Using games to help readers understand the news

With more journalistic sites using games as an interactive way to package content, a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge contest will help one nonprofit news site take these games to the next level.

A pioneer in this format, The Gotham Gazette has featured games about New York City policy issues that are an effective and entertaining way for users to weigh decisions and deal with consequences.

Online Journalism Review spoke to Gotham Gazette Editor-in-Chief Gail Robinson about what makes a successful game and why they work well for journalistic sites. Proving good games can be built on a modest budget, Robinson discussed why simplicity works but dumbing down doesn’t.

Online Journalism Review: How did you first become interested in utilizing games at the Gotham Gazette?

Robinson: In 2002 there were a lot of discussions about what to do with the World Trade Center site, so we created a game [Ground Zero Planner] to let people try to envision what they wanted the site to look like, and we got quite a good response.

We’re very focused on New York City policy, and we try to make the material accessible and interesting to people, not just to policy wonks or people who work for city government or bureaus. So our games [become] almost a story set to a game.

OJR: How do you actually conceptualize and build these games?

Robinson: As the editor-in-chief, I’ll be involved and we have a technical director and a design director. We don’t have an illustrator on staff and we’ll probably get [a freelancer] to do the technical work. But probably the writing and content will all be done in house.

OJR: How involved are the journalists on staff in the creative process?

Robinson: In the past we were very involved. [For example] The Budget Game sort of jumped out at us. The city was having a lot of problems after 9/11, so we thought it would be good to dramatize that by letting people make choices with the caveat that because the city was legally required to balance the budget, you couldn’t play the game unless you balanced it.

There were other similar games, so we did a lot of research and played a lot of other games. And then we came up with assignments and writers were assigned to various aspects. I’ve written a lot about education so [I researched] how much would it cost for x number of teachers.

OJR: What kind of content works well when it’s incorporated in this game format?

Robinson: Almost anything can work with a game if you have an intelligent way of flushing it out– I think it’s important to not be too complicated. That doesn’t mean you can’t have people making lots of choices, or you can’t have graphics and animation. But I look at some games where I feel like they’re asking me to do too many things, to play too many roles.

OJR: You do have a consistent thread of simplicity that runs throughout your games.

Robinson: What we tried to do was create something simple that would show people the story but would still be fun to play. I think you get a lot of that enjoyment partly through the animation and the way you present material.

The infrastructure game called Breakdown is basically a glorified quiz. But we had a wonderful clip of animation showing ways that New York was going to crumble under it’s own weight. And my son who was then 11 (who I don’t think has a lot of interest in New York City infrastructure) loved that animation and played the game several times and then he showed it to his friends. I think that indicates how you can build something straightforward and still make it a lot of fun.

OJR: Can games stand alone as a good storytelling technique or are they best purposed as part of a package?

Robinson: I think they can stand alone. For example, someone can make a decision about something like how to build an affordable housing project in New York. Just by playing the game, the user would probably learn about some of the tradeoffs and then could click on things for more information.

In our case the story is sort of behind the game, and it can be incorporated into the game itself or it could [stem from] a separate article. We’ve actually done both here. The Judges Game [was inspired by] the big probe of whether the bench is basically bought and sold. It had actually started out as an article and then we built the game.

OJR: The games on your site are effective because they help users to understand the consequences of their decisions.

Robinson: Right, that’s what we’re hoping for. That was a big thing with the budget game. People say I don’t have a cop on my corner and why is my child is in a class with 20 students and why are my taxes so high? And this is a really good way [to illustrate that] because you see the money go up or down. You see what things cost to make it clear that you couldn’t have both really low taxes and pay for really tiny classes.

OJR: Do users expect to win when they play games? What kind of reward do they expect aside from obtaining information?

Robinson: We haven’t had winning in these games. For example there’s obviously not a right way to plan Ground Zero, and if there is one the city still hasn’t discovered it. As for winners and losers, my sense is we would like to try both models and determine what people prefer. Part of the Knight project (in general) is to get information out there that other people can use.

