Playing – the future

Games are not going away. The gamepocalypse is nigh.


One of the biggest changes in the way we live and socialise at the moment is the rise and rise of game structures in everyday life. I’m not just talking points, badges and scores here – I’m talking about all sorts of game mechanics, the sorts of rich, rewarding dynamics that can help make reality better.

Games engage people. They provide the sorts of work that people want to do, using feedback systems and carefully structured designs to make for a fun experience. They provide a sense of satisfaction that’s hard to beat, from completing simple tasks to seeing a narrative through to its end. They let you explore and experiment, providing freedom within limits, and they reward players for developing skills or for learning information.

When it comes to journalism, stories – neat narratives with a beginning/middle/end or an inverted pyramid structure – are simply not sufficient for explaining most complex systems. They can explain a linear series of events, even one with complex factors, but they’re not good at really explaining how things work in a way that gets into the reader’s head. Climate change, or tax allocation, or the financial crisis, for instance.

Game design can be used to help create original reporting, as well as being a medium for its distribution. They can be used as powerful polemic or educational tools. And they can even be used to explore the process of newsgathering itself, illuminating its murky logic through the procedural logic of the game.

It’s not just video games that are important here, though they do have a wider reach than many other forms. Alternate reality games that merge fact and fiction to overlay a game onto the real world, or use real artefacts in a game environment, are growing as marketing tools. Board games have always had the widest reach (chess, anyone?) and are enjoying a niche resurgence. What could we do with them?

Journalists with game design skills are going to be needed, alongside journalists with data skills and journalists who can do video and code and take pictures. I believe that, once the nascent newsgames industry stops dipping its toes into the water and jumps in, newsgames are going to take off. Because a good game makes money. If we assume for a moment that engagement is king, not content, then games will win the war for our attention: doesn’t that look a lot like the situation we’re already in?

I want to see what we could do if we treated a printed paper as a site of play. If we made it fun, and thought about it from the perspective of someone exploring, learning, interacting with a game. It’s possible to be shocked, dismayed, distressed, saddened, touched, moved, and incited to action by good games that don’t dumb down their subjects. It’s possible to treat difficult subjects with respect within a game; there are myriad bad and good examples of this, just as there are of TV and of radio and of print.

And despite some assertions to the contrary, games are not inherently geared towards those who can’t pay attention (seriously, current 50+ hour game lengths of major studio titles obviously contradict this). Instead, games can make news harder, more complex, deeper and richer – and they might just be able to do all that while making money.

But news organisations aren’t there yet, and it’s not hard to understand why – MediaShift has a great analysis of the cultural divide between editorial and games design that’s proving insurmountable at the moment. As indie creators are creating games that explore the news journalistically, we’re in danger of missing the boat again.

So what I want to do, this year, is get some news people and some game people in a room, together, to see what we can do to bridge that gap. If you’re interested in being involved, let me know in the comments here or by emailing Let’s build something fun.

This is the third of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there and the second discussed the digital divide.

Digitally divided

This is the second of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there; the third and fourth will tackle major issues raised. This one is about the divide between digital haves and have-nots, and what the future looks like for connectivity.

Back in Norwich, the newspapers where I used to work have just launched a campaign to back a bid for better broadband. Areas of rural Norfolk suffer badly from a lack of coverage – businesses relying on connectivity to function, to process payments or to do work, find themselves crippled by slow or unusable broadband access. Mobile coverage can be patchy. 3G is a luxury. There is an ongoing fight for change.

It can be very, very easy to forget that not everyone is online. When everyone around you is eyeballs-deep in social media and those without smartphones are a rarity, the statistics on digital inclusion are startling. According to the ONS [pdf], 27% of UK households have no access to the internet at home, and 9.2m adults have never used the internet.

Those figures are likely to fall. But they’re likely to fall faster in areas where broadband speeds are high, where there is free internet access for those who can’t afford a home connection, and within certain demographics – people who can afford smartphones even if a home broadband connection is out of reach, for instance, or young people in house shares who can split the costs of connection if not of hardware.

