Technicolor Lazarus
GDC for curious minds

Putting a newsgame to the test


In the opening chapter of their book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, co-authors Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer describe the game Cutthroat Capitalism and its origins as a 2009 Wired magazine piece. Cutthroat Capitalism, the print article, presented an economic analysis of Somali pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden, with colorful pages full of infographics, charts, and diagrams (many drawn in 8-bit pixel art style) illustrating the economic dimension of ransom piracy in the region.

Cutthroat Capitalism, the game, puts the player at the helm of a pirate vessel, "staked with $50,000 from local tribal leaders and other investors. Your job is to guide your pirate crew through raids in and around the Gulf of Aden, attack and capture a ship, and successfully negotiate a ransom." The game, say Newsgames' authors, "effectively simulates capture and negotiation, synthesizing the principles of the [Wired article] into an experience rather than a description."

Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer cite Cutthroat Capitalism as a primary example of Newsgame's thesis: a well designed game can enable players to better understand complex events by experiencing them in abstraction. Playing Cutthroat Capitalism interactively exposes players to a complex system at work inside the news story.

Newsgamescover More importantly for the future of journalism, it integrates "a new and different media artifact" into a broader journalistic workflow that enriches the experience for the reader. The print and digital versions of the story complement and enrich each other.

Newsgames posits that good journalism must "embrace new modes of thinking about news" that include such interactive resources. Newsgames won't save the world or resuscitate traditional journalism, but the authors believe "they do represent a real and viable opportunity to help citizens form beliefs and make decisions."

As a teacher, I'm intrigued by Newsgames' argument, but how achievable are the potential outcomes its authors claim? Can a newsgame truly augment traditional journalism in meaningful ways? I decided to put one to the test and see for myself.

I tasked a group of eight students with the following assignment:

Consult four media sources (one newspaper, one website or blog, one print magazine, and one television network) and learn as much as you can about Somali pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden region since 2007. Try your best to understand the who/what/where/when/why of this ongoing story as reported by the sources you choose. This isn't a research or term paper assignment. Your goal should be to acquaint yourself with the story in order to discuss it thoughtfully and make informed judgements about it with your classmates.

The students relied on a range of news outlets (New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, Fox News, Mother Jones, Reuters, The National Review, Wikipedia, the Huffington Post - among others). From the outset, they tried to understand the story from multiple perspectives. They collected published news stories, interviews with government officials and Somali pirates, op-ed pieces, infographic time-lines, and other relevant materials.

When we met to discuss what they had learned, it became clear that they were eager to talk about the issue and prepared to think about it carefully. We enjoyed a fruitful conversation, with some students expressing a degree compassion for the pirates, while others advocated a military crackdown. In particular, the discussion opened their eyes to Somalia's plight as a war-ravaged failed state - among the poorest and most violent in the world - and a story that, sadly, none of these students had heard about.

Near the end of our meeting, I showed them Cutthroat Capitalism' s website and asked them to go home, play it for an hour or so, and post their reactions to our online class forum. I gave them no further instructions or explanations, aside from noting that my request was relevant to our conversation. In the forum, I prompted them with this question:

Having played Cutthroat Capitalism, would you say the experience altered or enriched your thinking about the issue of Somali piracy? If so, how? If not, try to explain how the game might have been more effective. I have no stake in whether you like or dislike the game, so please feel free to be frank in your responses.

Here is a selection of comments posted to the forum:

It never occurred to me that when you win a negotiation you have to split the money with Elders and land-based security in Somalia. Plus you've got to pay off your backers, so when you win a $2 million ransom you're only left with a quarter of that to split with your crew. ... I'd say the game makes that part of the issue more clear because it makes you stop and think about how these guys weigh their options.

There's so many ships sailing through the area that you can only target a small fraction of them, and its hard to intercept them sometimes. The news stories don't really tell that part of it. You have to figure out which types of ships to hit, and some can outrun you, and some don't really have much money or cargo, so you waste your time on them... The game makes it more obvious that these pirates are small boats in a big ocean full of other boats, and chances are slim that you'll get targeted, so why not take your chances.

The game is too easy, which made me feel it's not realistic, but the stats we saw say most of the pirates are successful, so maybe not. You can win every time if you demand a low amount of money and treat the captives well. That one story we read about the pirate whose been doing it for years and never getting caught, he wins with this same strategy. He's basically a nice guy who treats everybody well and gets lots of small hijacks that add up to huge money. The newspaper story made it seem like they were glorifying the guy, but the game shows how his strategy works, so I think it's probably realistic after all. He's basically just a good businessman.

For the people who are vicitmized by pirates, it's not a game... Cutthroat Capitalism does an excellent job of explaining how pirates negotiate and the factors that go into that. In this part, the answer to "does it enrich my thinking?" is yes. But it also disturbs me because I don't think the issue of Somali piracy should be presented as a game. It reduces it to something less than what it is.

These and other responses suggest to me that Bogost, Ferrari, and Schwiezer are up to something important with Newsgames. My students clearly responded in ways that indicate deeper reflection on the issue of Somali piracy, provoked by their interactive experience with the game. My one-on-one conversations with several of them confirm this impression.

Cutthroat Capitalism only scratches the surface of how games can augment or enhance traditional journalism, according to Bogost, Ferrari, and Schwiezer. This modest post fails to convey the full breadth of their vision for newsgames. But I hope that by putting one to the test it's possible to discern that there is proof in the newsgame pudding.

Ian Bogost may be the most important game critic and researcher in the world, and Newsgames is his most useful contribution yet. If we're curious about the power of games to make a positive difference in the world, Bogost and his co-authors have proposed a dynamic and viable new way to do it.