Video games that let you play with your news

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

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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.”

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.

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“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.

The other big category of news games includes more informative, journalistic titles, such as how to manage finances in a recession to running a campaign office during the 2008 election. Bogost, whose company, Persuasive Games, has developed such games for CNN, MTV, and The New York Times, is still working on a term for this type.

The trend of using news games hasn’t taken off with many news outlets, says Eric Newton, vice president for the Knight Foundation Journalism Program. But they’ve grown so popular with gamers that it’s just a matter of time, he says.

“There hasn’t been a breakthrough in terms of a digital news game the way that the crossword puzzle was a breakthrough for the daily newspaper 100 years ago,” he says. “That hasn’t happened yet, but it will.”

The Knight Foundation, Mr. Newton says, sees news games as possible moneymakers for struggling journalism organizations – a way to reconnect with their audiences as more Americans play video games in their free time.

To embrace this notion, last month the Knight Foundation gave out its first award for the best news game. The honor went to Impact Games, in Pittsburgh, Pa., for its series of games titled “Play the News.” Since 2006, the company has released 127 free games where players could learn about anything from the O.J. Simpson trial to the 2008 debates between vice presidential candidates. As the games grew more popular, CEO Eric Brown hoped that a news organization would buy the series. No luck so far, he says.

One of Impact’s more successful games, “Peacemaker,” a $19.95 title based on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, has been sold in 70 countries, according to Mr. Brown. The game places players in one of two roles – either as the Palestinian president or Israeli prime minister – and asks them to make decisions that lead to different outcomes using information and images from news organizations.

Games such as “Peacemaker” fall into the larger genre of “serious games,” which revolve around teachable moments, but not necessarily the news.

Serious games have been “around for half a century,” says Suzanne Seggerman, president and cofounder of Games for Change, a nonprofit organization that advocates games that promote social change. Ms. Seggerman notes that the military has used serious games to train soldiers for decades.

Interest in serious games has grown over the past five years, notes Ethan Watrall, associate professor in the department of telecommunications, information studies, and media at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Mr. Watrall’s school even offers a master’s degree program for serious game design, where students have developed games based on the life of epidemiologist John Snow and how to play music on the steel pan.

News games, Seggerman says, “support the democratic process by revealing truths ... or allowing us to understand a current event better.”

Seggerman’s site, GamesForChange, lists a few news games that try to promote social change. Among them is “September 12, a Toy World,” a news game developed by Gonzalo Frasca to educate people about the effects of terrorism and the effort to quash it. The video game, which can never be won or lost, takes place in a Middle Eastern marketplace where players must decide to either bomb terrorists and face civilian casualties or continue to face multiplying foes.

Another featured news game, “Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City,” developed by Global Kids and Gamepill, focuses on how residents and the government coped after the 2005 storm hit. Players walk through New Orleans after the hurricane, communicating with neighbors and reporters to find a family member.

Though news games may never reach the same status as popular commercial video games such as “Grand Theft Auto” or “Halo,” Bogost says “there is an opportunity for video-game developers to see the news media as a creative, interesting outlet.”

And even small designers make a profit – most likely through the same online ads on which other websites rely.
Just look at “Sock and Awe,” the Flash game that lets players toss a shoe at the nimble President Bush.

Developer Alex Tew sold the game to the Internet company Furba for about $8,000. Since its launch, more than 94 million pixilated loafers have landed on target, according to the ad-supported website.

But even with success stories like this, “I don’t think anyone has the misconception they are going to strike it rich,” says Bogost. Blockbuster news games require the right event, the right game style, and the right appeal.

The “Swinefighter” team never aimed for riches. Mr. Gomila and Mr. Akhund decided early on not to profit from their hit, instead placing a Red Cross donation button on the site.

They see other value in creating news games. Besides public­ity for the programming duo, the “Swinefighter” game provided comedic relief for an otherwise bad-news story, Gomila says. In fact, the goofy game attracted its largest audience in Mexico.

“It was a catastrophe in ways, but I think there’s comedy around every single event,” Gomila says. “If we just have bad news all the time, it’s not really fun.”

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