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Why News Organisations Need Game Designers

Nice, not yet a newsgame

Lorenz Matzat pointed me to an article about the “Hybrid iPad Game and Article” in the May 2011 edition of the Popular Mechanics iPad app. Popular Mechanics is an American magazine first published January 11, 1902. It is mainly about technology and science and its iPad app went live in July 2010 – “loaded with an earthquake finder, 3D building plans, a live newsfeed, and some of our best articles from recent issues enhanced with video, animations and more.”

Currently we can witness the evolution of apps – when it comes to usability, concept and smartness. Good to see, that apps in the wide spectrum of news obviously try to bring in game-like features. I am pretty sure that this will show proper ways of presenting engaging and interactive content that will provide meaningful experiences.

Now for the sadder part. There is still a long way to go. The game itself is something more than a throwaway. Touchdown has you landing on several planets but choosing the right landing craft design for the environment. The player has to determine if humans or robots are best to man the flight, what kind of propulsion is right for the atmosphere and the style of reentry … The information provided about the player selections is instructive, and the video and audio effects dramatizing the landing are fun. That is what Steve Smith writes in the article already mentioned above.

Click for a not embeddable explanatory video by Popular Mechanics

I disagree, because i am convinced that Touchdown is not a ‘real’ game at all. While the whole thing looks bright and shiny it feels shallow after the second try. It is not an emotionally engaging experience and the level of interactivity is very thin. Basically the player can choose three variables/buttons and then strech out and wait. Apart from that the outcome is totally the same for all players all the time. Games resolve their uncertainty in unequal outcomes. A fundamental part of gameplay is that it is uncertain, says Tracy Fullerton in the book “Game Design Workshop”.

It has nothing to do with the limitation to three ‘buttons’. Just think about the ‘hammer the buttons’-style controls of a game like Track & Field. It has something to do with the lack of strong game mechanics. The reason for that is given directly by the editors of Popular Mechanics themselvesIn true PM do-it-yourself style, Touchdown was created mainly by staff members. The scenarios were written by PM science contributor Michael Belfiore, and the design, animation and programming were executed in-hous.


Touchdown has a nice interface, nice sounds and effects. Speaking with Chris Crawford one could say that the game is doing a good job while ‘speaking’ but not a good job while ‘listening’ and ‘thinking’. See Crawford´s Fundamentals of interactivity.

As with many so called ‘serious games’ – the ones involved often have not a proper game design background. While i cherish the diy-approach i would advice more thinking on the mechanics to strengthen the product and to justify – some months to get the project finished.

Equal outcomes for all

The chances and opportunities with games as active part of digital journalism are broad and beauftiful. After the first wave of data viszualisations has reached the mole, we should think of how to bring in game mechanics to enhance the experience. The Guardian´s Path of protest already looks like a game and that controller on the left already feels like an old school joystick or control paddel. Maybe one could and should bring in serious game mechanics now.

Of course revolutions in the real world are not a game. But this argument does not fit. As journalists we should better think about proper ways of getting a point across and how to inform the public besides pure and naked news. In an age of constant information overload the demand for aggregation, curation and explanation is increasing.

Why not use games to get an understanding for certain situations, the motives or the constraints of systems. Playing and learning are irrevocably connected. See Chris Crawford´s Phylogeny of Play. What we need now is a better understanding of how to apply game mechanics to journalistic content in a surrounding that does not come with a tradition of a graphical user interface but a natural user interface. The only chance at the moment: Trial and error. And that is why the team at Popular Mechanics deserves applause. And next time: Just bring in a ‘real’ game designer.

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  1. Pingback: Why News Organisations Need Game Designers | D@J

  2. defining the communication goal and purpose of the game experience is the key first step in putting it into a news or journalism context. many interactive toys are based upon discovery, which is not necessarily what conveying news in a journalistic sense is all about. but it can be a critical component of understanding and interpreting news events. realizing the value of play and competition, as well as rules and logic, in developing a game is the next level up. games are not necessarily simulation and virtualization experiences.

  3. Marcus

    Hi David,

    i absolutely agree. Spending more time on defining communication goals and purposes would also help all these flash-heavy so called multimedia specials that are still popping up.

    The key point for me is that digital games for the first time bring in some ‘real’ interactivity while audiovisual-slideshows and the rest just combine traditional ways of telling a story one way with text, foto, audio, video without using the uniqueness of a computer being an input-output device.

  4. Pingback: Journalismus in der Post-PC Ära

  5. Pingback: Marcus Bösch

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