Playing the News: Berfrois Interviews Simon Ferrari


by Russell Bennetts

Simon Ferrari is a doctoral student in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He recently co-authored Newsgames: Journalism at Play with Ian Bogost and Bobby Schweizer. Simon blogs about gaming at Chungking Expresso.


           What are Newsgames? Are they closer in nature to journalism or video games?


           Newsgames are a way of doing journalism with games, so they exist somewhere in-between the two concepts as we usually think of them. This isn’t to say that they fit there neatly. Newsgames call attention to current and past issues that might not have received the scrutiny they deserve, they analyze these issues in ways that the written word or video can’t, they exist on a spectrum between professional and citizen reportage, they can be “hard” or “soft,” relevant or ridiculous. Some newsgames are meant to inform, some to persuade, and some to simply poke fun.


           The book discusses procedural rhetoric as a defining feature of games as separate from other forms of media. Why is this unique to videogames and what can it offer to journalists?


           Procedural rhetoric is the method of making an argument or expressing an idea through rules alone. Strictly speaking, procedural rhetoric isn’t exclusive to games specifically or computation more generally. We can find it in the way religious and secular laws are constructed, how they make their values obvious to us while nevertheless persuading. But, unlike any other expressive medium, videogames are exclusively composed of rules (or code—even the art assets of a videogame exist as code), which is what makes procedural rhetoric so important for them.

“Procedural literacy” is a broader, related concept; it means the ability to read, write, and critique systems of rules/code. It’s our contention that journalists already possess more procedural literacy than the members of most other professions, because (ideally) they attempt to cut through a news event to find the underlying systems that caused it to come about. We think that journalists and videogame designer can learn from each other because of this shared literacy. And we think that journalism would be better served if, for some news stories (those that are heavily based in systems of exchange or law), newsgames were crafted instead of written pieces—precisely because it’s difficult to convey a complex system through a non-procedural expressive format like the written word.


           September 12th is arguably the most famous example of the genre thus far. Why do you think it had such a great impact?


           September 12th remains the best way to explain the genre of newsgames and the concept of procedural rhetoric, which is baffling considering that it’s one of the genre’s first works. One reason is that the war on terror remains one of the primary concerns of many people around the world. This is one of the problems we try to puzzle out in the book: if the news needs to be released quickly in order to maintain relevance, then how can a newsgame designer hope to make a good game in the short amount of time required to beat out the complete saturation of the issue online (which only takes something like 36 hours)? September 12th sidesteps this roadblock by focusing on cyclical or ongoing problems rather than chasing breaking stories.

Another reason is that the experience is so compact, delivering a strong argument within a few seconds of play. Newsgames need to convince two large groups of people of their worth: core gamers and non-gamers who care about the future of the news. Core gamers come in with an expectation that a game should be fun, and September 12th satisfies that desire by not forcing them to read through a bunch of menus. It provides instant feedback, and it’s impossible to deny that there’s a perverse sort of pleasure produced by the play experience right before the rhetoric sets in.

Non-gamers, on the other hand, come in with a fear that they won’t understand how to play the game because of complicated control schemes. They’re also afraid of a time sink that’s going to eat up hours of their time. The simple clicking input required by September 12th makes it as simple to pick up as Facebook game (or any other casual game), and the short play time means it’s not asking much of a commitment from its players.


           The book introduces a number of categories for newsgames (tabloid, reportage, puzzle etc.). Which types do you envisage becoming popular as valid journalistic tools and which have less to offer?


           The answer here depends on what you count as valid journalistic tools. We can start by defining exactly what we mean by “journalistic.” Journalism as a practice is rooted in a discipline of verification, which simply means gathering as much information from as many viewpoints as is necessary or appropriate. The second factor is transparency, or the practice of making your sources explicit to reveal any potential bias that you’ve introduced into the artifact. Once these two requirements have been satisfied, you’re ready to gauge everyone’s favourite journalistic whipping post: “objectivity.” Objectivity doesn’t exist; it’s an ideal that you strive for through satisfying conditions of verification and transparency.

