On location

It’s been a little quiet on the blogging front the last month or so. Lots of reasons – a big move to the big smoke, living in the cloud while waiting for broadband and wifi internet to be installed at home, and most of all a job where instead of writing about all the awesome things we should be doing online, I’m getting to actually make them happen.

It’s an exceptionally good feeling, and at the end of most days I’m all idea-ed out – I’ve been throwing myself into getting to know what we’ve got at Citywire, and finding ways to start improving some of the most obvious things. New share buttons have started appearing on part of our site; our journalists are starting to tweet under their own names while I take over our group account, and we have the very lean and early beginnings of a Facebook page. On top of that there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes, nitty gritty nuts and bolts to bring us better data on how well what we’re doing works.

Getting to know London, especially in the absence of a broadband connection, has changed my media and browsing habits enormously. For more than three weeks we didn’t have a TV aerial at home, so there was no TV news for me – and I didn’t miss it, thanks to Twitter. I didn’t go to any one site in particular for my news – the things I was interested in have found me. Perfect.

Newspapers are free here, as long as you commute. I read more papers voluntarily than I ever have – the morning Metro and the Evening Standard, cover to cover, on the train and the Tube. That fills ms in on anything Twitter hasn’t told me – they’re not my main source of news, but they fill in the gaps, and if they’re not there I don’t miss them. I see hundreds of people reading these papers every day – far more than I ever did in Norwich. The free model works, so long as you have your distribution sorted.

I use apps more than browsers, especially Twitter and Reeder. I still use mobile more than static, because much of the time I don’t know where I am or what’s near me. And that’s been a big surprise for me. Location based services have been a godsend.

I know, I know. Foursquare has a problem with checkin fatigue and meaningless badges that reward grind and a game mechanic that isn’t really a game. Gowalla is a loot quest at best, and even with trips and items its fundamental mechanic isn’t entirely satisfying. Facebook Places is stuffed with privacy issues. There’s a study out that shows the number of Americans using location services is small – 4%, and dropping. And until I moved cities, I was one of those who tried for a while and then stopped bothering.

But then I moved, and suddenly instead of knowing my home city inside out and backward, I didn’t know where anything was, or who anyone was, or where to go for a pint of decent ale or a good cup of coffee. It’s an incredible, dislocating feeling, moving to a new city and especially London, and I’m lucky to have my husband with me through the upheaval. But now there’s a layer of information on top of the city streets that just wasn’t there six years ago, the last time I made a move like this. And that, for me, has value.

So being able to find a decent restaurant or a pub from my phone is not only good, but helps me feel a little more welcome, a little more embedded in my new community. What’s better is the added layers of information that some social networks are building on top of location data. Untappd tells me where I can get a well-kept pint of London Pride. The Foodspotting community is perhaps a little richer than me – I’ve looked at some pictures of incredible food but not yet used it to eat – but a service like Rate My Takeaway (complete with hygiene scores and a price list) would be useful regularly.

For that matter, location based classifieds would be pretty handy too. A system of virtual newsagents’ windows where I might be able to pick up a second-hand sofa locally, for instance. So would a deal-finder that would let the local supermarkets – and corner shops, and grocers, and butchers, and so on – compete for my weekly shop by telling me what was on offer today. Not online deals, but real ones. And I could use a “what’s happening” app that tells me, right now, what’s happening at the places I’ve scoped out that might get me mixing and mingling – not reviews afterwards, but upcoming and current events. (I’ve just downloaded the Time Out app – we’ll see if that does the trick.) Not games, but services – not fun, but useful.

Digital people talk about how newspapers missed the boat on digitising classified ads. I don’t know whether location is another space where traditional media is missing the boat – given the low take-up numbers it’s possible there isn’t a boat to miss. But I wonder if the numbers are down to the fact that location services, Foursquare in particular, are still creating an ecosystem, laying the foundations for a whole world of mobile information layers that could, in the end, be a profitable and useful space.

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?