JEEcamp thoughts on data journalism

Information VisualizationI spent some time talking to Martin Belam (@currybet) about data journalism and the importance (or otherwise) of journalists learning to code.

He said, as he’s said before, that it’s more important for journalists to know whether something is or isn’t possible than for us to necessarily be able to do it ourselves.

And for working journalists whose day to day job doesn’t carry a coding requirement already – and particularly those of us who are lucky enough to be in a workplace where there are developers or programmers who can take our ideas and make them flesh (ie. not me), he’s almost certainly right.

Those skills are becoming more and more important. With the birth of data.gov.uk and the increasingly open approach to information that the new coalition government is likely to take, sifting and analysing data to find the stories is going to be a vital skill for a lot of journalists.

We need to know our way around a spreadsheet. We need to be able to spot patterns in data and understand not only what they mean but also how we can use them to reveal stories that are not only relevant but useful.

We need to know where our skills can get us. We need to know our capabilities and our limits – and, crucially, we must be aware of what we don’t know. That’s not just knowing that there are holes in our knowledge, but knowing the shape of those holes so that we can try to get our problems a little closer to a solution.

Journalism is about asking the right questions. We research stories before we interview subjects so that we can ask pertinent questions whose answers will illuminate the subject. We need to be able to do the same thing with our data – we need to know what questions to ask and how, so that even if we can’t make the tools ourselves we can hand over the task to someone else without asking the impossible or wasting their time.

But most of the time, certainly for journalists on regional papers and I would wager for many in other areas, those people who know how to make the tools just don’t exist. I have friends who code, but I can’t ask them for a favour every time I want to create a news app, or diff two versions of a stack of documents, or visualise a complex dataset, or tell the story of 100 people’s losses from an investment fund going bust in a way that conveys both the scale and the humanity of the problem.

Regional journalists work on hundreds of stories that could be made vastly easier or more beautiful or more accessible through a touch of computer work (spreadsheets, maps, things that aren’t quite coding but sort of almost are and look like it to the untrained eye). A few of us can create those additions; the rest just write the story, and our papers and websites are poorer for it.

We work on a few stories – and the number is increasing – that are perfect for news apps, web coding, multimedia packages or other more complex solutions that very, very few of us can create. But no one else will do it for us.

On top of that many of us struggle with inflexible content management systems that penalise or make it literally impossible to display data-driven work online. Faced with that problem, some budding computer-assisted-reporters give up before they’ve even started.

So I’m not going to stop learning Python. It’s not a complete solution to the problem – for that we need real, systemic change so that the businesses we work for all value data work, understand its increasing relevance, reflect on current practice and support training journalists to do an evolving job.

But for me, it means that in the future I might be able to create better stories, automate processes within series or campaigns or multiple follow-up stories, make my job easier and make a better experience for the reader all at the same time.

At least, until we all have newsroom developers.

Home Sweet Home: Playing in the streets

Evening News: Home Sweet Home versionThere’s a cake shop next door, a giant hamster over the road and soldiers are fighting zombies on the roof. MARY HAMILTON welcomes you to the new-look Evening News.

Breaking news: the postman has delivered a letter.

That’s how most of the news comes in to the Home Sweet Home offices of the Evening News. It’s delivered by a tall man in short trousers, a flat cap and socks, who leaves the envelopes leaning up against the front canopy of the 20cm cardboard building.

I built the office myself, from flat-pack cutout to fully-fledged busy office building complete with newspaper bundles and Plasticene journalists, sharing glue, card and colouring pens with neighbours and strangers.

I even recreated Bernard Meadows’ eyecatching bronze ball sculptures, carefully rolling and squeezing yellow moulding clay and poking it gingerly with a pencil, before giving the rest of my clay to an excited six-year-old who wanted to make bees for her garden.

It is part of a performance – or perhaps an exhibition – called Home Sweet Home, the brainchild of Goldsmiths graduates Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe, in which participants build their own city from flat-pack parts and then experience its evolution as it fills with people playing along.

Watching the tiny town sprout from a black and white canvas into a riot of colour in the extravagant surroundings of Blackfriars Hall was both surreal and sublime, as bizarre buildings and peculiar personalities developed thanks to the imagination of neighbours.

But when the letters began to arrive the town took on a new and magical dimension, with stories, greetings, and feats of collective imagination all emerging thanks to the postal service and the presenters at the radio station.

My letter reads: “Dear Editor, An escaped swan ate my shoes!  Please put it in your newspaper! Yours, Joz Norris, No. 188”.

Immediately I spring into action. I post a breaking news update on the billboard outside the office – crafted from matchsticks, card and successive layers of paper posters – and dash off a return letter asking for more detail about the attack.

Over time, petitions spring up on the community notice board. A campaign to build a public swimming pool gathers pace. Disgruntled residents try to force an election. A little girl who runs a flower shop donates a sponge-and-cocktail-stick floral display to my office.

A small zombie outbreak spreads and threatens other city properties, so the Evening News drafts in a local militia to fight them off. Other businesses welcome the zombies, selling them vintage clothes and inviting them in to a night club.

And I get another letter from Joz saying that he’s bought another pair of Doc Martens but he doesn’t think he’ll be able to look a swan in the eye ever again.

The whole experience is a testament to the power of play. Adults and children alike tap into the storytelling possibilities of the town, expressing their personalities through their houses and opening them up as the community evolves around them.

While some people come along, build houses and leave, those who stay build stories around their houses, and the whole community evolves and changes as the project progresses.

A giant hamster in the back garden of one house is asked to join the Spiegeltent as a performer. A few hours later he has moved to the circus with signs advertising his upcoming performances.

I spend the weekend doing what journalists do: asking questions, writing down stories, monitoring the notice board and answering letters, preparing for a burst of activity on Sunday night as I put the Home Sweet Home edition of the Evening News together.

The following day, when I return to Blackfriars Hall with a stack of miniature newspapers under my arm, the Spiegeltent has disappeared, replaced by a giant hamster run with tunnels, hoops and a swimming pool.

I arrive at the office to discover someone has stuck a giant red ball to my door, in imitation of the large inflatable ball currently touring Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. They are planted on the church, the fire station and the city hall, too.

For a short time this miniature cardboard community has been incredibly real. It has had action, politics, feuds, joy, fear and anger, and the people who created it have told hundreds of tiny stories that were, for a while, incredibly important, as they literally changed the way their city was constructed.

As the houses were dismantled and returned to their owners, I felt deeply privileged to have been present at the birth and the death of Norwich’s smallest suburb, and to have been able to tell just a few of the stories the residents created.

A version of this article and its accompanying miniature newspaper
were originally published in the Evening News
(www.eveningnews24.co.uk).

It’s Alive! Fostering emergent stories in Zombie

For those who don’t know, on Saturday I and a team of others ran the seventh Zombie LARP game. We’re hoping the next major event will be a big leap up in size, in ambition and in attendance. But before that happens I want to note down a few of our important principles – and important problems we need to solve.

What on earth is Zombie?

First, though, an explanation. Zombie is a live-action simulation game where people take it in turns to try to survive in an industrial complex overrun by the living dead. We run several scenarios over the course of the game, with a different group of people “surviving” in each one. When players aren’t trying to get out alive, they’re pretending to be zombies so that someone else can have a turn.

The game is a sort-of bastard child of traditional live-action roleplay (LARP) systems, fast-paced video games like Left for Dead, and the kinds of cowboys and Indians/summer water pistol games you played when you were a kid. The combat resolution system is based on Nerf guns (players shoot zombies) and a low-contact mechanic (zombies touch players on upper arms to represent biting, mauling etc.)

If you’ve read this and you still have no idea what we do, please leave a comment to tell me. I’m trying to improve my ability to explain the game to people who have never played a LARP or a video game before, so the experience would be useful.

How are we telling stories in Zombie?

Video games almost always have plot. Sometimes that plot is stretched over 50 or more insanely complex hours; sometimes it’s over in minutes so you can get on with killing things. Sometimes the storytelling is so deeply entrenched in the game that it’s inseperable from it; sometimes it’s abstracted from it so that the gameplay and the overarcing story are essentially separate entities. And sometimes the plot is about football.

Almost all LARPs are plot oriented. Some big games have top-down storytelling systems where world-changing events are affected by the big players in the game, while others have grass-roots player-oriented plot systems that allow even the most minor player characters to affect the universe.

In Zombie, plot takes a back seat to gameplay. Players might have twenty minutes at most to survive, and most of them won’t. That time seems a lot longer than it really is thanks to the game pacing and the adrenalin (much like the experience of riding a rollercoaster) but long-term character development is not an option, and neither is sticking around to watch the game world evolve. Zombie does have a wider plot system and the players can and do affect what happens, but when you’re running screaming down a corridor pursued by the undead trying to eat you, it’s impossible to take that in.

As refs and storytellers, we do several things to try and work with the game elements to make the game story rewarding. Most of these were worked out through trial and error and getting it badly wrong before we worked out how to get it right.

  1. Broad brushstrokes.We talk in bold black-and-white hyperbole. Every run is all-or-nothing, do-or-die. Players are given missions that affect the fate of the wider game world, so their actions carry weight and the game retains a sense of urgency.
  2. Metaplot and wider world. Zombie has an overarching plot framework that makes it possible to slot game events into place. There are several organisations in the game’s world – a shady scientific corporation, an armed resistance unit – and the real-time games take place within a framework created by the actions of those organisations.
  3. Sandboxing. Runs in Zombie are set up to be sandboxes where the players can take many different routes to the goal. We have set pieces for players to encounter – a room full of injured survivors, or a super-powerful zombie intent on taking them down – but those are never static events that play out in a pre-defined way. They are elements of the game world that add authenticity to the run without scripting players’ actions or requiring them to act in accordance with anything.
  4. Emergent stories.This is a common concept in video game design but in my experience is used much less outside specialist gaming environments. It refers to narratives that are uncovered or revealed during gameplay, and which require input from players to understand and piece together. For Zombie, I commonly use the term to describe stories about moments in the game that are unpredictable and unpredicted, that form unique and structured narratives, and that are the result of player interaction with their environment.

    And this is the important one. We try and make sure that after the chaos of the run, players have their own, personal stories to tell. We give them space beforehand to construct back story for themselves – encouraging team action – and we give them briefing time and attention afterwards to help them construct individual and group narratives about what happened. We try to give them tools and communities in which to tell those stories, we respond to them and retell them and incorporate them into the structure of the game.

Some stories filter out and fall. Others become local legends – the tale of the player who leapt six feet over a group of zombies only to later be mauled to death in a dead end, or the player who hid from the zombies successfully for twenty minutes before his mobile phone went off, alerting them to his presence (he died shouting “Now is not a good time!”). Last night one player managed to obliterate about 40 zombies with a heroic show of power – that story too will be permanently recorded in the mythology and mythos of the game. We give people awards for creating brilliant stories – often those awards are nothing but a shout out, a retelling of their story and a biscuit or a sticker, but they carry value and people strive to obtain them.

What’s so good about emergent stories?

Zombie is an activity that, at heart, is very difficult to share. It’s designed and conceived as a completely immersive experience while you’re playing, making it very hard to film video or take pictures. Backchannel chat, feedback and social sharing in real time are impossible. Very few images or films survive from our early events (though a couple of Youtube videos do get a steady stream of views and bring in occasional new interest three years later).

But even in the first game, our players found a way to share their experiences. They told stories to each other and to their friends, passing on their favourite experiences orally. Almost everything we’ve done with our storytelling framework since then has focussed on creating the brilliant moments that make those stories, and encouraging people to tell them.

In planning meetings we make lists of “moments of awesome” that will be memorable if they work right, things that will stick in the mind. We put single zombies in weird situations just in case a player stumbles across them. We make tableaux, design interesting characters for players to meet and memorable situations for them to meander into.

