebook (Dragona, 2014) or in the development of serious games for educational purposes (Raessens, 2014, p. 94). Zimmerman (2014) went even further and wrote the Manifesto for a Ludic Century, where he defends that the 21st century is and will be defined by games: “media and culture in the Ludic Century is increasingly systemic, modular, customizable, and participatory. Games embody all of these characteristics in a very direct sense” (para. 6).
Before proceeding with the placement of newsgames in this context, it is useful to first define the characteristics of the concept of “play”, the verb that always precedes the object “game”:
In play, you know that the game you play belongs to a different category from ordinary life; you can be immersed in play, be completely lost in it, experience excitement and joy; play is characterised by specific boundaries in space and time and the game you play can always be repeated; crucial to play are the rules that constitute the world of the game, which are absolutely binding and indisputable; finally, play creates order in an imperfect world and a confused life. (Raessens, 2014, p. 101)
As Raessens shows, the rules within the game and the distance with reality are characteristics of most of the games and hallmarks of the playing act, thus, the combination of games and journalism actually sounds like an oxymoron. At this point we need to go back in time and recall the well-known crosswords that we still find in any newspaper. As Burton (2005) and Bogost, Ferrari and Schueizer (2010) explain, those word puzzles that appeared at the beginning of last century show the long relationship that “playfulness” has with the news. Therefore, it can be said that the Internet has performed as a catalyst for this emerging narratives, allowing “an expanded role for interactive presentations, particularly games” (Burton, 2005, p. 88). As we see, the link between journalism and games is not new; however, in today’s participatory culture and media convergence, online newsgames acquire a strong significance and seem to be completely in consonance with the new user-centric paradigm.
Newsgames are defined under the umbrella term of “serious games”, which includes all those computer games that “use the rhetorics of games to convey messages with intentions different than to entertain” (Sicart, 2008, p. 2). Under this category we also find simulation games used as training tools in fields like military, health care or higher education (Stapleton, 2004; Michael & Chen, 2005). In this sense, Michael and Chen (2005) highlight that serious games “can extend the value of training films and books by allowing the player to not only learn, but also to demonstrate and apply what he or she has learned” (p. 27). Nevertheless, in the case of journalism, games do not aim to be a training tool, but a means to convey relevant information in an exploratory and interactive way; that is, they “adapt the content of news to the expressive capacities of computer games” (Sicart, 2008, p.4). As scholars (Burton, 2005; Michael & Chen, 2005; Bogost, 2012 and Zimmerman, 2014) make clear, what differentiates newsgames from other interactive and entertaining media formats is the fact that newsgames simulate systems that mimic reality, with its own rules and dynamics. Hence the player interacts with a virtual abstraction where he or she is challenged by problems and situations copied from the real world. Consequently, newsgames have been said to perform better when the scope of their topic is general rather than particular:
Games offer journalists an opportunity to stop short of the final rendering of a typical news story, and instead to share the raw behaviors and dynamics that describe a situation as the journalistic content. It’s a paradigm shift, to be sure. Those who create newsgames don’t “get the story,” they “get the system” instead. (Bogost et al., 2010, p. 179)
However, due to various reasons that will be addressed in the following sections, introducing newsgames in the production routine of media companies is not that easy. Soun Chung (2007), in her research on the fostering of interactive features in online publications, concluded that journalism was still sceptical and apprehensive in front of the idea of prompting a more participative audience; in a similar way, Deuze (2007, p. 257) pointed at the ambiguity of roles between journalists and public as the element “that may prompt media professionals to respond with doubt and criticism regarding the shift towards more interactive, participatory and collaborative types of media making.”
Before proceeding with the exploration of newsgames, it is interesting to put the spotlight on the concept of interactivity, which appears several times in this thesis. As Chung (2007) recapped, interactivity is hard to define but it has been approached by several authors who enhanced different dimensions of the concept: the responsiveness it implies, the aspect of control, the major freedom it gives to the user to make changes to the form and content in real time or “the level of receiver control over the communication process” (p. 45). Furthermore, we can also distinguish between “interpersonal vs content interactivity” or “human interactivity and medium interactivity” (Chung, 2007, p. 45). In the case of newsgames like the ones studied in this thesis we are only dealing with medium or content interactivity, meaning that the player receives feedback from the output itself and not from other players or users. Thus, newsgames always include some form of interactivity and they are mainly user-centric. However, their production is still expensive and time consuming, and, after all, they have to deal with the stigma of being mere “games” (Burton, 2006; Bogost et al., 2010; Foxman, 2015).
Professional concerns and emerging possibilities
Newsgames come wrapped with promises, prejudices and perils. Sicart (2008, p. 1) asserted that developing this type of entertaining and interactive media forms should be seen as a natural response of journalism towards the current playful and participatory culture, and more recently Murray Dick (2013) confirmed the “growing recognition of the potential for innovation, originality, and excellence in the field” (p. 491). In this sense, the awarded documentary producer Raney Aronson-Rath (2014) stated that in the upcoming future of media, we would witness a new openness to experiment and innovate in order to find the right form for each news story: “Maybe a piece of reporting is a visceral, visually compelling story that’s meant to be a documentary. Maybe it will unfold with the most impact as a really thoughtful written piece. Maybe it’s an interactive combination of both” (para. 4).