Now, can games development be rooted in the journalistic disciplines of verification and transparency? Certainly. I think current event games and documentary games afford the best uses of these traditional journalistic practices. The research that goes into them is identical to that which goes into writing an article or crafting an expose. The only major obstacle we’ve seen in the case of these games is that, in order to be transparent, they need to couple the game itself to a text document showing their sources. The best way to do this is to pair a newsgame with traditional reportage, as in the case of Wired’s Cutthroat Capitalism.

But newsgames aren’t limited to journalistic endeavor. There are a lot of uses of the news that aren’t “hard” or striving toward the objective. Editorial games tend to follow a light diet of verification and a calculated disregard for transparency, because they’re basically modeled on political cartoons. Community newsgames (local ARGs) are about creating a public forum for the discussion of current events, which used to be a function of journalism that was almost entirely lost when the news moved online. We want journalists to get excited about newgames, but we certainly don’t see them becoming the exclusive purview of journalists.


           What analogies do you see between newsgames and newspaper editorial cartoons and crosswords?


           These are two separate analogies, but they’re bound together in an important way. When the news moved online, it found that it had lost much of its financial ground (advertising and classifieds) to sites like eBay and Craigslist. It’s taken some time, but I think news sources are realizing that they’ve lost more than just sources of revenue: they’ve lost much of the context that makes the news palatable to most people.

There’s reason to believe that the crosswords and the comics were the primary reason that a significant portion of newspaper readers picked the things up in the first place. On the way to the entertainment section, they would pass harder news that caught their eyes. Cartoons and puzzles would help lubricate the process of consuming the more complex information.

This is why we think that newsgames are best presented as suites of coverage alongside infographics and traditional reportage and editorial. Newsgames are a good gateway to getting people to care about an issue in the first place, and the people who are piqued enough to do so can then get different kinds of information from the other artifacts bundled with the game.

You shouldn’t take this to mean that we don’t think newsgames are workable as ends in themselves. I’m just saying that games aren’t good at representing all issues or representing them in the same way that other types of reportage can. Games model systems well, so systems-heavy stories are well covered by them. Other aspects of the same story remain better presented in other forms.


           The newspaper industry is currently suffering financially. How do you see this new form of journalism being funded?


           There’s a pretty good reason that many of the best newsgames we can point to have come out of academia: scholars can get funding for research that then becomes a game or two. La Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini is teaching at Carnegie Mellon. Mary Flanagan’s Tiltfactor Lab is part of Dartmouth. Whenever a studio has attempted (and it hasn’t often been attempted) to exclusively develop newsgames, it’s met with financial trouble. Right now, the newspaper industry simply doesn’t have the funding or the editorial hours required to oversee the work.

The first answer is to diversify your production schedule. Ian Bogost has been able to maintain a modestly sized game studio on the side through mixing newsgame design with contract work in advergaming and other “serious games” subgenres. Area/Code, a small design studio in New York run by Frank Lantz, produces serious games alongside more traditional Facebook games, iPhone puzzle games, and the “big games” or ARGs that they helped pioneer. My other favorite example is Borut Pfeifer, who started a Kickstarter project to raise money to make a game about the Iranian election protests. He didn’t meet his funding goal, so he started a small company with a couple of other ex-industry folks to make a turn-based strategy game called Skulls of the Shogun while continuing development of his newsgame, The Unconcerned, on the side.

Another answer comes from the continuing endeavors to make game development simpler for non-professional designers. For the next two years, our studio here at Georgia Tech is attempting to build an AI-based tool for newsgame generation (in conjunction with the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz). A lot of this stuff is still speculative, and an assisted-design project is never going to be as tight, astute, or complex as a game designed by a team of professionals. But maybe they don’t need to be: the same way news pieces aren’t as comprehensive as history books, perhaps newsgames should be seen as ephemera—this is (IT Copenhagen Professor) Miguel Sicart’s suggestion.


           Bioshock depicts a dystopian world run along a pure libertarian/objectivist philosophy. Say The Nation were to include a copy of the game alongside a Naomi Klein investigation into the Tea Party Movement, would this then transform that game into a newsgame?