We try not to dictate the stories. More often than not they happen organically. We can’t make the player team split up and get lost; we can’t force someone to go to incredible lengths to avoid in-character death; we can’t ever guarantee that what we do will be the focus of player attention. More often than not our efforts simply go to create a better atmosphere for these experiences to occur. We make it easier, but it’s the players who make it work.

And we can’t dictate how the players ought to tell stories. We try to give them as many routes as possible online, both by creating our own community area and by using Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser extent) to curate and collect and encourage. Stories like this are ephemeral, and while we want people to tell them and we want a long-lasting record, we know we can’t rely on ever having one.

Many non-gaming events rely on video and images for a record. Increasingly, conventions and similar (relatively passive) events are relying on backchannel chat and the wider analysis of that conversation to provide useful data and a lasting record of what occurred. For us, the record lies in memory and in oral channels that are hard to replicate online – because of the immersive nature of the experience along with various technical issues, it’s impossible to get an idea of “what it’s like to be at Zombie” from any one medium. But when our players tell their emergent stories, that has immense value for us. It’s the best marketing possible because it comes with a direct endorsement and genuine enthusiasm. It’s an elusive currency but it’s vital to our survival and it’s been integral to our growth.

There are four main areas of uncertainty for me that arise from our approach, with questions that I don’t yet know how to answer. They are:

  1. How do we continue to foster personal, individual experiences and therefore stories while scaling our game upwards? If there are 180 players instead of 60, how does that affect our model?
  2. How can we encourage people to create and share content online that resonates with their emergent stories without sacrificing our immersive in-game experience? We already have teams going in with cameramen to film them, but the footage is necessarily low-quality and shaky and never reflects the full experience. How can we depict the game in ways that encourage emotional response and act as anchors for emergent stories in the same way that text can?
  3. How can this model apply to other events? How does it fit with (un)conferences and industry events? Networking events? Rallies? Fetes and carnivals? Riots and demonstrations? Is this another way of looking at and describing oral history? Or does this work to foster, encourage, document and curate emergent stories have journalistic potential?

If you have any suggestions for answers, or any more questions, please share them in the comments.

Eulogy: old friend Xbox

Today I am in mourning for my xbox 360. After 4 years of long service it finally red ringed last night while I was trying to play my first proper sidequest on Mass Effect 2.

I feel a need to mark its passing somehow. I bought it way back in spring 2006 if memory serves – it was a first generation machine, obnoxiously noisy, occasionally buggy, and lacking an HDMI port.

While other people swapped broken consoles constantly thanks to Microsoft’s poor performance – I have friends who went through 4 360s in a year thanks to the dreaded red ring – mine soldiered on quite cheerfully. It survived 6 house moves – including going from Newcastle to Norwich wrapped in T-shirts in a suitcase on the train. It saw me through relationships ending, through graduation and a career change and my NCTJ prelims. It saw me married.

When thinking about major time periods in my life, I can link them still to the games I was playing at the time. All, or almost all, Xbox. Second year of university, wrapped up in work and writing constantly – Oblivion. Applying for jobs after uni – Guitar Hero 2. Breaking up with a long-term partner – Assassin’s Creed. NCTJ course – Portal, Braid, Fallout 3.

And looking back it’s striking how often I played out the conflicts and themes in meatspace life through gaming. In periods of intense factual learning I gravitated towards puzzle games with neat solutions; when I felt I couldn’t get anything right I retreated to conquerable, affirming rhythm games; at times of uncertainty and doubt I repeatedly threw myself off tall buildings.

Gaming has been self-care and healing, escapism, social interaction, fun, exploration, achievement and space where achievement no longer matters. It won’t end here – I have every intention of going out today to pick up a replacement. But this does feel very much like the end of an era. The next one won’t be the same.

I wonder if this is how I’ll feel if my iPhone ever dies.

Microfiction competition

My copy of February’s ICON magazine finally arrived – including a selection of microfiction written by readers in response to a prompt. Here’s my entry, which you can find on p82.

She walks to town. I make maps from her iPhone’s footprints.

Her geocodes build a city for me to explore. Height. Plans. Street View. Sales. She pushes a cold nose up against hard glass, desiring. Each window is a tab.

