Exploring the overlap between games and journalism


I recently attended a lovely and amazing conference called the Images & Voices of Hope summit. It blew my mind, and I met a lot of incredible writers and journalists. I was immediately impressed by two things:

  • I forgot how much I enjoy the company of writers.
  • There are lots of ways to do a profound amount of good by making media.

This got me thinking about things that journalism and games have in common, and the things they don’t have in common. I’ve done a lot of thinking about games vs. books, games vs. movies, games vs. actually doing things. Weighing the structure and affordances of news against games is honestly something that hadn’t occurred to me.

One of the things that serious games and journalism have in common is that they are both media made for a purpose. They both want you to consume them and come out the other side changed in some way. It occurred to me that games can learn a ton from the generations of culture and expertise behind professional journalism.

In terms of generating that change, I think games and journalism have a notable contrast. Games double down on the intrinsic interest of the player (“this will be fun!”), while journalism appeals to the extrinsic interests of the reader (“This is something I want to know about!”) Now of course, news articles with serious goals still strive to be entertaining, and learning games still hope that players care about the topics before they begin to play. I think it’s fair to say that news media expects someone to read their story because it’s about something important, and that games media expects someone to play their game because it’s fun.

Journalism exists to inform someone about something they didn’t know. Journalists accordingly write about things that *are,* and under the assumption that you should know about those things. Journalism focused on making impact and change often looks at the type of things that demand action through their very existence — and can leverage reality with tools like inspiration, community, outrage, empathy, etc.

Journalism relies on the extrinsic, in that sense — expecting you care about the world around you. And of course, you should.

Games endeavor to present information about *themselves,* under the premise that the act of thinking about them is enjoyable and worth doing. Mechanics, identity, reward structures … all of the components of games that make them great are internal to the experience. Games can leverage tools like accomplishment, frustration, empowerment, etc.

So games rely on the intrinsic; they expect you to care about your own experience, and promise to lay out a challenge worth spending your time and effort on in the name of being a thinking, learning human being. And of course, you should.


Good games layer a whole series of different types of rewards (Pleasing animations! New abilities! Narrative progression! Hats!) to hope that the player “buys in” to one or more of those rewards. If a player identifies with the reward structures, they might stick to the game’s ecosystem and “have fun” inside that little world.

But just because games rely on internal rewards doesn’t mean that they must be exclusively inward focused. A game can still reference and connect to things in the real world — and not just as a narrative setting or a pretty backdrop. Games can impart things like professions, perspectives, and systems that correlate to real-world constructs. One example would be a game Filament developed called Citizen Science that directly integrates journalistic practices (evidence collection and structuring interpretations of events), and leverages the power of identity to create a role for the player that is empowered to change the world by understanding science and science argumentation.

This power of identity is really, really important in games. Any time a game creates a role or avatar for the player to step into, that identity has a unique connection to the player. In some ways, the player steps into that identity, including their profession, personality, relationships, and goals.

Other forms of media can allow you to meet, sympathize, and even read the minds of other people, but games allow you to become someone you are not, and experience the world from a perspective that is not your own.

But even so, this type of identity generation contains a shortcoming worth noticing. The empathy we generate by standing in someone’s shoes inside a game experience is real, but it is in some ways a “cheat”; we haven’t done much to impart empathy practices, we’ve just let the player be selfish … as someone else.

Ideally the assumption is that the player can start a learning game not caring or knowing anything, asking only to be entertained. The game will then create a protected space that demonstrates the value and interest behind the practice. (In Citizen Science, of citizenship-through-scientific-literacy).

Games focused on making impact and change (or at least, the way I’ve historically approached them) generally leverage the idea that we’re helping the player build a way of thinking/acting that hopefully is transferable outside of the game. And we do that by layering in as many reward and feedback structures as we can, to make the thinking, struggling and mastering feel good — to make it feel empowering, feel like an accomplishment worth accomplishing.

The real pleasurable and interesting part about a game is the voluntary decision to take part in a challenge purely for the act of experiencing it. You spin the wheels of your mind against a puzzle, environment, or a team that you can think about, experiment with, and get better at. You walk away with a new thing to think about and a sense of clarity and accomplishment. But this is mostly about you. You, and your brain. In that sense, games speak to our selfish practices, as human beings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Game players who read this are likely frothing at the mouth with a giant cavalcade of exceptions to this generality. Especially in indie games, there are games that push and test the boundaries of what’s possible in games. That’s fine; maybe I can help with two counterpoints, and then provide counter-counter points:

Big Counterpoint/Rebuttal #1:

Multiplayer games. Other brains certainly are nearby, but your contribution to a team or your might over your opponents is determined by your skill, trained reflexes, and knowledge.

Big Counterpoint/Rebuttal #2:

Adventure/narrative-driven games. Yes, these games employ traditional narrative tools, but a very common criticism of these games is that there isn’t much there to “play.”

Feel free to send me any other interesting exceptions, I’m always looking for more things to play.

Games struggle with imparting transferable impact on a player’s perspective, even when they contain powerful tools like identity in their intrinsic models of motivations. Is there maybe a way we can leverage the power of games, but integrate with journalism to provide more meaningful impact-based outcomes?

I think so! And I will tell you how…


So I suppose I’ve painted myself in a corner here: I’ve established that games essentially are a selfish, insulated experience, and that journalism is tied to the consumer’s experiences and ability to impact the real world. BUT! BUT! I think there’s a way to reconcile these and even see how games can complement journalism.

Serious Journalism needs readers who care *before* they read, watch, or listen to a story. They need to care at least enough to get past the headline or link title. A piece of journalism about a government abuse may incense a reader, but unless that reader thinks to themselves “I’m the type of person who can do something about this,” no change will occur. Games might be a model to generate that intrinsic interest … in the extrinsic.

Games need players who care *after* they play (See where I’m going with this?). They need tools to get players to understand how their experience and new perspective can be turned into a way of asking questions about the world and ideally enacting change for good. Journalism might be able to provide that extrinsic interest … in their newly formed intrinsic goals.

So step 1, the bluntest instrument, is to make games to foster intrinsic interest, then connect those players to the news and information they need to catalyze into change and impact. But how is this accomplished? A link at the end of a game? A community/classroom curriculum to support the transfer?

I don’t know. Certainly those can help, but there must be some interesting ways to integrate beyond just “put these two things near each other.” Can we create games that foster community involvement with news stories? Can we impart playful practices that connect people with similar community service interests? Can we get newspapers to talk about games intelligently as a form of media that can be used for good?

Maybe! It’s certainly worth a shot…


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