Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

Journalos and gamers

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I had never envisioned it, but apparently it is possible for my brother (a video game designer) and me (a journalist) to one day work together. The New York Times and Persuasive Games did it.

You will need Times Select to see this (remember it’s free to all with a .edu e-mail address). Times Select is inaugurating a new kind of opinion piece. It’s a video game where you are an “INS agent” (bad, Merrill Perlman team, the agency changed its name to US Citizenship and Immigration Services a couple months ago… does a video game even go through the copy desk?). You are an INS agent, as I said, and in order to win, you must hand out more green cards than your coworker before the clock runs out. The green cards are awarded based on the point system proposed in the immigration bill Congress is discussing. Each wannabe-immigrant is graded on his/her education, work sector, employment prospects, age, family members in the U.S., etc…

It was smart to put the game on the opinion page, but I’m not sure what opinion it’s trying to convey. The Duplo-like Statue of Liberty’s freaked out face suggests she’s not happy about something. Is it the swarms of Duplo-like immigrants surrounding her? Is it the legislation? Is it Congress? Who knows.

Points of entry, an immigration game

Persuasive Games, uppercase, is the company. Persuasive games, lowercase, are a relatively new trend in video games to mix gaming with anything ranging from awareness to advocacy to downright propaganda. It started with the much publicized Food Force, a game by the United Nations World Food Programme where players had to distribute food aid to war zones and prevent a famine. The New York Times had actually ran a story about the whole trend last year. The games are hailed by proponents as being a way to raise awareness about many world issues and reach a population (typically younger) that may not read newspapers. Even if they do read newspapers, the interactivity of video games is more engaging. I’ve seen the chateau of Versailles a dozen times, but I know it best for having roamed its halls and secret passageways to defeat a terrorist plot against Louis the 14th.

Persuasive games go further than your average “edutainment” games, which have been popular for a while now. Persuasive game developers make no secret of their agenda. Their point is to advance a cause, which means it can be truly educational if done intelligently and a terrible weapon of propaganda, or at least political campaigning … if done intelligently, too. This paragraph says it all.

“When they hear about Peacemaker, people sometimes go, ‘What? A computer game about the Middle East?’ ” admits Asi Burak, the Israeli-born graduate student who developed it with a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But people get very engaged. They really try very hard to get a solution. Even after one hour or two hours, they’d come to me and say, you know, I know more about the conflict than when I’ve read newspapers for 10 years.”

Great if the game stays true to the complexities of the conflict. Scary if the point were to build as many settlements/homemade bombs (choose your side) as possible. I can already imagine the International Monetary Fund creating a game where you restore the ailing Argentinian economy by making “structural changes” and negotiating a regional free trade agreement. Or a game where you solve global warming by buying and selling “right to pollute” vouchers.

From the strict standpoint of journalistic innovation though, I like the idea. Why not use video games as a medium just like the written word or film? Times Select is doing some good things, and proving that it’s possible to create Web content people would be willing to pay for.


Written by Isabelle Roughol

Friday, 22 June, 2007 at 20:06

Posted in Innovation

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