I stride her steps at home between the hours. She sees new graffiti. I see blurred cyclists. She sees the grit and people. I see usability. She looks up.

At night I move my small hands across the vast city of her skin.

Assasin’s Creed: non-linear metanarrative

Assassin's Creed_AcreGamers now are accustomed to linear narratives, playing through a sequence of events with no choice or impact on the direction the story takes.

Most of us are getting used to branching narratives, simple option systems that open up differing dialogues, games areas and endings.

But Assassin’s Creed 2 is the first mainstream game I’ve played to make parts of the plot entirely optional and intentionally obscure.

First things first: I’m going to focus on Assassin’s Creed 2 in this post. There’s a lot to be said about narrative in the first game, but I’m the wrong person to write it because I found the cut scenes impossibly dull. So dull, in fact, that I generally went to put the kettle on while they happened. There are still plot points I’m unsure of as a result.

On the other hand, the second game cut scenes are slick, interesting and – crucially – well-voiced. Assassination scenes are limited to two or three sentences at most – sometimes still very incongruous, but much less flow-breaking and tea-inducing.

There are two congruent narratives running through the game – the story of Desmond, living in the present day, who has just escaped from the evil Templars who were forcing him to relive his ancestral memories, and is now working with the good Assassins, who are, um, asking him very nicely to relive his ancestral memories.

The second narrative is that of Ezio di Auditorre, the subject of Desmond’s memories and the main focus of the game. Desmond learns the Assassin skills he needs through living Ezio’s life, learning how to use a hidden blade and fall off incredibly tall buildings while suffering absolutely no ill effects. Oh, and some stuff about 15th-century Florentine intrigue and conspiracy.

Where things get interesting is the third narrative. The game doesn’t force you to get involved in what it neatly describes as “The Truth”. At no point does it force it on you. There are signposts but no map markers, hints but no spoilers, and not once are you hindered by choosing not to explore the hidden story.

At a fairly early point, Desmond is asked to find a weird glowing glyph on a building. If you do, you discover a password-protected encrypted file, and must solve a simple puzzle to reveal a snippet of narration and a video file.

There are 20 of these, each puzzle more difficult than the last. The videos and narration add up to reveal a vital and tantalising slice of the Assassin’s Creed backstory that provides clues to the next game and rounds out the game’s cliff-hanger ending in a very satisfying way. It leaves you with answers that lead to more questions.

But even within the puzzles there are more stories. Each puzzle takes real-world historical events, or great works of art, or scientific breakthroughs, and links them intricately to a massive web of conspiracy. Combined with Ezio’s narrative – which tallies closely with real-world events throughout – the game edges closer and closer to alternate reality territory.

And then you find the puzzles within the puzzles. Messages encrypted in Morse code within paintings within the glyphs, never acknowledged or explained. There are dozens of these, easy to miss, even easier to ignore, but each one is decipherable.

The impact of these little asides is not merely to problematise the existing story – adding vignettes and asides that most players simply are unaware of – but also to trouble the relationship between the game and the real historical events it links to. Forcing players to go beyond the fourth wall to decipher puzzles opens up the structure of the story to deeper interpretations than are possible in most games. Assassin’s Creed 2 positions itself, like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, as part fiction, part fact, and hence blurs the lines between the two. Complex analyses are springing up, not only solving the obvious puzzles but the hidden ones too, and players are using those analyses to attempt to uncover the “true” story of the game – the history of the Assassins and Templars. In effect, gamers are creating a fictional backstory using factual history and pointers from within the game. It’s a collaboration and a fascinating puzzle – and entirely optional.

Also it’s a lot of fun to throw yourself off tall buildings.

Emergent thoughts on emergent stories

Alexander de grote, in de Hermitage tijdens Museumnacht in Amsterdam After an interesting conversation with @harryharrold and @MrRickWaghorn yesterday, I’ve been mulling a few thoughts on emergent stories and how the social side of the web could make it possible to curate and (to some extent) formalise them.