However, scholars of media and game studies have also pointed out the real or perceived downsides of newsgames. In terms of production issues, newsgames happen to be time consuming and expensive to create, moreover, they require certain skills that can only be achieved if journalists work together with game designers. Foxman (2015) puts it in the right words when saying that “large financial outlays are necessary for pulling together design talent programmers, platforms, and distribution channels to successfully release a truly complex game” (p. 42). But technical and economic costs are not the only barrier that newsgames face. In order to create newsgames, journalists need to process a mental shift: to adopt an attitude of experimentation and to accept games as a means to convey relevant information for public debates. In addition, despite the fact that newsgames are labelled as “serious games”, they have been depicted as “childish or trivial” (Foxman, 2015, p. 22), as a “frivolous medium” (Burton, 2005, p. 95) especially when it comes to conveying “hard news” like politics, natural disasters or wars. Thus, according to these believes, for development journalism, which usually covers knotty topics like poverty, corrupted governments or international cooperation, newsgames should not be an option. Nevertheless, as it is exemplified in “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2”, these types of complex and hard issues, actually, fit perfectly with the inherent nature of newsgames.
In this sense, Bogost et al. (2010), concluded that “ultimately, whether or not newsgames become an important part of the future of journalism is a question of will rather than a problem of technology” (p. 181). Indeed, the software needed to develop newsgames is becoming cheaper and easier to use; as every new media form, it requires a learning process that can only be achieved by doing it, by developing more and more newsgames. Advocates of the use of interactive games in journalism defend that, even though newsgames cannot replace other more traditional formats and they are only useful in certain types of news — e.g. creating a newsgames for breaking news does not seem a feasible option at the moment –, they have the potential to engage the audience and help them understand complex issues by experimenting and learning the rules of the game (Burton, 2006; Bogost et al., 2010; Bogost, 2011; Sicart, 2008 and Zimmerman, 2014). They also highlight the efficiency of newsgames to add context and background information to certain events, or to show them from different perspectives as an example of transmedia storytelling, using Bogost’s words:
Because games are systems, they offer a fundamentally different way of characterizing ideas. They can inspire a different kind of deliberation than we find in other forms of media, one that considers the uncertainty of complex systems instead of embracing simple answers. (2011, para. 36)
Overview of development journalism
Finally, before proceeding with the case study, I will outline the history and characteristics of the journalistic coverage on development topics in order to then answer how and why some journalists employ newsgames to address global development topics. I will especially focus on development journalism practiced by occidental media and addressed to occidental audiences, as this is the case of the examples I analyse.
The notion of development journalism as a distinct form of reporting first appeared in Asia in the late 1960’s, in the context of a Thomson Foundation workshop that took place in the Philippines. This happened in consonance with the New World Information and Communication Order debate (Skjerdal, 2011), later summarized in the MacBride Report titled “Many Voices, One World”, whose aim was to bring “the spirit of democracy into the world of communication” (MacBride, 1980, p.166). As Xu Xiaoge (2009) emphasizes, development journalism was thought to serve ordinary people and to raise awareness on the problems faced by countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as on the actions that governments and organisations took in order to foster national development. There is still vagueness on definitions of this type of reporting, but scholars agree in the fact that the main hallmark of development journalism is its attitude, “it is fundamentally goal-directed and purposive” (Shafer, 1998, p. 42).
In order to clarify the concept, Xiaoge distinguishes five main conditions that development journalism should fulfil. In the first place, development journalism coverage differentiates between the announced and the actual impact that development projects have on people’s life. Second, its attentions should focus on long-term actions and processes rather than on breaking news. As a third consideration, development journalism has to remain independent from political power and bring constructive criticism. However, as a fourth point, Xiaoge (2009, p. 358) states that the coverage has to facilitate the nation building and thus, work constructively with the government. Finally, development journalism exists not to serve the elites, but to empower ordinary people and their communities.
In today’s globalised world, formed by large interconnected systems, it is known that what happens in any place may have worldwide effects, thus, first world countries are aware that they cannot remain apathetic to the problems faced by developed regions. “Climate change, pollution of the seas, declining world food supplies, water shortages, avian and swine flu” (Wates, 2010, p. 3) are some of the topics that occupy part of the international agenda and from which citizens have to be informed. Hence, as Oliver Wates (2010) alerts, development journalism in western societies faces the challenge to trigger audience’s interest “about events and people on the other side of the world” (p. 11), not only because today’s economy or politics are taking place in a global framework, but also because, according to Wates (2010), it is necessary that citizens from richer countries “become aware of the plight of the developed world in order to ensure that their country’s development policies have a positive impact on the lives of millions who survive on less than a dollar a day” (p. 3).
For the purpose of answering my main research question of how and why some journalists employ newsgames to explain complex topics such as global development, I have used a case study approach based on qualitative data. Moreover, this thesis wants to contribute, with more general insights, to the scarcity of studies on newsgames from a media and journalistic perspective. The methods I have employed for gathering and eliciting these data are autoethnography and qualitative interviews. Both methods share a clear connection with broader ethnographic practices devoted to explore cultural and social phenomena and, while the autoethnographic exercise allowed me to obtain data from a newsgame’s user perspective, the interviews gave me access to the producer’s point of view, which is the core of my research.