On games where people don’t win we hope we’re offering an educational tool. We’re also hoping to get answers back from the readers that we will share with decision makers in the city and [incorporate the responses] into articles.

OJR: From your standpoint what are the technical challenges of building a news game?

Robinson: Knight wants everything to be open source here and that’s probably our biggest challenge. Most games are done in Flash and we can’t use Flash.

OJR: What are some of the games you’re considering now?

Robinson: All the games are pretty tentative at this point because we’ve always let the news dictate the games to some extent. We’ve always had a news peg on the games.

One of the games we’re considering is related to garbage in New York. It’s an endless issue here and it’s one of those situations where there’s no ideal wonderful solution.

In the course of this grant there will be two important political campaigns, one being the presidential and congressional race. Then as the grant ends in 2009 we’ll be right in the middle of electing a mayor, so we imagine we’d somehow want to address that.

OJR: Have you learned anything about what doesn’t work with these games?

Robinson: I think they do have to be clear. I think we have one game that didn’t work–The NYC Preservation Game–although I’m not sure all my colleagues agree with me. I think we could never really decide what exactly we wanted to do with it. We could never figure out if it was a quiz where you’re trying to decide what makes a building a landmark or if you’re playing landmark commissioner.

So it just seems to be that the game has to be well designed and have a clear purpose, whether you’re playing a role or making decisions.

OJR: How do you strike the balance between entertaining and the balance of delivering the news?

Robinson: I think you can do both [if] you keep information very solid. Don’t talk down to someone just because it’s a game. You can put people in interesting, genuinely challenging situations.

Also I think the visuals on these games are enormously important. You’re not debasing the information if you have really clever animation. You’re just engaging people in another way. If you put a really ripping, entertaining lead on a news feature you’re going to pull people into the news feature who might not normally want to read about that subject, and it certainly doesn’t downgrade or dumb down the information that follows.

OJR: How can indie web publishers add a game element to their site if they lack the budget and have technical constraints?

Robinson: That’s one thing I think that Knight is hoping we’ll come up with ways to do. [All the grant winners] are going to be writing, blogging and sharing ideas with each other about that. I assume the plan is to make those ideas available to people. I hope people can learn from what we did right and also learn from our mistakes.

What makes a winning news website?

To an online video game that recreates a once-vibrant jazz scene in Oakland, California and an MIT think tank project designed to facilitate widespread community news online, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recently awarded almost $5 million (and pledged at total of $12 million) to fund digital news projects. The winners of this Knight News Challenge met the following criteria: their projects incorporated digital media, involved community news experiments and used open source software.

Describing itself as a national foundation with local roots, the Knight Foundation has pledged an additional $5 million for the next four years to continue to award such community-based digital innovations.

OJR talked with Gary Kebbel, journalism program officer for the Knight Foundation, to find out what distinguished the winners, the implications for the future of digital media and why, if you have an idea or project and 20 minutes to complete an application, you could be among the next series of winners.

Online Journalism Review: How did this News Challenge come about?

Gary Kebbel:It came about because the president of the foundation, Alberto Ibargüen, is the former publisher of the Miami Herald, and in that role, he tried to put the paper on the Web. He analogizes that to trying to make a movie out of a book. Unless you’re native and taking full advantage of what the medium has to offer, trying to transfer information from one medium to another doesn’t always work.

He also thought that declining circulation and advertising in newspapers carried implications far beyond just lack of readership. Newspapers helped to identify what it meant to be a Miamian or a Philadelphian, and they helped identify problems and brought the community together. So [how] can this community organizing be done in cyberspace?

OJR:How is the amount of each grant determined?

Kebbel: Every individual determines what they feel their project would need. As the process went farther along, we would ask more specific questions and eventually the [finalists] created a line item budget.

We didn’t think it was necessary to make people go through that in the early stages. We wanted it to be easy to apply. If you know what idea you’re proposing, the application process takes about 20 minutes.