As @harryharrold pointed out, one of the big problems LARP events haven’t solved yet is how to deal with emergent stories after the fact. Unless you’re physically present at an event it’s next-to-impossible to get a coherent narrative of what actually happened, particularly if it’s a big fest event.

In my experience narratives split into two general categories after LARP events – the big picture and the little details. For some players/characters and events, the big picture is what’s important; they have enough of an impact on the overarching plot  plot and the overarching plot is reachable enough for them to be satisfied with a global grand plot update.

But for most events and most players, what’s important and relevant is the nitty-gritty of their immediate social circle. Who said and did what to whom; the “little” stories of betrayal and intrigue and death and love. And that’s incredibly hard to track.

A big part of what we do at Zombie is making sure that individual players get their stories straight before they forget anything. We have “debrief” sessions so that both the refs and the players can get a handle on the emergent stories that have happened on each run, and we do our best to encourage storytelling online after the game. But that only works because every run is self-contained; with a larger plot edifice and continuing characters such a simple system is simply impossible.

But LARP isn’t the only area to have this problem. Festivals, conferences and conventions do too; in fact any large event where multiple trajectories are possible and no individual experience is large enough to express the story of what happened.

Here’s an idea I was contemplating pitching for Greenbelt this year or next. Hand out 10 relatively smart phones to 10 people, picked as a good spread of the demographics at the event. Kit them out with Twitter feeds if they don’t already have them, photoblogging, moblogging and microblogging kit, basic video, audio and still image hardware, and make it as easy as possible for them to upload anything and everything, wherever they are. Track everything they do, geotagged and timestamped, and from that collate and curate a livecast of the event.

I’d love to see if it’s possible to combine @harryharrold’s ideas on curating LARP stories and map them onto other events too. Emergent stories are popping up all over the place and the social web is making it possible to collaborate and build interactive, explorable maps of events that previously have had linear narratives. The stable social experience is exploding and we all want to choose our own adventure. Perhaps we can apply this to more than just LARP.

Directing the shambling hordes

Zombies at the doorI’m running my first social media campaign, and so far, it’s working.

Let me explain. I’m one of the two head organisers of a live-action simulation game called Zombie LARP (we wish we’d picked a better name sometimes, but it works) in which a whole bunch of people run around in the dark pretending to be zombies and taking it in turns to shoot the zombies with NERF guns. Think Left 4 Dead in real life.

It started out as a daft idea at university. We ran the first one on a wing and a prayer. It went so well – so blisteringly, terrifyingly, incredibly well – that we’ve been running one every six months since then. We got players initially by running something no one else was doing; then, later on, we started getting them by wor of mouth.

Last autumn 57 people turned up from my home town to a game designed for about 30. Many of them were regular players but many of them were new, buzzed because they’d been told about it by their friends.

We’ve grown up a little now, and we want to take it professional, and that means moving out of university buildings and a student mindset and tapping into the wider community around live gaming, NERF/Airsoft play, and zombies.

Which means an entrepreneurial mindset, learning web design, and running a social marketing campaign that opens us up to a wider market while maintaining our relationship with the core group who got us where we are now – our regular and most loyal players, the people who make our game possible.

In late September our website went live. In November we ran our most recent event, with bookings online. It sold out. Shortly after the event – while everyone was watching for photos – we made the move from a dying and mostly inactive Facebook group to a page, which had 50 fans within 24 hours. Globally, that’s not many, but in our niche it’s fantastic. Every one of those fans is a player, or a potential player. We are reaching the people we need to reach.

And more. In November our website had more than 80,000 hits.

Our fan page is slowly filtering through to friends of friends, people who are interested in the concept, people in that slightly wider niche who might come to the next game.

We ran a short-notice one-off event that wouldn’t have been possible without the forum and Facebook page as communication tools, and we backed that up with video.

We’re starting to get attention from German groups on Twitter purely by having Youtube and Facebook accounts feeding there. And a group of people are running a spin-off game in Kansas, suddenly. We’re international.

There’s a lot more work to do. We have video processing problems to iron out, insurance to negotiate, banks to deal with, applications to fill in, alternate reality games to create and venues to find.

