Editor’s note: There are lots of new stories to read from the newest issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports. But Nieman Lab readers might be particularly interested in this story by Rose Eveleth, about the untapped storytelling potential of news-based games.
You’re looking at a map of New York City when a red stick figure drops on the corner of Nostrand and Atlantic in Brooklyn. “Lauren is having a heart attack!” To save her, you must get her to the nearest hospital. But as you do, several more stick figures fall from the sky, calling for your attention. Some will live; some will die. By the end of the game, the bodies are falling faster than you can save them. “You saved 7 out of 26 lives, and 10 still need to get to a hospital.”This is HeartSaver, a game built in two days by developers and journalists from ProPublica at a hackathon organized by the Editors Lab at the Global Editors Network in New York in 2013. Using data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the game helps users better understand how the time it takes to get to a hospital can impact survival chances during a heart attack.
When the ProPublica team showed up at the hackathon, they first thought about simply building a tool that would let people plug in their addresses to find out how long it would take them to get to a hospital. But Sisi Wei, a journalist at ProPublica and one of the designers of HeartSaver, wanted to try something different. “How can we make this experience last longer than one input?” she wondered. “What can we do to help people understand the situation of folks who don’t live or work near them?” A newsgame was her answer.Games are not new to journalism. Crossword puzzles have been a beloved part of newspapers for almost as long as there have been newspapers, and some of BuzzFeed’s most popular features are its quizzes and listicles, which can be substantive as well as trivial. The BuzzFeed News app, for example, offers a weekly quiz that tests readers’ knowledge of world events, and the company also just launched an app called QuizChat, which integrates with Facebook Messenger and allows users to take quizzes with their friends. Recently BuzzFeed launched a choose-your-own adventure game to help describe mental health issues in which players must navigate a day with depression. The Washington Post is experimenting with chat apps like Kik to create trivia games; The New York Times Magazine mailed its subscribers a cardboard headset so they could watch “The Displaced” documentary on the global refugee crisis in 3D; and in its recent ad for a deputy director of data visualization the Los Angeles Times listed “Unity or Unreal game engines,” which are used for games and virtual reality systems, under preferred job skills. As digital technology allows more and more of our lives as consumers to be framed as play, scoring points or competing with others, companies of all kinds have been incorporating games into their strategies. Power suppliers rate your energy efficiency compared to other households in your neighborhood; health insurance companies encourage you to rack up points by exercising and staying active; Foursquare encourages users to regularly check into their favorite spots so they can “win” and be named the mayor.