Hi folks. Our top-flight research assistant, Fabio Berzaghi, has written a narrative of the work we’ve been doing on the “Playing the News” project. Our goal is to design a game creation tool that allows news professionals to author engaging games around ongoing news issues in a community. The intention of the tool is to allow journalists to create a game that takes no more than 20 – 30 minutes to play through. We’ve been through quite a number of iterations on game design and Fabio provides the background.

“The very first idea for our project was to focus on a specific local issue and include real people and organizations in the game. The main idea of this concept had the player visiting different locations to learn about the different facets of the issue. We struggled in the process of creating a good game concept, avoiding reading a lot of text and dealing with problems related to using real people and the distinction between what was quoted and what was reported as “being said” by someone.

Subsequently we had a meeting with some journalists from the Star Tribune. It gave us some ideas. First of all the journalists don’t want to use external sources or spend time gathering information from different places. They’d like to use what has already been written within the newspaper. That was a huge point to be taken into account in the process of designing the game.

We then had the idea of creating a more simple structure: the player would go through small, fast dialogues and collect tokens. We decided to use fictional NPCs who would provide the player with real events and facts. Then at the end of the phase of gathering information the player would enter a debate with the purpose of swaying an audience to one side or the other of the issue by playing the correct token when prompted with a question/statement. We decided though, that the debate would have been too complicated to implement on the journalist side, at least to make it challenging enough for the player.

The main problem we were facing was the broad range of issues a newsroom needs to address with the game. On the other side, adding complexity to the game means asking a journalist to perform complicated tasks when using the tools to create the story.

At last, we settled on the idea of offering mini-games embedded throughout the scenario, not necessarily related to the issue. The player would go through dialogs with NPCs to gather chunks of information and then have to play a mini-game to get to the next NPC. At the end of the game there would be a quiz on the issue or news topic, and players are rewarded with a dance scene. Based on the player score, more or less dance moves are available and also different faces to stick on the body. The faces and the moves can be collected and used afterwards. The journalists can plug-in whatever face they want. Also we thought of keeping an “issue master” ranking, that would be based on the level of knowledge of a particular issue. The dance will be the fun reward for the players and the “issue master” will be intellectual reward.”

As Fabio describes, we are trying to combine the serious engagement of the audience with a news topic and the light-hearted culture of gaming — not an easy task. We are also trying to create a tool that can be implemented easily by over-worked news staff members who would not have to spend more than a few hours to create the game.

We are quite sure we’ve hit on the best combination with the design we are now building. Fabio, Nora and I will continue to provide updates now that a lot of the behind-the-scenes brainstorming has been done.