But the next event will be bigger, better, more widely anticipated and more fun because of the community we’re building around the game. And, if we’re lucky and we work hard and smart, it’ll be in either an abandoned shopping mall or a fort.

I think that’s a success. What do you think?

Online games as training tools

Second Life: Porcupine: Autism Memorial
Porcupine Autism Memorial in Second Life

Today via @jayrosen_nyu I came across a post by @brad_king arguing that journalism has a lot to learn from the history of online games when it comes to online community management.

He makes some great points about hands-off community modding, and I’m a particular fan of the idea that online news communities could benefit from something like Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types (which splits gamers into four rough categories and helps game designers cater for all types).*

But I do have to disagree with this paragraph:

MMORPGs don’t have much to offer in terms of developing the traditional journalism skills. These games can’t teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories.

Wait a minute. Why not?

These communities aren’t just there to be managed – they don’t just have histories that can be dissected as useful examples. They’re living and breathing today. They are audiences, readers, participants, and they could be a great training tool for new journalists.

I mentioned that Second Life – one of the biggest and most influential online environment ever created – has three online newspapers with hundreds of thousands of readers.

They cover topics ranging from issues in the real world which affect the game – server outages, technology changes, ToS issues – to in-game gossip and affairs. This sort of information is valuable, and you can get it by employing all those traditional journalism skills that King mentions.

Sure, the rules of these communities are different. They present unique and diverse challenges to reporters trying to hit the street cold and generate stories. But they’re no more unfamiliar or hard to learn than Afghanistan is to a Geordie, or a Norfolk seaside town is to a young woman from inner-city Birmingham. And surely part of the point of j-school is to train us in how to learn the community rules and structures, how to work it out for ourselves, and how to engage.

So why not include a bit of MMO training for budding reporters? Lessons in:

  • interview technique via in-game chat and email
  • fact checking and how to spot a scam or a rumour online
  • vetting sources for legitimacy
  • editing copy – perhaps by crowdsourcing folks to tell them what they did wrong
  • engaging with readers as equals
  • learning a patch – getting to know the movers and shakers and the big issues, who to talk to, where to get quotes

All that and community management too. Bargain.

* Incidentally, I’m 67% Explorer, 67% Achiever, 40% Socialiser and 27% Killer.

What if? News games

What if papers used games as a news medium?

There are a few news outlets already making moves in this direction, but I haven’t seen much in the way of commentary or ideas about taking it beyond quiz apps and into educational tools, social activities or, well, making it fun.

Here’s the thing. I reckon news – especially news online where attention is easily lost – should be entertaining. It should be interesting, engaging, thoughtprovoking and, if possible and where appropriate, fun.

Could games be a news medium? Could we use online games to tell or break stories, or to foster real engagement with and within our communities? Here are nine ideas. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Hat tip: I’m indebted to Margaret Robertson for a talk at Greenbelt 09 that pointed me towards some of these games and got me thinking about narrative crossovers between real life experience, current affairs/news and gaming.

1. Quiz

This is the easy one. Quite a few news outlets have online quizzes, little more than simple forms that grade users on how well they’ve retained the news.

NBC has gone a step further with a Facebook application called What’s Your iCue. Based on the corporation’s learning site, it quizzes users about their videos and encourages them to compare scores.

In theory, it’s simple and engaging, it spreads their brand and it drives users not only to engage on Facebook but also to watch their news.

2. Links hub

Still in the realm of what’s already been done, I present Newsblaster, MSNBC’s addictive little news. It uses a familar and easy game format – bubble blaster – and for each group of bubbles you burst, it rewards you with a headline and a gateway to a news story.

Links to stories stack up in the sidebar, and you can interrupt the game at any time to check them out. It’s a good game in its own right – it’s a casual timewaster that draws traffic to news stories by presenting a random array and letting users select what they want.

3. Giving out information

Swinefighter is never going to win any prizes for game design – or for tact. You play a doctor with a hypodermic needle, scrambling to inject flying pigs as they hover above a map of the world. It’s pretty silly.

