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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.

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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.”

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • digidave

    I’ve actually spent nights imagining something very similar. Would LOVE to see this when it’s ready.

  • Lphbulphbu

    Hello,dear sir .Today I’m humbled to tell you something in my mind.
    Some people including me think that Ghost is electromagnetic field (EMF), which is matter that we can find. Now, let me introduce the opinion of me.
    Creature,from my perspective, is the Combination of field and the the physical body, this is so called standing wave, EMF in the physical body.we need food to add something in to the physical body so that the “Shell “can work well.If we are ill,somewhere of the Shell can not work we need medicine to help it turn to the right way. physical body is in the shell,so that the shell can affect the EMF.
    Ghost,the electromagnetic field (EMF), transmit from our parents through the reproduction cell. If one die the physical body ,we call it shell,die. But if one’s willpower is too strong,the   will’s EMF can live in other’shell,thi is so called to be haunted.
    This assumption is true or false? We don’t know! Thank you!
                             Peng li 李朋
    He Bei university of china
    My phone number :    +8615032231108

  • Garrett Goodman

    Just like you  @digidave:disqus  , been hashing out a very related concept myself. Excited to see what Thomas makes of it! The intersection of Gaming and Journalism is such an interesting product of the new generation of editorial entrepreneurs. Can’t wait for more newsgames to make it big!  

  • digidave

    @twitter-28351245:disqus HA! 

    I agree re: can’t wait for more newsgames. I’d say this: I think Loudon is making a similar mistake that a lot of us might – the idea that the gamers want to play as journalists. 

    I think we can come up with a better game mechanic than that. I’d rather play a game where I have to build a media-mogul empire than just be a lowly journalist. 

  • John C. Osborn

    This is really interesting. I’ve been wondering myself how effective virtual currency would be as a revenue source for newsgames. I will definitely be following this to see what happens. 

  • Mark Correa

    The idea of building a media empire — think Railroad Tycoon or the like — is much more interesting than being a journalist. Heck, most journalists I know barely want to pretend to be a journalist as defined within the system we have now. The idea of playing out a journalism fantasy sounds much more lucrative.

  • Shaminder Dulai

    Me too Dave! I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with this.

  • Garrett Goodman

    Ooh, that’s a great point @digidave:disqus , a media mogul, or maybe someone playing to amass secrets through good old fashion investigations. Use the mechanics of journalism in gameplay, but with a more glorious payoff than just a front page byline. Oh man, the hamster wheel is spinning!

  • Anon

    Well that’s another journalism grant straight down the drain.

    What we have here isn’t even a proof of concept, it’s not been produced, it’s not been thought out, it doesn’t have a target audience and there is literally no incentive for anyone to play it. 

    Jesus, you know how much time the average person spends reading news each day?  And in those 5 minutes you want them to start playing stupid facebook games?

    Nevermind the fact that nobody needs to play a ‘photograher’ or a ‘journalist’ these days – last i noticed you just put up a blog and started posting your material. (demotix, youtube anyone?)

    Honestly, I depair for the many talented people out there with great ideas who get zero funding and meanwhile this nonsense is bandied about by people who know literally nothing about the web and even less about people’s expectations of media in the digital age.

    Smurfs indeed…