Games for Grown-ups

Besides a few iPhone apps and an hour or two of Beatles Rock Band on my nephews’ Wii, I haven’t really gotten sucked in to the digital gaming phenomenon. Maybe it’s because I’m not that drawn to using imaginary weapons to destroy imaginary foes. Or perhaps it’s because I’m too immersed in reality (a.k.a life) or too busy reading, listening and watching the news.

But in the last year or so, I have become intrigued with the potential of games to deliver the news or engage us in solving real problems. There’s a whole brave, new world out there of people developing social issues games, so-called “serious games,” games that challenge us to go deeper, learn more, even make a difference.  

So, while you might have been hoping for a simple backgammon set or the traditional Twister wrapped with ribbons under the holiday tree, instead (dear readers) I’m presenting a virtual gift of the experiential sort. Below you’ll find links to some sites where you can explore this growing phenomenon of information games. Perhaps in 2010 you will be involved in developing a news game or a gaming component to whatever public media you produce.

The first stop on this tour is a must-see: MSNBC’s NewsTools, a laboratory for “news-infused” games. On the docket are graphic news visualizers – applications that deliver news headlines with colorful interactive effects. Widgets and screen savers and games (oh, my!). Their super-cool Spectra Visual News Reader, NewsBlaster and NewsBreaker certainly opened my mind to how real-time information can be integrated into a gaming platform. Check it out!

As you may know, public radio has dipped its toe into gaming. American Public Media has taken the lead with last year’s Budget Hero and Consumer Consequences, part of a larger project on sustainability and the environment. 

At the recent pubcamp session on gaming, NPR’s Senior Social Media Strategist Andy Carvin talked about his intention to create more games in the coming year, beyond the popular daily Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me Quiz

One of his brilliant ideas is to launch an NPR fantasy league in which gamers would play the roles of editors, reports, anchors, competing as aggregators of news based on current events. Given how many listeners and devoted fans dream of working in public radio, this could be a big hit. And they might even get to experience simulated newsroom discussions (minus the eye-rolling) over what should be covered that day.

Of course PBS has had the most extensive experience creating games, but nearly all of it is aimed at kids. PBS Kids appeals to 6 year olds and PBS Go! is for 3rd graders. Games on these sites serve as an extension of their brands online, from Clifford to Curious George to Word Girl. As an educational media leader, PBS has offered interactives for older students, too, such as their series on The Supreme Court. 

You can find some interesting grown-up games on the Independent Lens site, including interactive quizzes about everything from origami to organ donation. ITVS was ahead of the curve a few years back with both A World Without Oil and Fatworld. A World Without Oil brought together a virtual community in an alternative reality simulation that got players thinking about and changing their energy dependency. Fatworld was a fun way to raise awareness about the connections between food, exercise, nutrition and health.

Fatworld was developed by Ian Bogost, a global leader in the field of serious games. You can real more about him and his projects on his sites: Water Cooler Games and Persuasive Games.

Another good place to find interesting news games is Gotham Gazette, a NYC news site that has pioneered games around civic issues such as elections, garbage, and public parks. 

Games For Change (G4C) is an archive of social issue games as well as an organization that holds an annual conference in NYC. Connected with G4C, PetLab is a public interest game development center at the Parsons The New School for Design.

One of the powerful pieces of the gaming experience happens when a game allows you to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the word from their perspective. A lot of learning can happen in that immersion.

That was the thinking behind PeaceMaker, a hugely successful game that’s become popular in Jewish and Arab circles. It enables people to switch roles and imagine what it would be like to be a leader and decision-maker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The creators of PeaceMaker, Impact Games, launched a beta of a similar but more general portal called Play the News Game; it thrust players into current events and gamers chose roles and competed to correctly predict outcomes. I thought it was a fascinating concept, but it appears to be on hiatus.

As an experiential teacher, gaming has a lot of potential in the human rights arena. ICED: I Can End Deportation gives participants a window into the lives of undocumented immigrants.  Pictures for Truth sheds light on what it might be like to be a journalist living under a repressive regime.

So Get your game on, check out these links, and let me know what you think about the intersection of news and gaming in the public media world by adding your comments below.