New Tow Center report looks at how games can improve news coverage

The most-viewed New York Times piece in 2013 wasn’t a hard-hitting investigation piece or a long-form narrative; it was a quiz. Since then, interest in the intersection between journalism and gaming has grown. News organizations are finding that in addition to engaging people, games can make news more fun, comprehensible, and relatable.

A new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University looks at how news organizations are embracing games and why it’s important.

Maxwell Foxman, who authored the report, points out that games have existed in news for decades. (Think newspaper crossword puzzles.) While games can still be standalone pieces, media outlets are increasingly looking for ways to incorporate them into stories. Content, Foxman says, typically dictates whether a news organization will create an accompanying game.

“This was the case with The New York Times’ ‘Dialect Quiz‘ published in the winter of 2013. According to Times graphics editor Wilson Andrews, a data set on pronunciation helped shape the quiz. ‘I think what we did that really made it so successful is used some really solid actual academic research that really pinpointed people. And people were shocked and surprised and excited about how accurate the quiz was,’” Andrews says in the report. “Other playful projects which focus on specific data or events include WNYC’s snowfall map,  NPR’s Tetris-like election coverage, Slate’s fiscal cliff interactive, and The Guardian’s ‘Could You Be a Medallist?‘ Olympic racing game.”

Editors like Andrews can play a big role in fostering an openness to gaming. The Tow report points to BuzzFeed as a good example of this. Many BuzzFeed editors value amusement and have built “fun” into the newsroom’s culture. Staff play ping-pong and Connect Four, and toys line the tables where reporters work. This type of work environment, editor Jack Shepherd says, helps foster creative approaches to telling stories.

“Shepherd encourages a constant state of creation in terms of what can qualify as content. This is evident in the sprints that Shepherd imposes — in a fixed amount of time, he and other editors make as many types of a particular format as possible,” according to the report. “Shepherd utilizes the playful and competitive nature of the sprints to overcome the pressures of content creation. Thus the attachment to form and content are in constant flux and their value is not judged solely by editors, but by the key metric for audience interest—shareability.”

Like BuzzFeed, Mother Jones has also expanded its definition of content and created games to accompany serious news topics such as reproductive rights and immigration. Mother Jones’ interactive editor Tasneem Raja says in the report:

“One thing we’ve put a lot of investment into here is a suite of storytelling tools,” which make it “easier to more quickly zero in on which makes sense and which ones wouldn’t, based on our history using these things” and “the general tone of the coverage.”

Media practitioners can learn something from news organizations that are experimenting with various ways to tell stories. Games don’t need to accompany every story, but it’s worth asking if/whether they could enrich a story.

What would be the value of adding a game to this story? What type of game would make this story more fun? How could a game help people understand this story better?

These aren’t questions that a lot of newsrooms ask on a day-to-day basis, but maybe they should be. Posing the questions and brainstorming answers to them is at least a step in the right direction.

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