OJR: The main winner, the Center for Future Civic Media, was awarded $5 million. Their goal seems to be broader than any of the others, so what will be the tangible result of their project?

Kebbel: The MIT Media Lab will come together with the studies of sociology, psychology, political and cultural science to develop new processes [for gathering community news] and [assess] what mediums and technologies they can bring to solve those problems.

OJR: So it’s basically trying to catch up these communities with new technology?

Kebbel: Yes, to bring new technology to the community or old technology to the community in ways that people hadn’t thought about before. They’re going to be working with all the communities individually to find out what issues they should be solving.

The [Center for Future Civic Media] will also be hosting all of the other News Challenge winners at MIT for education, discussion and conferences that everyone will attend.

OJR: So these winners will be checking in with each other throughout the course of their project development?

Kebbel: Yes, that’s very important to us–that these winners develop a community of their own. Just because they’re experts doesn’t mean they’re only experts in their particular fields. They’re all experts in digital media so if one of them has a problem in one area, they’ll be able to talk to four others who might have a solution.

OJR:Adrian Holovaty won $1.1 million for his open-source software idea. What stood out about his project?

Kebbel: First of all, it’s an extension of his current, but it’s on steroids. It’s going to take every possible public database that makes sense–whether that’s global or regional or national–and combine it in a way where you type in your address and you find out everything going on on your street or in your neighborhood. You can find out where there’s a new school proposal, or where a restaurant is going to be shut down, or if the city has decided to change trash pickup regulations.

OJR: Like Holovaty, the winners already have some momentum behind their projects. Is it crucial for the winners to have already established themselves in some way?

Kebbel: The competition had various categories. One category was for ideas and those are represented in the blog entries. They didn’t have projects underway but they had a great idea that might get underway someday.

OJR: What about these blog entries stood out?

Kebbel: These winners … wanted to share and educate in a particular area, and to create a sense of community in a specific geographic area. The project had to have these elements and anything that was developed as a result of that project had to be open source. That’s one reason why we probably did not have applications from newspapers.

OJR: Rich Gordon (Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University) has created a project designed to teach students both technology and journalism. Why is it important for the next wave of journalists to be technologically proficient?

Kebbel: We’re not saying that every graduating journalism student should also be an expert in programming. What we are saying is that it would benefit that any organization, and in particular computer scientists who love and understand journalism.

So if an online newspaper wants to create a product, a lot of times they have a great idea, but they don’t have the technical expertise to carry it out. What we’re thinking is that if there were more people with both the journalistic knowledge to understand what makes a good story and the expertise to carry it out then [news] organizations would benefit.

OJR: MTV’s project won $700,000 to fund cub reporters [Knight Digital Youth Journalists] who will cover the election with video spots designed specifically for distribution on cell phones. Is packaging what made this project stand out?

Kebbel: Actually, what made it stand out is that you have this organization that traditionally knows how to reach the youth audience and …with packaging including cell phones, we want them to create a story for themselves and by themselves centered around issues that are important during an election year. I think the project will be enormously important in defining what is of interest to [this audience] and how best to reach them. So one of our goals for them is to learn a lot about the production and how to package stories on mobile phones and media.

OJR: Other projects, including Geoff Doughtery’s, are designed specifically to advance citizen journalism.

Kebbel: With the ChiTownDailyNews, one of the things that’s important is adding to the recruitment and training of journalists. It’s interesting because we haven’t seen that sort of blanket application focused on [so many specific communities].

OJR: Are there any other winning projects that stand out to you?

Kebbel: Yes, one area is games. Three different grants [Gail Robinson/Gotham Gazette, Paul Grabowicz/UC Berkeley and Nora Paul/University of Minnesota] will approach storytelling through games in different ways.

Another is the “incubator centers” [created by Dianne Lynch] based out of Ithaca College and includes six other academic institutions working together to try to solve journalists’ problems in digital newsrooms. It will bring together [a cross-section that includes] engineering, marketing and journalism students to try to solve a real problem [occurring in a digital newsroom].

