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: # Link in context

  • 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 # Link in context

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 # Link in context

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. # Link in context


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. # Link in context

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# Link in context

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: # Link in context

  # Link in context

Parodying Dr. Seuss:  # Link in context

Taking an irreverent approach to a classic, also breaking the fourth wall:
 # Link in context

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. # Link in context

 # Link in context

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

CC BY-ND 4.0 On teaching game design in a journalism class, Part 4: Newsgames as literary journalism by Kim Pearson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Posted in Civic media, Collaboration, Gaming, Journalism, journalism education, Research, The Craft of Writing and tagged .


My professional background is in public information, magazine journalism, blogging and journalism education. My current research is founded on the premise that democracy requires the broad participation of a computationally fluent citizenry. Civic media industries must reflect the communities they serve at the level of ownership, research and development, news gathering, presentation and community engagement. This adds greater urgency to the already critical need to broaden participation in computing. To that end, I have collaborated on curricular models for infusing computing into journalism education at both the scholastic and collegiate levels, and for promoting civic engagement in computer science education. My current interest is in exploring the potential of stochastic networks and as enhancement to social computing tools for broadening civic participation.
While most of this blog is devoted to my research in computational journalism and trends in journalism education, I occasionally do some storytelling of my own. This blog picks up where my other blogs, Professor Kim’s News Notes (http://professorkim.blogspot.com) and The Nancybelle Project (http://kimpearson.net/nancybelle.html) left off.