I decided to base my research on a case study approach, since it is a highly focused method that provides in-depth and significant understanding of a specific object of study, such as newsgames in the case of this thesis. As mentioned in the introduction, I chose to investigate two newsgames that address global development topics: the Italian “Follow the Money 2” (2015) and the French “Rebuilding Haiti” (2014) which I will describe in detail in my analysis. As mentioned initially, the two newsgames were funded by the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme (IDR), an initiative that rewards innovative and quality journalism and which is managed by the European Journalism Centre, the organisation where I am currently doing my internship. Thus, both newsgames are internationally recognised and intend to disclose, for a broad audience, issues related to international cooperation. Despite having this common denominator, both games have distinct mechanics and interface designs. Moreover, their ultimate goal is also slightly different. This fact was not a problem but an advantage, because it enabled me to obtain richer and more nuanced results about newsgames used in development journalism.
Hence, the procedure I followed in order to develop my research was the autoethnographic analysis of each newsgame and the conduction of in-depth semi-structured interviews with the author of each game, the journalists Emanuele Bompan in the case of “Follow the Money 2” and Florent Maurin for “Rebuilding Haiti”. The combination of both methods, plus the previous establishment of a conceptual framework and literature review, increased my understanding of the phenomena and, as Berg (2001) explains, the use of “triangulation”, that is, the employment of different but related types of data, gives “a richer, more complete array of symbols and theoretical concepts; and a means of verifying many of these elements” (p. 4).
The first part of my case study comprises the autoethnographic analysis of the two newsgames already mentioned. I will become a user and play them in order to, later, contrast my experience with the explanations and aims of their authors. Although for the qualitative study of games, some scholars have pointed out a lack of methodological approaches (Aarseth, 2003; Consalvo & Dutton, 2006), one requisite has been claimed by various authors: the researcher has to play the game. As the preeminent scholar of Game Studies Espen J. Aarseth (2003) explains, an “informed game scholarship must involve play, just like scholars of film and literature experience the works first hand, as well as through secondary sources” (p. 3) and concludes that “critical self-awareness, in whatever form, should always be practiced” (p. 7).
Autoethnography, as an “approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011, para. 1), is an appropriate means to achieve this first-hand and reflexive knowledge of my object of study. Specifically, in this thesis, I did “introspective self-observation”, since I only documented my own individual experience (O Riordan, 2014, p. 4) which I wrote about as layered accounts, a type of autoethnography that “focuses on the author’s experience alongside data, abstract analysis, and relevant literature” (Ellis, et al., 2011, para. 20). Autoethnography has been a recurrent method in the study of videogames; for instance, Pittman and Paul (2010) used it to add depth to their study of gamers’ level of fulfilment in “World of Warcraft”; in a different way, Todd (2012), employed autoethnography to explore the relationship between gaming and gender.
I acknowledge the limitations in terms of representativity that the approaches I chose imply, since they are based on qualitative data and methods. However, as explained in the paragraphs above, I ensured the rigor of my research through various strategies such as triangulation via the use of more than one data source and a consistent selection of my two case study. The inherent nature of autoethnography, which is based on personal experience, could be problematic if we would assess this research with the same traditional criteria applied to quantitative studies, such as objectivity or reliability. Indeed, autoethnography has often been “dismissed for social scientific standards as being insufficiently rigorous, theoretical, and analytical, and too aesthetic, emotional, and therapeutic” (Ellis et al., 2011, para. 37). However, “in a world of (methodological) difference, autoethnographers find it futile to debate whether autoethnography is a valid research process or product” (Ellis et al., 2011, para. 40), hence autoethnographic texts like the one presented in this theses should be evaluated according to the richness of the insights it provides, the resonance and contribution to make an experience accessible, and the sincerity and transparency with which the study is marked (O Riordam, 2014, p. 8–10).
Concerning the qualitative interviews, both of them had a duration of 30–40 minutes and were conducted via Skype. Face-to-face meetings were not possible due to the respective geographic distance. I contacted the journalists Maurin and Bompan through the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and both of them agreed on participating, allowing me to record the interview and employ their names in the thesis. I used interviews as a flexible and effective resource useful to get access to social actor’s perspective, attitudes and interpretation (Byrne, 2004).
Chung (2007) also used qualitative interviews in order to investigate how unique characteristics of the Internet were being exploited by news websites. Thus, she asked how and why online news producers employed, or did not employ, interactive features in their websites. In a similar way, I also addressed the producer’s angle and got a valuable insight of the current challenges and profits ascribed to newsgames. My interviews were semi-structured and therefore I had to “develop, adapt, and generate questions and follow-up probes appropriate to the given situation and the central purpose of the investigation” (Berg, 2001, p. 70). To do so, I also elaborated a basic topic list with questions divided into four main themes: newsgames production process, their relation with traditional values and practices, possible problems and ethical concerns that they arise and, finally, comments and particular issues about their use in global development stories and about the newsgame they produced, “Follow the Money 2” or “Rebuilding Haiti”.
Case Studies: Newsgames about global development topics.