OJR: Is there anything missing from this year’s winners that you’d like to see next year?

Kebbel: Our goal for next year is to have more quality applications from young people. And as a result, we setting aside $500,000 for a special category to award ideas and projects created by young people.

Our other goal is we hope for more international applications, and as such we are advertising the News Challenge in nine different languages this year.

OJR: Will anything change about the application process?

Kebbel: The application process will be much more open in the coming year. Applicants will have the opportunity to choose to go the open route or a closed route.

If you go the open route, you post your application on the Web and anyone can post comments about your project, and they can rate it. Let’s say your application gets 27 comments, and you decide some are good ideas and incorporate something that would strengthen your application. You can then resubmit an application that incorporates those comments.

Knight News Challenge offers millions for online news innovation

Have you been kicking around an idea for a new community news website? The Knight Foundation has a few million reasons why you ought to give it a go.

The Knight Foundation is putting up $25 million over the next five years to encourage journalists and Web developers to find new ways to use the Internet to help improve the quality of life in geographic communities. The Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge will award up to $5 million this year “to fund new ideas, prototypes, products and leadership initiatives that use innovative news methods to help citizens better connect within their communities.”

Anyone can apply: individual journalists, news companies, hackers with a dream. The deadline for submitting a letter of inquiry is December 1.

Gary Kebbel is the Journalism Initiatives Program Officer for the Knight Foundation. He spoke on the phone with OJR about the Challenge.

OJR: What kind of thinking, or action, are you hoping to encourage with this initiative?

Kebbel: I think a lot of what we think of as not getting traction is research and development in the news industry. We want to help spur that. But we’re also looking at non-news industry companies that are doing research and development and creating new products. But they’re not necessarily being created by people who have news values and principles and ethics. We want to make sure that we can help those in the news industry with the values of seeking the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth and to help them develop new products that help them stay strong.

Sort of a genesis for this was looking around and realizing that there was a time period when the publisher of a paper – and we’re saying, particularly the publisher of a Knight newspaper – was the glue of the community. In the way that, they not only were good citizens, they participated in community life. But by presenting the news, they helped identify problems, and they helped bring people together for common solutions. Now, as people transfer their news seeking or information seeking to cyberspace, who is doing in cyberspace what a Knight publisher used to do in real space? Who is performing that function of bringing the community together, and helping them solve problems? And improve their lives? So, with those sort of questions in mind, and in the idea that we felt that the news industry needed some help, we created this news challenge.

OJR: One of the distinguishing characteristics of online publishing that we’ve seen at this point, is that there are a lot of vibrant communities out there. But they’re organized around topics, subjects, rather than geography. Talk a little bit about that, and what the implications for that might be for this endeavor.

Kebbel: Obviously the requirement that the communities effect people in physical space in real life, is an addition requirement. Because we don’t feel that online communities need our help. Virtual communities spring up every day. But using digital communities to enhance physical communities, we think does need our help. And the reason we’re focusing on physical communities is because we simply want to perform the functions that a good news organization should, we think. Which is, to help improve the lives of people where they live and work. And it boils down to physically getting people together and trying to improve their actual, real lives.

OJR: But might it not be possible that some people or organizations putting together these virtual communities might develop some type of technology that then could be applied to the physical geographic community that would then be worthy of consideration?

Kebbel: Oh, yes. If a digital community helps people get together in real life, that qualifies. We’re just saying, for example, a community of model railroaders around the world is not one that we’ve designed this news challenge for. But something that might bring together Detroit teachers, that would work.

OJR: Let’s talk a little bit more about specifically who you’re looking for to apply for this. Are you looking for individuals in their home office? Are you looking for a corporate IT department, or something in between?

