Every new field of study or practice starts with a taxonomy. Serious games are no different. Accurate, meaningful classification is important: since there are a lot of different serious game options out there, it’s easy to pick the wrong tool for the job. In the case of “newsgames,” a poor taxonomy might even lead to a backlash against serious games.
The line is blurry, but you have to draw it
At least, in the case of newsgames, it would not be hard for their designers to make their intent clear. A game can either help people understand the facts of what is happening in the world today (actual news), or it can try to persuade its audience to adopt a particular set of conclusions about current events (opinion).
As with any journalism, you can argue that the line between news and op-ed content is not as sharp as the border between the two Koreas. Reporters decide which facts to include in an article, what deserves to go in the headline, and how to phrase the facts. When readers get upset over presumed bias in the news, they’re usually pointing to one or more of these aspects of doing journalism (the article buried the lead, it’s unfair to describe principled debate as an “attack,” etc.). Even if you believe that a reporter can’t be perfectly objective, you can say that it’s the reporter’s professional responsibility to strive to achieve that ideal.
The intent of a newsgame, and our expectations of what it’s supposed to do, matter in exactly the same way. The recently-released Tilt World, for example, reminds us of the importance of ecology, and makes us feel good that, by playing the game, we’re supporting a drive to plant trees in deforested regions. In the cartoon world of the game’s protagonist, Flip, there’s nothing that resembles reality — and we don’t expect it to be a simulation.
The algorithm is a statement of opinion
A game like Budget Hero, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. When we make trade-offs in the budget, we expect the choices to accurately portray the options in the real world. If the PBS budget were to appear as a $1 billion line item, we would be justifiably upset at this blatant inaccuracy. Ditto for Government In Action: we all know how a bill becomes a law, so the game had better follow those rules of procedure.
But not all situations operate under rules as clear, explicit, and uncontroversial as these. Say, for example, you want to build a game about coalition-building and horse-trading in the US Congress. You’re now in the realm of messy, slippery human relations, the laws of which are not fully understood. If you build a simulation about the federal impact of taxation on the US economy, expect people to challenge your assertion that lower income tax rates for the wealthy lead to immediate job creation.
The algorithm underlying these types of serious games will always be subject to criticism, just as they are in any simulation. Play even the most complex computer simulation of World War II, and someone will complain that something is missing. (“Where are the partisans? Why doesn’t the game have a more realistic model for research and development?” And so on.)
Game designers have to make choices when they build their algorithms about which variables in the real world matter, and how these variables relate to one another. In the process of making these design choices, they leave themselves open to charges of innate bias, just as journalists do when they research and write an article.
Truth in advertising is crucial for newsgames to succeed
How do you answer this criticism? The only response I can think of echoes, once again, what journalists do: make it clear whether you’re in the business of news or opinion. Advocacy is fine, as long as it’s not disguised as something else.
If newsgames become more widespread then they are today, their designers will have to face this issue head on. Right now, in all frankness, newsgames are such a tiny niche of both the news and games that they haven’t yet risen to the level of awareness that might inspire some hard questions about their purpose and credibility. Here’s to the day when we have such challenges.