An Analysis of “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2”
Some media professionals consider the kind of topics reported by development journalism too serious or difficult to be conveyed through ‘frivolous’ playable features (Foxman, 2015, p. 39–40), colourful graphics and exploratory narratives. Nevertheless, the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme (IDR) rewards, especially, those projects which aim at approaching development stories with creative, engaging and innovative formats ‒ including newsgames. As they announce on their website, the IDR programme motivates journalists “to develop new, exciting, and even experimental reporting, employing state of the art presentation methods and techniques of journalistic storytelling.”2 “Rebuilding Haiti” (2014) and “Follow the Money 2” (2015), both funded by the IDR programme, give the user an experience that goes beyond the traditional act of reading an article or watching the broadcasted news.
“Rebuilding Haiti” was published in the French online magazine Rue89 and addresses the situation of Haiti four years after the earthquake that destroyed most of Port-au-Prince and various settlements in the southwest of the republic. The project is a mix of scrollytelling format and a playable “chose-your-own-adventure” quiz. “Scrollytelling” refers to the format of long written articles which are enriched with audiovisual material such as pictures or sounds. “Follow the Money 2” appeared in the website of the Italian newspaper La Stampa and is the follow-up step of an initiative that started in 2014 with a first “Follow the Money”3. In his first project, the author created an interactive mapping system showing how the Italian development aid was being spent. In the case of “Follow the Money 2”, Bompan goes one step further and builds a newsgame where the user has to decide how and where to spend the Italian international cooperation money.
As stated in the previous section, I will divide the following section in two parts. First, I display an autoethnographic analysis of both games in order to describe them and analyse my experience as a user. Then, in the second section, I examine the producer’s perspective through the in-depth interviews I conducted with Emanuele Bompan, author of “Follow the Money 2” and Maurin Florent, author of “Rebuilding Haiti”. In both cases the analysis is structured around key topics and concepts, instead of being divided between the two newsgames.
Autoethnographic analysis: my experience playing the newsgames
With this autoethnographic analysis, I will show how I, as a user, engaged with both newsgames. Hence, in the next subsection, I can contrast my experience with the point of view and the initial aims of the projects’ producers and finally give an answer to my initial research question. First, the analysis will address the individualized and immersive experience that newsgames provide by giving an active role to the audience. Afterwards, I focus on the way in which both games challenged me and, finally, I examine their involving power through playful or game design features and its link with development journalism.
Construction of a singular narrative: between abstraction and realism
The first thing that struck me when I entered the newsgame “Rebuilding Haiti” (see Figure 1) was its colourful and animated cover depicting an urban scene with city sounds in the background; blue sky and simple geometric figures. Certainly, I did not have the impression that I was about to enter a journalistic story on the reconstruction of a developing country devastated by an earthquake, but a sort of online quiz game. Indeed, that first home page was already an illustration of some of the main hallmarks of Jenkins’ convergence culture (2006), as it was a direct proposition to the audience to participate and build their own narrative. That is, a narrative based on a story that had already been told by other media –consequences of the earthquake– but now from a new and original perspective.
I quickly realised that the platform was divided by those informative parts, with photos and text, and the dilemmas where I had to choose what my priorities and decisions would be if I was in power. The distinction between the journalistic article, written in a fresh and vivid style, and the challenges that I faced at the end of each chapter — “Building back better”, “A state without a state”, “The country outside”, “Open for business?” “Stay, leave return” and “The New Haiti” — made me create my own fictional story in the real Haitian scenario. My whole experience was driven by a user-centric dynamic, being in consonance with Deuze’s statement that individualized media consumption is one of the trends of the emerging new media ecology (2007, p. 247). Thus, the mix of “choose-your-own-adventure” questions with long texts, pictures, sounds — where I was the one deciding the amount of time and attention I dedicate to each element-, gave me the feeling of being actually cruising through Haiti. As a player I had a leading role, while the journalist-author became my expert guide. In consequence, we could argue that, indeed, “the professional identity of media work may be moving towards a more clearly articulated responsive and interactive position vis-à-vis publics” (Deuze, 2007, p. 258).
As in “Rebuilding Haiti”, the design and visuals of “Follow the Money 2” (see Figure 2) escape from traditional journalistic formats and instead resemble the clean and synthetic appearance of interactive infographics (Dick, 2013). Its design was friendly, quite pop and very intuitive The game started with a question: If you were in power, how would you use the funds for development? Again, I felt this kind of challenge that also the prior game provided: I want to do well but, nevertheless, I know that it is only a game that does not imply any real consequence. However, as I read and made choices, the veracity of the facts and figures presented struck my mind, reminding me that too many people in the world live under extreme poverty and hunger, that, in Africa, AIDS and malaria still cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people every year or that life expectancy in Mozambique is only 50 years old. Both newsgames are based upon real and powerful stories, complex data and global dynamics that questioned my previous opinions and conditioned my decisions during the gameplay. Hence, “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2” organise and convey “serious” and “hard” content in a way that this becomes easy to digest. They build an individualised and unique experience for each user. They adapt development journalism to the networked society of the current “Ludic Century” (Zimmerman, 2014), and put information at play through the use of serious games.
Engaging in complexity, taking choices when there is no right choice
My first impression when I started playing “Follow the Money 2” was that the game was easy and simple; apparently, the only thing I had to do was to distribute the 28 wads of cash — representing the 280 millions Italy spent in 2013 on international cooperation — among eight different areas: hunger and extreme poverty, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, fight against aids, malaria and other diseases, environmental sustainability and global partnership for development. The eight topics, each one depicted by an illustrated icon, were displayed on the screen in a way that all of them seemed to have an equal relevance. Then, I discovered that clicking on each icon a new panel appeared, providing a short description and more data about that topic. Thanks to this information I realized that, for instance, “Global partnership for development” could be more worthy to spend money on that what I had previously thought, as it promotes an international fairer trade system or a more equal access to medicines. Trying to be fair and smart, I assigned the wads of cash and clicked the button to continue the game, the next step was to select to which of the 20 priority countries for the Italian cooperation I would send the aid.
As one can imagine, at that point, my first impression that the game was easy had already vanished completely. Indeed, the mechanics of the game were simple, but the decisions I had to take were everything but “easy”; therefore, my engagement and attention level increased. Again, all the information was displayed in a way that I had to be the active agent interacting with it and exploring all the game’s options. My experience playing “Rebuilding Haiti” was also characterised by the difficulty of making the right choices in order to rebuild the country and seeking long term benefits. With every dilemma I faced, either being in the position of the head of the country, the mayor of Port-au-Prince or an important foreign investor, I struggled trying to apply my common sense and the information provided by the article. However, the result was always closer to disappointment: “Well, you might have to lower your ambitions. In Haiti, most of the international aid has benefited to… donor countries” or “Bad news: the country’s healthcare system is inefficient, the administrative delays are despairing, not to mention that Port-au-Prince’s University Hospital has been completely destroyed by the earthquake”, were some of the answers I received after my consciousness decisions.
Therefore, “Follow the Money 2” and “Rebuilding Haiti, prompted an attitude in me of (2003) “meditative play”, a term coined by the scholar Shuen-shing Lee (2003), meaning that the user develops a critical and conscious way of thinking while playing the game. Lee identified this characteristic in those “art games” which aim to “’show’ their message in action rather than ‘tell’ it in a non-interactive statement, an accomplishment made possible mainly by the anti-competitive twist of the you-never-win form.” (2003, para. 7) As shown above, the two newsgames I analyse happen to be unwinnable: although I tried to be concentrated and to play well, I discovered that there did not exist any particular or clear win-state. Nevertheless, at the end, one could say that the win-state actually is the fact of having engaged in this “meditative play” and having become “an off-gaming thinker” (Lee, 2003, para. 10) thanks to the continuously dilemmas I had to face. In short, using Lee’s words (2003): “I lose, therefore I think”.
New ways to involve a participative audience
I started playing both games ready to take on any challenge and predisposed to try my best in order to win the game. However, as I already mentioned, none of the two newsgames had a clear win-state, there were no features such as points or rankings. In the case of “Follow the Money 2”, there was the “reward” that, at the end of the game, one would be able to compare ones decisions with the average results of other users and discover which foreign affairs minister one would be (see Figure 3). Moreover I also had the possibility to share this result with my contacts on Facebook, Twitter or Google+. In the case of “Rebuilding Haiti”, where all my actions seemed to drive the country to disaster, the promise was that in the last chapter I would be told about the long-term consequences of my choices (see Figure 4). Thus, the reminder that, at the end, I would not lose or win but see the effects of all my actions, somehow, pushed me to continue reading, exploring, thinking and playing.
Usually, we associate the term “play” with “leisure” or “fun” (Raessens, 2014), nevertheless I have to say that neither playing “Follow the Money 2” or “Rebuilding Haiti” was actually fun. As outlined in the Conceptual framework and literature review, “play is not only characteristic of leisure, but also turns up in those domains that once were considered the opposite of play” (Raessens, 2014, p 94), like education and journalism. Thus, instead of providing a fun time, newsgames provide an original way of consuming journalistic information in a new exploratory manner. My experience was very different from the interaction with traditional feature articles but also differed from the amusement of playing videogames. What both newsgames did, was to confront me with real figures, facts and stories in a way that I could interact in an entertaining way with them. I had the freedom to build my own “adventure” through multiple choices in a virtual world made of fine illustrations, beautiful pictures and pleasant design. However, despite my freedom of movements, the ultimate result was always conditioned by the complex dynamics of the world, mimicked in the game design constructed by the producer.
As I said, “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2” were not what we commonly understand as fun, but still I got involved in them; they caught my attention and I went deep in each topic. In “Follow the Money 2” I engaged on the current situation of developing countries as well as on the different problems that need to be fought. In “Rebuilding Haiti”, each dilemma made me raise new questions and kept triggering my curiosity. Despite one has to take into account my prior interest as a researcher, in both cases I got deeply involved till the end because I had an active and central role, I was building my “own story” and, obviously, I wanted to know how it would end.
Hence, the newsgame format allowed me, as a player, to approach all the data and information in a completely new and original way. The clear mechanics of the game and the attractive design of both games, plus its inherent user-centric dynamics, caught my attention and kept it until the end. I did not just go through the information but I got immersed in it. Finally, recalling what Shafer (1998, p. 42–43) points out about development journalism, what differentiates this type reporting from other journalism models is its pragmatic and purposeful nature, as it is in its core to raise awareness and empower citizens. Therefore, in the current social and cultural context, it seems logical for development journalists to create newsgames like “Follow the Money 2” or “Rebuilding Haiti”. All in all, development reporting seeks to engage the audience in complex topics and to have impact. As I experienced and showed in this analysis, newsgames can have the ability to involve the audience through the unique characteristics of gameplay, which I continue exploring in the following section.
