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Video games that let you play with your news

Peace talks, Sully’s landing, even the economy spawn a buzzy genre of games.

By Amy FarnsworthStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2009

Video-game designer Gonzalo Frasca (left) playfully introduces his news game ‘September 12: a Toy World,’ aimed at educating players about the effects of terrorism. He was at a video-gaming conference at The New School in New York City late last month.

Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Two weeks after the first swine flu case made headlines, video-game developers Jude Gomila and Immad Akhund unleashed a viral outbreak of their own: an online game poking fun at the much-hyped “epigdemic.”

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Their game, “Swinefighter,” lets players send a doctor, armed with a massive syringe, around the world to take on flying green pigs. It’s a silly spin on the news, but the game’s popularity has grown quickly. Since its release in April, “Swinefighter” has been played more than a million times, thanks to fans spreading the word through social-networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Swinefighter,” is just one of many online or mobile games inspired by current events. This increasingly popular genre, often called news games, has played off topics as diverse as rebuilding the economy, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s successful landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, and the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at President George W. Bush.

“Games like these generate buzz,” says Kate Connally, vice president of AddictingGames, an independent gaming site that has developed numerous news games including “Hero on the Hudson,” which reenacts Mr. Sullenberger’s landing. “While these games are entertaining, they also inform, and in some cases, educate.”

Ian Bogost, video-game researcher and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, has been studying news games for the past nine months with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. There are many ways to tag news games, he says, but two emerging types have gained the most traction.

There are “tabloid games” – quick, simple, news-driven games often designed in the easy-to-learn program Adobe Flash.

Tabloid games sometimes require a knowledge of current events to get the joke, but they rarely teach the player anything. Really, such games are designed simply as “traffic grabbers” to garner publicity and make money, he says.

One of Bogost’s earliest memories of a tabloid game came shortly after the 2006 World Cup. An opportunistic game designer turned soccer star Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt heard round the world into an amusing ball-bashing blitz.