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.

Trade association proposed to represent ratings websites

When a Washington D.C. homeowner became disgruntled with a contractor who turned a remodel into a costly nightmare, she posted a complaint on a review site called Angie’s List. As Washington Post Metro columnist John Kelly chronicles in a recent post, it wasn’t long before the contractor caught wind of his negative review. The retaliation? A $6 million lawsuit against the homeowner.

Kelly’s column notes that the contractor wanted to sue Angie’s List, but that his lawyer told him it was protected. The statute most likely being referenced is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which essentially protects Web publishers from comments posted by users on their sites.

But the negative impact for review sites as a result of this sort of incident is exactly what concerns Bob Nicholson, vice president of marketing and business development for, a company whose umbrella of review and ratings sites includes, and

Nicholson says the company’s sites continually receive threatening phone calls and letters in reaction to the negative reviews garnered by its members.

Armed with marketing budget and media contacts, Nicholson says professionals can take an aggressive stance against review and ratings sites. That’s why he’s spearheading an effort to organize these sites by forming a trade association for ratings and reviews websites.

OJR spoke to Nicholson about the legal issues and cases brought against the publishers of these sites, the need for codes of conduct and why ratings sites deserve a positive spin in the press.

Online Journalism Review: Comments and ratings posted on review sites are usually anonymous. Is that crucial to a successful review site?

Bob Nicholson: People are hesitant to share their opinions precisely because of retributions, so I think it’s important for people to share their opinions with some confidence that they’re not going to be sued for what they say.

OJR: To play devil’s advocate, if people are saying that something that’s true, then why be afraid to put a name behind it?

Nicholson: In our system of justice, you can be accused of anything. Even if your defense in court is the truth, being sued can still cost thousands of dollars in legal defense, even if you ultimately win the case. Many people don’t want to deal with that.

So we’d see a real chilling effect if people are afraid to post their opinions. If hadn’t allowed anonymous postings, students certainly wouldn’t have shared opinions about professors because of fear of retribution.

OJR: Have any lawsuits been filed against your company?

Nicholson: None of the [sites] has actually been sued. We regularly get threatening letters and phone calls. But we have quite strong legal protection in the form of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which basically says that we are immune from the liability for content posted by third parties on our website.

If someone wants to sue the person who posted the content, they have to go through a two-step process. First, they have to get information from our company about who posted the content, and really all we can give them is an IP address and time of posting because that’s all we have. And they need to get a court order in order to have us divulge that information, which we have done on a couple of occasions. Then they need to get another court order to go to the Internet service provider and find out who was using that IP address at that time.

Sometimes a person who posts a negative review will post enough information in the review that it’s kind of self-identifying, and there’s a reasonable cause of action. In that case, the party who objects to the review can bypass all of these steps and file a John Doe lawsuit claiming that they believe this person is responsible for these postings.

OJR: How should reviews be monitored?

Nicholson: We tend to air on the side of letting posts go through. We do remove posts that have derogatory racial or sexual comments. We also remove posts that include personal identifying information about the poster or third party.

If a post includes specific allegations of illegal actions, we delete that too. Our position there is if you have knowledge of specific legal actions, a ratings and review site is not the place to post that information.

For example, if someone posts something that says, ‘this auto mechanic says that he fixed my carburetor and he didn’t fix it at all. He didn’t do what he said he was going to do,’ that’s a complaint about service. On the other hand, if he posts something that says, ‘this auto mechanic gave me a written quote and then before he would give me my car, he gave me a bill for another item which does not match the quote,’ that’s an illegal action.

OJR: But as a reader of review sites, boy, would I want to know about that mechanic before I took my car there. So do you allow some of those posts or how does it work?

Nicholson: We do and it’s subjective and difficult because we have moderators and we provide guidelines for them, but sometimes the moderator may interpret the rule differently in a particular case than I would interpret the rule. So we have guidelines that we try to apply on the sites that we manage, and it’s by no means universal and other sites have different guidelines or standards.

OJR: How would a trade organization unite ratings sites?

Nicholson: One of the things that we want to do is provide a source of information the press can turn to for the other side of the story, which is that individuals really need a voice. They need a place to share their opinion, and where they can hear about what other people have experienced. They need to have something that balances the marketing power of professional associations by giving individual consumers the ability to express themselves and learn from other consumers.

OJR:What would a professional code of conduct for ratings sites include?

Nicholson: That’s really premature to talk about. I think one of the things we need to do is as we build the organization is to get the various companies involved in deciding that.

OJR: How do you draw guidelines for posts?

Nicholson: Well that comes down to the individual company and site philosophy, and I do think that it’s important that sites be open and public about what their standards are so you can understand how posts are being filtered.

In our case we’re very careful about deleting things because we don’t want to bias the ratings with our feelings. People express themselves differently. We see a very different review and type of language on our nightclub site than on our camp ratings site. If we try to apply our biases, I might filter out a lot of the ratings on our nightclub ratings site because of the language, but for that audience it’s valid discourse–

OJR: So you don’t want to disrupt the culture of whatever the product or the service is–

Nicholson: Yes. We also put a lot of faith in people as readers. When you’re reading reviews that people have posted, their language will influence you and you’ll interpret what they’re saying partly based on how they’re saying it. Do they seem like they’re crazy and vindictive or do they seem reasonable and are giving a balanced review?

We don’t prefilter the content because you can form your opinions just as well as a moderator will make any decision as to what to let you say.

OJR: How does a user trust that reviews are legit?

Nicholson: Through a combination of software filters and instructions to our human moderators, we do try to filter out that type of abuse. We give our moderators instructions to look for patterns that computer software would have a difficult time seeing. For example, do I see the same phrases being used? Do I see the same language used over and over again? Do I see reviews submitted for five different Realtors within the same geographical region that uses very similar language to say this Realtor’s terrible? Then the suspicion is that maybe a realtor in that area is systematically slamming his competitors.

We also have faith in the site visitor to look at the reviews and say, you know all these reviews are just too glowing, or they’re all just too awful and I don’t really believe them. We also emphasize this is just one source of information and if it’s an important decision, it certainly shouldn’t be your only source of information.

To contact Bob Nicholson about his proposed trade association, e-mail bob [at]