Where things get interesting is the rest of the page. The game is embedded on a site that includes donation links to the Red Cross, as well as a simple list of ways to help prevent the spread of swine flu (taken from the US Centre for Disease Control).

The game spreads virally (forgive the pun) and the information goes along with it.

4. Exploring context

Stop Disasters is a game developed by the UN to bring attention to how to, well, stop disasters. You can play through several scenarios (hurricane, wildfire, tsunami): you’re given a town or village, a budget and a time limit, and your job is to develop the area so that as many people as possible survive.

It’s full of information – helpful facts, advice, statistics – and it’s fun to play. Without you really noticing, it teaches you the background and the context that’s so often missing from news stories, and it humanises disaster victims by making players care about what happens to them.

5. Experiencing context

Similar in style though not content, the McDonald’s game invites players to manage the empire. It’s biased to make a point – it’s impossible to run a corporation like McD’s without making some dubious moral choices.

The player must oversee the whole operation and decide what choices to make. It teaches you about the whole process of running the chain, from the field in Brazil to the slaughterhouse to the boardroom to the restaurant. It forces you to take a much more holistic view than the normal consumer – and introduces you to some unexpected truths.

Imagine a game like this one based on managing the NHS. Or the US healthcare industry. Or the international banking system.

6. Augmented reality

The Hidden Park is a kid’s game for the iPhone. You download it and then head out to your local park, where the game uses the phon’s built-in GPS to lead you around, asking you to take photos of various things in order to find magical – imaginary – creatures which appear on the iPhone screen rather than in real life.

There are a host of other applications using this technology, ranging from apps to tell you the fastest route to the nearest Tube station to apps that project social media information next to the image of a real person standing next to you.

Using this, papers could offer even more exciting interactive maps – immersive applications showing you all the data of Everyblock projected onto the world around you, for instance. Events listings, classifieds, food reviews; crime stories, council stories, controversies.

If money, time and skills were no object, how about an app that projected what planned controversial developments like the Rackheath eco-town and Norfolk Hub could look like, with links to background info?

7. Alternate reality

Alternate reality games (ARGs) use multiple platforms and encourage people to work together to solve puzzles, operating online via social networks and in meatspace, using multiple media.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has teamed up with some local technology graduates to create Picture the Impossible, its own interactive ARG. Participants – there are more than 1,000 registered, and 830 on Facebook alone – are split into three teams, which will compete over the next six weeks playing online and offline creative games based around the city and the newspaper, to earn money for three charities.

Traci Bauer, managing editor for multimedia and innovation at the D&C, hits the nail on the head:

If this works as a way to engage an audience, then it becomes more than a game, it becomes a new set of tools that we can use for daily journalism.”

8. Virtual news

The internet is creating new communities everywhere, niche networks with very specific concerns, some of which revolve around gaming and virtual reality. Newspapers reporting on the concerns of these communities – or even reporting on meatspace issues via these platforms – can be successful.

Second Life is an immensely popular and immersive virtual world/massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). The community boasts three newspapers – the Metaverse Messenger, Alphaville Herald, and the Second Life Newspaper – which blur the lines between real-world and virtual events, reporting on both equally. They cover social and technological issues around the game environment as well as goings-on within the virtual world.

300,000 people regularly read the Metaverse Messenger, and in May the Alphaville Herald celebrated its 50,000th reader comment. CNN has a large community-based presence there; Reuters moved out in February.

Is this – or are other MMORPGs and virtual environments such as Gaia – a potential market for mainstream media?

9. Anything you can imagine

If you don’t already know about Superstruct, take a look. It’s an amazingly innovative interactive game that ran for six weeks last Autumn.

Thousands of people worldwide got together to tackle six problems that could bring the world to its knees in ten years time, working together to devise ways of avoiding the self-destruction of humanity.

The content they produced is full of original ideas, re-imagining social, economic and technological systems for new purposes. The game is a lasting testament to what’s possible when people with imagination have conversations, and it’s proof that user generated content can mean far more than an inflammatory comment.

What if papers offered this sort of platform?