For some rural communities, fast broadband is unlikely to come from the telephone companies. Despite promises to the contrary, a fair few Norfolk businesspeople are bitterly aware that telecoms giants go where the profit is – and that means not laying cables and updating infrastructure in areas where the usage wouldn’t pay for the work to be done.

And that profit motive has other unpleasant effects. The fight for net neutrality is being fought much more loudly on the other side of the Atlantic – but it’s a growing issue in the UK too. The introduction of a tiered system in which those who can pay get their websites served faster than those who can’t threatens the free proliferation of information across the net, and threatens to limit access still further for those who can’t pay. The internet has democratised processes of creation and dissemination; any move towards a tiered web will move us away from open access; and the future for net neutrality in the UK remains unclear.

Already there are communities everywhere taking matters into their own hands. The Open Rights Group is one of several organisations fighting to protect net neutrality and working to protect other digital rights. Remote Cumbrian villages are raising money and building their own broadband networks. And it is technically and technologically possible to share your wifi connection with your neighbours – and to drop free wifi networks over wide areas, like the (now sadly defunct) network that blanketed Norwich with free connectivity a few years ago.

But we’re not there yet. Any project tackling social change – like the ones rising out of Powerful Voices – has to consider the implications of the digital divide, whether they’re trying to solve the problems it creates (by replacing lost library services with online access, for instance) or trying to use digital methods to influence issues that also affect those who find it difficult to get online (like volunteer schemes for the unemployed, or community projects looking for professionals).

It was fascinating and eye-opening that the suggestions that struck home with the Powerful Voices crowd were not so much the online ideas – they already knew they needed to be where their communities are, use whichever social networks they already use, and fragment their work across multiple platforms to reach people. It was the offline thoughts that got a big response. One idea, that if your community hangs out in a coffee shop then you should go put some flyers there for your project, prompted a discussion about how difficult it is sometimes to remember that there are offline ways of connecting with people, too.

There are still ways of reaching and empowering people in remote communities who aren’t online. And local newspapers are still one of those ways. The physical, newsprint paper finds its way into houses where the internet does not; its distribution networks, though they are under threat, already work to put it in the hands of physically and socially isolated people. It’s a symbol, a mark of social belonging, and a link to the wider world. Local papers can and do campaign for their communities, using their established clout and power to fight for what’s right for them.

That means, sometimes, a newspaper fighting for something that could threaten its bottom line – when what matters to its readers is something that could indirectly mean the print paper’s circulation falls. Better broadband and connectivity isn’t going to mean an immediate sales drop – but as more and more remote communities come fully online, the need for the newspaper as a wider community champion link will decrease.

Powerful Voices: useful resources

On Friday I was part of Powerful Voices, an event that helped young people create and refine ideas that would use social media to help effect social change.

By the time I got involved the young people – some university students, some graduates – had already put together four very well-thought-out ideas, refined them and pitched them to a panel of experts. My role on Friday was as part of a round table discussion looking at the future of social media and the wider web, and the funding possibilities that could help keep their projects alive and see them have a real impact.

Everyone involved was hugely enthusiastic and brightly hopeful for the future. These were people for whom the idea of running a non-profit and getting elbows-deep in the business side of things seemed a natural step – people with brave ideas who want to use new media to change the world. Here’s what they came up with:

  • The pop-up library project imagines a future where library services are totally mobile and completely adaptable, bringing very specific services to very local communities.
  • Communiteering is aimed at giving people a simple way to volunteer as much or as little as they wish, and to receive recognition for their work – something to go on a CV.
  • Handshake is a service built on the idea of connecting small projects in need of expertise with experts who can provide it.
  • And the final project hopes to help out unemployed graduates by encouraging creative approaches to getting on the career ladder.

The discussion hit on three big areas where the world is changing – the digital divide, open data, and the rise of gaming. I’ll talk more about these in posts over the next few days, I hope – there’s a lot to be said. What I want to do here is provide a resource for some of the concepts I brought into the conversation. So here goes: