Whether Pacman or Halo first introduced you to video games, calling them “high art” might stretch the sensibilities. But boardwalk nickelodeons led to movies like The Godfather—could a similarly radical transformation be underway with games?
Narrative journalism draws many of its core principles from novels, films, and short stories. Elements like character development, scene-setting, and a narrative arc work whether the tale is true or made up.
Games, however, are different.
“There are characters and stories in games, just like there are characters and stories in linear media, so it feels like you’re dealing with something that’s in the same ballpark,” says Chris Swain, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Games Institute. “But I actually believe that they’re very different.”
Swain has designed a number of so-called “serious games” that aim to let players feel what it’s like to be inside of a real-life situation.
He says that the key difference is who’s in control of the timing and sequence of events. In traditional media, an author meticulously crafts the reader’s experience through pacing and cadence and shifting attention. In games, the player is in control.
“The hardest question in game design is ‘what does the player do?’,” asks Swain.
In entertainment games the action is often run, jump, shoot, but these are just a few of the available verbs. The choice of what actions are available to the player craft the experience and communicate the point.
Swain has created an exercise in map-making called The Redistricting Game. In it, players draw and re-draw voting district lines in a bid to influence elections for either Democrats or Republicans—player’s choice. “You learn the fine points of redistricting by taking the same actions that a redistricter takes,” he says.
The counties and politicians are fictional, but a player’s actions and consequences convey the realities of representative democracy. To add historical context, a short article accompanies eachmission as optional background material.
Swain believes that 90% of the reason a person plays a game is for the actual mechanics of the world and actions a player can take. He thinks there is a real danger in forcing too much explicit story if it comes at the cost of game play. “The story has to emerge from the actions that the player takes,” he says.
The effectiveness with which a game could tell a true story depends on how well the actions a player can take correspond to the actions available to the real world person whose role the player inhabits. Players understand a story in a deeper way because they are doing things that parallel the characters’ actions.
While the Redistricting game allows players to understand a complicated though perhaps dry issue, the game Peacemaker tackles a more emotionally charged subject: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Peacemaker places the player in the role of either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President. The game uses actual footage from events, such as the aftermath of a suicide bombing, or suppression of violent protest, to immerse players into the situation.
Playing as the Palestinian President, the first challenge is to respond to civilian casualties from Israeli tank shelling. The player has a wide range of options that fall broadly into three categories: security, political, and diplomatic. Formally ask Israel to stop? Import arms to defend the populace? Build a tourist attraction? The player must decide what to do, relying on the advice of different advisors. The game is complex, even on the “calm”setting—the easiest of three difficultly levels.
Asi Burak, Peacemaker’s lead designer, observes that for many people the Middle East conflict seems like “background noise”—a series of events with little connecting thread. He thinks this is because people don’t have a good sense of the full context and the different stakeholders. A game, he thought, would be the best way to communicate the complexities of the conflict, because it would force a person to make decisions and get immediate feedback.
“There’s something in the interactive experience that forces you to have a stake in the situation,” says Burak.
In the two years since its release, Burak has gathered a number of stories of how Peacemaker affected its players. “I’ve seen players sweating—I’ve had players tell me that they cried,” he says. “If they lose, it’s because they made certain decisions. It becomes emotional.” He thinks this emotional connection rises out of the action/feedback response loop and, allows a player to grasp the story of the conflict at a fundamental level.
“People came to us with the same phrase—so many times—that they understood in a few hours of playing the game, more than they understood after months or years of listening to or watching the news,” says Burak.
Both the Redistricting game and Peacemaker put a player into the middle of a big, complicated story. One can read long-form accounts of the iniquities of democracy or the complexities of Middle-East peace, but these games put players into the heads of characters, engaging with a story at a different level.
A player’s decisions are incorporated into the story, so one could argue that he has more on the line than a reader. If he fails, it’s his own fault—a reflection on his personal understanding of the issue.
“You understand the story in a deep way because you’ve actually tried to play it,” says Swain.
[After playing both The Redistricting Game and Peacemaker, I can see how they might be the fore-runners to more immersive and interactive journalistic narrative. They are both ambitious and impressive in scope, but feel like first steps, rather than a mature form.
The gameplay, for one, is less visceral than a typical player might expect. For example, the action in Peacemaker, is more Oregon Trail-style decision making than HALO hand-eye coordination. This could make it hard to win the attention of a gamer audience.
Coming soon: we’ll break down Wired’s Cutthroat Capitalism. But in the meantime, if you do check out these games, be sure to let us know if you think they have any role to play in the future of narrative journalism.]