Kebbel: Everything. We would love it if a brilliant high school kid submits an idea and we get the chance to recognize it for its potential. Typically, foundations give money to other non-profit organizations. And what we’re doing that’s different with this, is that we’re giving money – or saying that we are able to and planning to – give money to individuals, to other non-profits, or to commercial entities or to for-profit companies. It could be a company with two employees, who are trying to get off the ground. It could be an arm of a much more established company, if indeed what that arm is doing is creating a product that helps improve life in physical communities.

OJR: Looking through the website that you’ve set up for this – one of the first things that struck me is that the criteria here is vague. And, as you say, purposely so. But one of the interesting things I saw in there was, you did get a little bit more specific when you’re talking about what you’re not looking for.

Kebbel: You know, you’re the second person to say that.

Well, what we’re not looking for are things that are already there, obviously. A new way to use a blog is probably not going to make it. Or – it’s sort of difficult to say what we’re not looking for, because overall, the thing is so broad. One thing, though, is the training program thing is important. This foundation has supported journalism training very heavily, since its founding in 1950. And so, we really wanted to point out that what we’re looking for here is probably so new that it’s not possible to have a training program for it yet.

OJR: Another one of the issues that comes up to this sort of thing is – it’s great when you’ve got something like this happening. You get a little initial source of funding for it, but what about the long term sustainability? Tell me a little bit about the awards process. Will people be able to renew them, or is there an expectation that this will get you up to the level where something is sustainable?

Kebbel: Well, we’ve broken it into various categories. And let’s take the very first one, ideas. And these categories we thought sort of mimicked a product creation stage, or process. Let’s say that someone wins the idea award in year one. We would love it if they would come back in year two, and try to get a pilot project award for the same program. And then the thing about the pilot project or field test is that we do want there to be a sustainability plan, as part of that. We don’t have any set limit on either the number of grants, or the amount of grants that we’re going to make in each of these categories. We’re literally going to judge it against the number of the quality of proposals that we have in. And some of these proposals might be for $30,000, and some might be for $300,000. We’re not going to say that one is better than the other, until we look at the proposal and what we think it has the chance of accomplishing. But you’re right. Obviously, I think we will give preference to those that seem to have the best sustainability possibilities.

OJR: One of the things I saw that was alluded to on the site, that’s always interesting, and maybe you can expand on it a little bit, was the concept of, if something looks fundable, that not only could there be an award, but also you could help network to introduce people to venture capitalists.

Kebbel: You’re absolutely right. Because we’re a foundation, and are legally set up to give money to other nonprofits, there are different legal hoops that we would have to jump through to give money to a for-profit. Now, there are ways to do it legally. That’s one possibility: A flat out “we want to invest in your company.” Either as an angel investor, or a second-round investor. But we also thought there are other ways to serve this function of bringing new products to the market. When young companies go up in front of VCs—you know, VCs are always trying to hit a home run. And home run usually means the potential for 100 percent profit in three months. Well, we would be fine with 40 percent profit. I think there’s a lot of good companies that get dropped off of the VC table because they’re not going to guarantee 100 percent profit.

Our interest is in what they call the double bottom line investing. Which is something that will be profitable, and socially responsible, and serve a social need. So in doing that, we would be glad to take the companies that fell off the VC’s home run list. And match them up with our financial advisor, who is also a VC, or people that our financial advisors know. We’ve been talking to various other foundations that do the work of bringing entrepreneurs together. Because we think it would serve the networking not only of an individual to a group of Vcs, but entrepreneurs to one another.

OJR: Twelve of the 24 months after you announce the winners, the initial winners of these awards, how are you going to be judging the success or the failure of this program?

Kebbel: Because what we’re doing is so new in the first year, we’re actually going to be using it as our guinea pig, and our baseline. So, I’m glad you said 24 months. Because in the year after we’re doing this, we don’t know precisely yet how to judge this. Depending on how new or unique or creative the ideas are, there may not be traditional measures of measurement, at the moment. So, one thing that we’re gonna do is just do it for a year. Let’s see what we get. And then use that as a baseline for trying to start judging what’s out there after it’s been there.

For more information about the Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge, or to apply, visit