On teaching game design in a journalism class, Part 4: Newsgames as literary journalism

In the  last blog entry on my newsgames class, I reported on my students’ remix of my intentionally buggy, incomplete Food Stamps game. That exercise served multiple purposes:

  • It provided an accessible example of the challenges of conceiving a newsgame, and for defining requirements for such a game as journalism and as a game.
  • Splitting the students into groups focused on specific aspects of the game (story, media, gameplay) afforded an opportunity to reinforce and extend ideas in their texts through collaboration and peer teaching.
  • It provided a natural segue into guiding students into the development of their own games.

One of the first challenges of getting students thinking about the requirements for their own game projects is that I found no literature on how one actually reports and organizes information for a newsgame, not to mention the ethical standards that ought to apply.  Game designers are accustomed to thinking conceptually not literally, so they take liberties that potentially violate the canon of journalism ethics. This has led to some interesting discussions with colleagues. For example, in 2008, my computer science colleagues and I were planning the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, one of my colleagues had one of our research assistants build a Scratch game that offered a crude representation of the issue of global warming. In the game, clicking on the aerosol raises the earth temperature until the planet explodes:
Scratch Project

I expressed concern about the scientific inaccuracy of the game, and we had an extended discussion about how literal the game needed to be. Interestingly, the project generated nearly 700 views and dozens of comments and remixes, including a debate about global warming. In addition, both this researcher and another student colleague built a number of interesting prototypes, including this game about campus cafeteria food options:
Scratch Project

With this experience and my magazine writing background in mind, I opted to teach the students to think of the reporting and storytelling aspects of the game as a kind of linear, multi-threaded literary journalism. Literary journalism combines the factual reporting of journalism with much of the artistic freedom of literature.


We reviewed the reporting process of collecting data from secondary sources and primary sources, interviewing, and organizing information in cluster diagrams. I had them give me abstracts and annotated source lists, as I would in a magazine writing class. Because we lost the first two weeks of classes due to Hurricane Irene, this process was somewhat truncated, but we did spend some time on interviewing and vetting sources. We also spent a lot of time on copyright, ethics, libel and defamation rules. We also talked about the fact that narrative newsgames are often built on a degree of fictionalization and the creation of composite characters – practices that would be considered unethical in literary journalism.

We talked about ways of mapping story structure to game mechanics. And we talked a lot about new journalism with its emphasis on scene-by-scene construction, changing points of view, dialogue and experimentation in narrative structure. We  did close readings of Gay Talese, Susan Orlean and Jimmy Breslin.

We talked about strategies for fulfilling or confounding audience expectations in order to create suspense and engagement. I used clips from the 80s TV show, Moonlighting, which does this brilliantly:


Parodying Dr. Seuss:

Taking an irreverent approach to a classic, also breaking the fourth wall:

As we brainstormed about their game ideas, Moonlighting also helped me introduce them to genres that might be suitable for the storytelling for their games, but with which they were unfamiliar. For example, I suggested that the conventions of film noir might be worth exploring for one group’s game about the workings of Ponzi schemes.

With the students’ permission, I soon hope to share some examples of the ways in which they applied these ideas to their games.