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June 25, 2012, 7:09 p.m.
Business Models
Paperboy cover

NewsGame aims to populate a virtual world with real reporting and pretend correspondents

A Holland-based company sees an opportunity to pay for original reporting by bringing together real and pretend journalists in a virtual world.

Paperboy cover

Game makers turned to journalism for inspiration long before Atari gave us Paperboy. There was Deadline in the 1970s, and Scoop and Calling Superman in the 1950s. (If you want to get really old-school, see Round the World with Nellie Bly.)

The object is always to perform the duties of someone working in journalism: deliver the newspaper without getting mauled by a dog (or swarmed by bees, terrifyingly enough), work your way up from cub reporter, or put together the front page of a daily newspaper.

What about a journalism game that yields real news stories?

Thomas Loudon, CEO of the Dutch startup VJ Movement, is trying it. Here’s the idea for NewsGame, a Facebook game now in development: Players take on the role of foreign correspondents and face mini-challenges within the game world, such as “you have to cross the border into Iran” or “save child soliders in Somalia,” Loudon told me.

“You have to create your skills, your personality, you travel the virtual world as a journalist,” Loudon said. “You’re going to be cooperating or competing with other players you meet. You can decide to team up with a photographer, for example, and go together. Or you can ignore the photographer and say, ‘I’m going on my own,’ but you might not be as safe.”

Players encounter issues in the game world that are probably playing out in real life — a bombing in Pakistan, drug battles in Colombia — then pitch related stories to actual journalists, who populate the game with original reporting. Loudon says he is working with VJ Movement’s existing network of 300 journalists in more than 100 countries. Those journalists are paid €750 to produce a video report or €150 for an editorial cartoon. (The rates are being tweaked to reflect pay scales in different countries.)

While the game will be free to play on Facebook, players can buy in-game resources, FarmVille-style. This means the game, in addition to ad revenue, will pay for the production of the journalism.

“The gaming business model that works really well at the moment is the model where you sell virtual goods or virtual credits in a game,” Loudon said. Product placement is another option. “Sony cameras,” he said, “or airlines, because journalists travel a lot, or hotels.” Loudon says he is also seeking partnerships with newspapers so that real-life subscribers can get game credits.

Loudon says the company is in negotiation with “several large brands of comic characters” that he hopes would draw in players who might not otherwise be interested. Here’s how he explains it: “Do you know about The Smurfs? It’s an extremely annoying game but it’s a huge hit. A major success.”

You won’t find Smurfs in the NewsGame world, but Loudon hopes the game will be populated with “comic characters that have a lot to do with journalism.” (For what it’s worth, I nominate Scarlet O’Neil over this guy.)

NewsGame’s team of real-life journalists will report to a team of editors, and all reporters will be required to sign to an ethics code. “If we find out they have deliberately screwed up, they have signed a contract that says we can put a red cross on their profile on the site, and we explain why it’s there.”

It remains to be seen whether gamers will like playing as journalists, and whether serious journalism can thrive in a game. Even if journalists are enthused about contributing, how will consumers feel about getting real news in an environment that blurs fantasy and reality?

As anyone who has deliberately crashed a Choplifter into a crowd of digital people (or sent a fleet of Micro Machines off the cliff of a sofa arm, or mutilated a Barbie, etc., etc.) can tell you, people often do things in games that they’d never do in real life. But what happens when the two intersect?

Take an example that Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain raised at this year’s ROFLCon, an annual Internet culture conference. In 2006, when a World of Warcraft player died — in real life — the friends she had met in Azeroth planned an in-game vigil in her memory, spreading the word on WoW message boards. A rival guild saw this as an opportunity for a sneak attack and slaughtered all of the mourners. Some people were outraged, horrified. Others shrugged off the virtual massacre: It’s just a game. The conversation has sparked serious examination of gaming ethics and the extent to which real-life codes apply to massively multiplayer game worlds.

NewsGame aims to be one of those worlds with crossover from real-life reporters. It’s not just a game. “It’s all going to be based very much on real experiences of correspondents,” Loudon said. “We’re gathering as much information as possible from correspondents to create the game. The whole idea, the reason why people would play, is basically to go along on that adventure.”

POSTED     June 25, 2012, 7:09 p.m.
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