Interviews with Emanuele Bompan and Florent Maurin
In order to investigate the motivations leading some journalists to create newsgames about global development stories and also to explore newsgames’ status according to media professionals, I interviewed Emanuele Bompan, author of “Follow the Money 2” and Florent
Maurin, author of “Rebuilding Haiti”. Bompan is an Italian journalist with a strong background in environmental and development issues, and in 2013 he already received an IDR grant for his project “Follow the Money”. On the other hand, Maurin is also a journalist but, moreover, he is specialised in newsgames production. Thus, the different profiles of my two interviewees plus my previous experience playing the games they created helped bringing more nuanced and diverse answers and opinions about newsgames as an innovative journalistic media to the surface, especially, concerning the cases on global development topics.
In this thesis I claim that newsgames can be considered an example of Deuze’s liquid journalism (2006 and 2008): a natural answer of media professionals to the current participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006) and to the ludification of culture argued by scholars like Raessens (2014). Thus, in order to better understand how and why newsgames are used and seen within the journalistic world, I asked Maurin and Bompan about their reasons to create “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2”. The interviews (see Methodology) were conducted via Skype and covered a wide range of questions: from the concrete production process of “Follow the Money 2” or “Rebuilding Haiti”, to more general questions about the acceptance of newsgames in newsrooms or about the ethical concerns newsgames can arise. Therefore, in this analysis I put Bompan and Maurin’s answers in perspective and I approach them through the theoretical framework previously developed. The section is divided into three main topics: the reasons that back up the creation of newsgames, the inconvenient or problematic aspects of newsgames and the new working routines and practical issues they imply.
Why to build a newsgame: exploiting interactivity and providing unique experiences
As outlined in previous sections, one of the major hallmarks of newsgames is their interactive nature; in the case of our newsgames this interactivity is understood as “content interactivity” or “medium interactivity” (Chung, 2007, p. 45). Hence the exploitation of interactivity in conveying the story was pointed by Bompan and Maurin as a big reason why to create a newsgame. As Chung expounds, “the use of interactive features on the internet has the potential to trigger a paradigm shift in mass media by challenging the traditional unidirectional flow of messages through features that provide bi-directional or even multidirectional communication” (2007, p. 43). Newsgames configure a virtual world where the user adopts the main role and has the freedom to explore the contents on his or her own. In my autoethnographic analysis I showed how I received and consumed the information about the current situation in Haiti and about the Italian cooperation priorities, basically, through constant dilemmas that I had to face and react to. Maurin stressed that “the real advantage of the Internet was not multimedia, but interactivity” and, in this sense, he believes it is natural for journalists to learn from the strategies and resources used in the videogame industry, because “they have been thinking on how to involve users for more than 40 years”.
Indeed, journalists have always struggled to get the audience interested and involved in topics that are important to fuel the public debate which is needed in democratic societies, but difficult to convey (Habermas, 1996). Newsgames, due to their engaging potential and their fit within the current participatory and ludic culture (Jenkins, 2006 and Raessens 2014), seem to suitable approach to facilitate this aim. Using Bompan’s words “newsgames can make interesting topics that otherwise would be ignored by the audience”. As I experienced, “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2” are good examples of how “hard news” can catch the attention of a wide range of users, even if these do not have a particular interest or relation to development topics. Bompan also notes newsgames’ suitability to disclose difficult issues, as they can convey complex information in an easy, short, playable manner. Newsgames give feedback to the player’s actions within the virtual simulation built by the journalist, with its sets of rules and dynamics (Michael & Chen, 2005, p. 43), thus facilitating the understanding of the story through game rethorics (Sicart, 2008). Yet, newsgames also become a highly “sharable” product within social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, as they trigger the player’s empathy and connect with the audience by giving them an entertaining different experience.
As we see, journalists like Bompan or Maurin, are becoming increasingly aware of the potentialities of newsgames. They know that audiences are changing and thus want to take advantage of ICT to give the public singular content. Newsgames can show different perspectives over a news story; they perform as a transmedia narrative (Jenkins, 2003) that complements other media platforms in a new and unique way. Maurin explained that creating a newsgame is not like “writing a linear story, you are designing a system and you have to analyse which are the different actors of your system, (…) the relationships between them and the actions that could take place”. As he summed up, “when a text is a linear discourse, the game is a non-linear discussion”. Therefore, as both interviewees agreed, newsgames are optimal to talk about science, international relations, geopolitics, economy or global development in a different and effective way. Playing “Rebuilding Haiti”, I had to deal with certain economic, political, even with corruption, dynamics that rule and shape the world. Thus, I immersed myself in the Haitian reality and through an interactive process I understood pieces of the complicated enterprise of rebuilding a country. In this sense, Bogost is right when stating that “everyone seems to agree that games are powerful. And that power is mysterious and wild, like black magic. You don’t have to like games to want a piece of it” (2011, para. 15).