           Haha, well, from my perspective (which Ian and Bobby might not necessarily share), any analysis of a game is only as good as the critic. You’d have to show me why you’d be calling it a newsgame rather than a “political game” more generally, but if you could convincingly tie it to the current events of the Tea Party saga, then I don’t see why I wouldn’t buy your interpretation—though I might be more inclined to buy it if you were talking about the popularization of libertarianism more generally rather than just the Tea Party, which arose well after BioShock’s release.

I do a bit of this kind of retconning in the book, where my discussion of Dead Rising in the chapter on “literacy games” turns that zombie beat-em-up into a commentary on interventionist media ethics. A lot of people laugh when I bring it up, but just as many see my point. In the wake of New Criticism, and given the history of games as predominately authorless (emerging from folk cultural systems of exchange and competition), we have to accept that there’s no one definitive reading of a game. What’s important is being able to play a game deeply and then explain how that deep play has led to an insight you can share with others.


           Terrorism, GDR shootings, piracy: the most famous newsgames so far have covered rather somber issues. Where are the celebratory games? Did Namco miss a trick in not rushing out a Chilean miner version of Dig-Dug?


           Games require a lot of creative thought and labor to create. Even somebody who has programming down pat needs to spend a long time thinking about an issue before she’ll know how to design for it. Typically, it’s easiest to spend long hours puzzling through a design problem if you personally care strongly about the system or event you’re modeling. Usually, the current events we care about the most are the ones that make us angry, so it’s no surprise that most newsgames are somber rather than celebratory.

I don’t think it was fair that Namco got hammered so hard for putting out that celebratory banner bearing their Mr. Driller character when the Chilean miners were finally freed. Most people alive right now have played videogames at some point, so videogame art and design have become common lenses through which we view current events. The problem is that most people only want to see videogames applied to unimportant issues. You’re “trivializing” war or travail if you make a game about it, according to most.

It all comes down to taste. Gonzalo Frasca, the creator of September 12th, once said that he thought for a few hours about whether or not he should make a game about Steve Irwin’s death-by-stringray. He ended up ditching the idea, because in the end he realized that it violated his own tastes. The Mr. Driller example is a special kind of case, because the simple reskinning of an old game doesn’t necessarily make it a tasteful, relevant, or well-designed game. The mechanics of a game need to tightly couple with its theme in order for a newsgame to offer anything.

But, you know, if some kid wants to reskin Mr. Driller or Dig Dug to cover the Chilean miner event and throw the results up on Kongregate for his friends to play, I don’t see why we should discourage him out of a desire for good design or good taste. We need more and more of these things out there before we can decide what is and isn’t crossing the line. So if there’s one thing we could get across to our readers, it’s just that: make something. Those people who think that serious matters can’t be covered by games, seriously or jokingly, will come around eventually.

Simon Ferrari’s Five Must-Play Newsgames

1.      September 12th

From the discussion above, it’s obvious that this is a classic in every sense of the word. One the off chance that you haven’t played it before, it goes without saying that should do so now.

2.      Memory Reloaded 

This is probably the most recent newsgame on my radar, and I’m only now working on writing about why I like it so much. This is a work by La Molleindustria, and, like September 12th, it’s just such a perfect use of the source game’s mechanics to deliver a message.

3.      Balance of Power

This is Chris Crawford’s original geopolitical simulation game. You control either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R., and you’ve got to outlast your opponent’s economy while trying to maintain ideological control over the rest of the world. And you’ve got to do it without causing a nuclear holocaust. The game took Kissinger’s memoirs as one of its many source materials, holding his conclusion that the Cold War would end once one side simply ran out of money.

4.      Food Import Folly

In my opinion, one of Bogost’s best newgames. This one is about the underfunding of the FDA and its consequences on the efficacy of safety testing. It’s one of the closest examples we’ve got to a pure “reportage” game, even though it obviously has something of an editorial slant.

5.      PeaceMaker

By ImpactGames, another geopolitical sim, this time focusing on Israel-Palestine politics. One of the designers was a member of the Israeli armed forces, so you might assume that the game is slightly biased. Instead, what you get here is a measured take on the situation that educates players about all the conflicting sources of power on the area that influence every decision made. It’s a sobering, rewarding experience.

About the Author

Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois in 2009.