In his project, Maurin did not only want to prompt the interest and involve the audience in the story, but he also had the aim of challenging the users as we saw in the previous autoethnographic analysis: “our game is like a trap, we want people to lose and to take bad decisions in order to make them think”. Finally, the growing adoption of all kinds of online games among a range of population that goes beyond the classical young audience targeted by the videogame industry, gives to newsgames more and more room to be accepted. “Gaming is really present in our society, not only among young people. When you are in the metro you can see all kinds of people, also old men and women playing ‘World of Warcraft’, ‘Farmville’ or whatever” noted Bompan, whose targeted audience for “Follow the Money 2” had to be as general and wide as the audience of La Stampa.
Concerns and downsides of the game
Newsgames are sometimes accused of being too frivolous and to simplify reality (Burton, 2006; Bogost et al., 2010; Foxman, 2015) but, although Bompan and Maurin acknowledged that their games are not perfect, they argued against these critiques. They explained that they see newsgames as any other medium or format, as a video or a written article, which due to its characteristics can be more or less suitable depending on the story. Indeed, as a matter of fact, the risk of oversimplifying reality exists in every single journalistic piece. In this sense, they coincided with the documentary producer Raney Aronson-Rath’s (2014) point of view that the debate should not be around which form is better than the others but about finding the right form for each information. Again, in the liquidity defended by Deuze, the media landscape is heterogonous and in constant change, hence binary oppositions such as those of “hard” and “soft news” and here I add between good or bad media forms, become flawed and irrelevant (Deuze, 2003, p. 458). Instead, what matters now is to develop the best form for each story and purpose. For instance, Bompan saw in the newsgame format the way to convey data on the Italian development cooperation in an engaging and playful way and, moreover, the gaming format allowed him to gather all the user’s opinions about that specific topic. In the case of Maurin he highlighted that “sometimes one media will be stronger than the other. In the case of ‘Rebuilding Haiti’, if you want to remove false thoughts about a certain situation, to use a game is a very good idea”.
On the other hand, concerning the critique that newsgames are too trivial to deal with certain serious topics, Maurin argued that this is because we tend to associate games with fun, even though he never attempts to make his newsgames fun: “I don’t think you have to be fun when you design a game; I’ve played lots of games that are not fun at all but from where I get very interesting and powerful experiences”. This point relates to the open debate among the whole spectrum of serious games about whether or not do these games have to include fun (Michael & Chen, 2005, p. 20–21). However, scholars and newsgame producers do coincide in stressing that, what is important in newsgames is the accuracy and “realism” with which they create the simulation. Newsgame makers give agency to the user to interact freely with the platform and its content; however, it is important to note that the author “creates a simulation where he or she can greatly control the results of interaction” (Treanor & Mateas, 2009, p. 4).
Both Bompan and Maurin, admitted that one of the main downsides of producing newsgames is the fact that, compared with other more conventional formats, they are time consuming and require higher budgets that not all the newsrooms can afford. Thus, “Follow the Money 2” and “Rebuilding Haiti” would have hardly been possible without the funding of the IDR programme. Besides, it is always difficult to predict if an interactive feature like a newsgame will be profitable and well accepted within the audience, as Maurin put it, “when you make something interactive, even if you are the best designer in the world, you never know how the user will react and use it”. This is due to the core essence of games; in newsgames the reader is not only a reader but also an active user who is in command, and whose response is always unpredictable, as is the attitude of the new “citizen-consumer”, critical and demanding (Deuze, 2008).
Therefore, according to Maurin and scholars like Bogost (et al. 2010; 2011), if games are not widely used by media companies is not only because they are expensive to make, but, essentially, because they require an important mind shift both from the journalist and the audience sides. “I’m not sure that the costs are the only thing that impedes newsrooms to make newsgames, I think it´s also a question of culture, of knowing what game design is, of being willing to try new things and to innovate”, said Maurin. In order to produce newsgames, journalists have to place themselves in a “more modest position”, without being afraid of committing mistakes and accepting the proactive role of the audience. Using Bogost’s words “doing real, meaningful things with games is hard and risky, but it offers considerable reward, reward that responds to the underlying shift away from the logic of industrialization that gamification takes for granted” (2011, para. 62). Moreover, the public also has to expand their common understanding of games and approach newsgames as any other traditional news delivery medium.
New production issues: beyond the journalist’s skills
It can be easily gleaned that the creation of newsgames does not only entail a different attitude approach but it also implies new production routines, new values and variables that need to be taken into account. As my interviewees explained, when building a newsgame, the information conveyed — like the problems Haiti is facing or the priorities of the Italian development cooperation — is as important as the way in which you convey it. Using the three dimensions distinguished by the game scholar Espen Aarseth (2003) in his tripartite model, apart from the actual news story, in a newsgame, the player’s actions and goals, the game rules and the design and fictional content are the other side of the coin. A game needs to be manageable and playable but a newsgame also has to be informational.
Therefore, Bompan identified four main issues that had to be constantly balanced and debated during the production process, “most of our discussions were to find out the right duration of the game, the amount of fun, the quality and the information that it would have”. In the case of “Rebuilding Haiti”, Maurin and his team, had clear since the very beginning that they would separate and distinguish fiction or game from information, “we decided that there would be no doubt about what was related to the game and what classic reporting work was”. Besides, Maurin and Bompan coincided in stating that newsgames have to be very intuitive and easy to play, so a wider range of people, even if they have never played a videogame, can feel related to them.
Aesthetics is also a key issue when creating a newsgame. Maurin used different colours and graphic styles to separate game or fiction from report and, from Bompan’s point of view, a good graphic design is crucial to make the game, thus its topic, attractive to the audience, “graphics are absolutely fundamental to appeal to people, nowadays you have to struggle with this orgy of online content, so you have to make it sexy, you have to make it playable, you have to make it good looking”. Hence, a visually attractive and original outward can also help stories about global development to become more appealing and engaging. Consequently, the variables that have to be addressed in the production process go beyond the quality of the journalistic content. In consequence, the team to create a newsgame becomes bigger and heterogeneous, as this usually includes graphic designers and game developers. Indeed, some newsrooms are starting to give more importance to their own multimedia and interactive production team, but in the two cases studied in this thesis neither Bompan nor Maurin were part of any newsroom but contractors. Deuze (2005, p. 451) already identified the necessity of introducing teamwork and knowledge-sharing dynamics in the newsrooms as one of the challenges of the convergence culture in the media industry, an industry traditionally organised in separate departments and individual experts.
This thesis explores the employment of newsgames as a medium to convey complex topics in development journalism. The use of playful and entertaining elements for journalistic purposes has a tradition that goes as far back as the first crosswords that still appear in printed newspapers. Newsgames however have established new journalistic approaches which are in their early stages and need to be further researched. The main purpose of my study is to find an answer to the following question: how and why do some journalists employ newsgames to disclose complex information on global development topics? To come to an answer, I first outlined the current social and cultural context and intended to define newsgames as specific types of serious games through a literature review. In a second part of the thesis I presented a case study analysis, which illustrated my statements and raised various concerns concerning the user experience as well as newsgames’ potentialities, downsides and new production issues.
Throughout the thesis I showed how the creations of newsgames can be considered an indication that “the media industries understand that culture is becoming more participatory, that the rules are being rewritten and relationships between producers and their audiences are in flux” (Jenkins, 2007, p. 35). However, it must be noted that, so far, the use of newsgames is still an exception rather than a norm and thus, “Rebuilding Haiti” and “Follow the Money 2” are seen as innovative, even experimental, outputs. At the same time, I argued that newsgames can be explained as a logical product born from the current convergence culture (Jenkins, 2006), as they naturally merge in today’s heterogeneous and dynamic media ecology (Deuze, 2008) and embody the new user-centric paradigm that creative industries are trying to embrace. In consequence, newsgames can become compelling media for those who want to convey development topics to a broad audience in an engaging way.
Ultimately, the answer to my initial research question can be found in the immersive capacity of games, the interactivity they provide and its ability to simulate systems — with its actors, actions and consequences — copied from the real world. Indeed, singular characteristics shared in the sphere of serious games. And, because of the mentioned aspects, newsgames fit within a networked society thirsty of entertainment and used to deal with game elements in non playful situations (Dragona, 2014). Therefore my interviewees confirmed that they created a newsgame just because they considered that its distinctive qualities would serve their general purposes of engaging a broad audience in the story and convey it in the most powerful way. Newsgames have a potential to depict the complexity of a globalised world and give the user the chance to experiment with topics and scenarios that otherwise he or she would just ignore. All this was elucidated in the answers of Bompan and Maurin and, moreover, nuanced in my autoethnographic experience.
In a context of convergence culture, newsgames can be defined as those new transmedia narratives defined by Jenkins (2006), since they provide unique experiences to the audience that could not be given through other traditional media. Indeed, Maurin released “Rebuilding Haiti” five years after the earthquake, that means that the story had already been told countless times in media. However, his project offered something else, a new approach that any other format could provide. The same goes for “Follow the Money 2”. They are both examples of the liquid journalism identified by Deuze (2006 and 2008), a journalism which is able to reflect the new media ecology and the “unparalleled degree of human agency and user control in our lived experience of mediated reality” (2008, p. 860).
Newsgames can seem promising for development journalists but, as showed, they also have drawbacks and present new challenges. They are relatively expensive to build and their production process is longer compared with other traditional formats but, eventually, what will push or slow down its production by media companies is their degree of acceptation within journalists and audience. Moreover, one can still observe ongoing debates regarding how much fun serious games should allow for or on how ethical it is for journalism to transform real stories — many times stories of suffering — into games. In this thesis, I gave an initial overview of contemporary academic and professional concerns that are rising around newsgames, in combination with empirically based insight on the use of newsgames on development journalism. Since my paper is based on a qualitative approach and focused on a very specific case study, I consider that further and more extensive research is needed. This should be approached not only from a journalism studies perspective, but also from a media culture and game studies perspective. Newsgames are a polyhedral and promising field, both for scholars and journalists. In the same way that educational games will not replace traditional lectures or seminars, one can also affirm that newsgames will not replace other more traditional formats, but complement them.
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*This online version of the MA Media Culture (Maastricht University) internship thesis “Pushing the boundaries of journalism: How newsgames explain development topics” is partly incomplete. Elements like the List of Figures, footnotes and Appendix are not included here.