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June 18, 2010, 10 a.m.

Knight News Challenge: The Cartoonist wants to make a digital game of visual commentary

One of the more attention-grabbing winners of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners, and one of the most buzzed-about here at the Future of News and Civic Media conference, is the project that goes by the name “The Cartoonist.” The platform aims to bring one of the oldest journalistic traditions — the editorial cartoon — into the digital age by making cartooning, in essence, a game.

Winners Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, and Michael Mateas, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, told me The Cartoonist will “construct an intelligent operating system” for digital cartoons. The professors are applying the particular rhetoric of game creation — if A then B, etc. — to the process of cartooning. And they’re removing the you-have-to-be-a-good-visual-artist-to-do-it caveat from that process. (If you’ve ever felt like you had a good idea for an editorial cartoon — and then remembered that you lack, you know, the ability to draw anything beyond stick figures — this might be the thing for you.)

Per their pitch:

To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.

The last line is key. The Cartoonist, Bogost and Mateas say, isn’t just about cartoons. It’s about engagement. Newspaper readers often “entered the news for non-journalistic reasons,” Bogost says: they opened the paper because they wanted the sports scores, they wanted the crossword puzzles, they wanted the funnies. The editorial cartoon, in particular, “has a history of providing a friendly entry point for harder news.”

The Cartoonist wants to replicate that entry point for digital news. While some cartoonists are innovating, in the main, editorial cartoons often aren’t that different from a century ago. But “by making little, playable, interactive versions of the cartoon,” Mateas points out, “there’s a reason to go online.” And giving journalists the ability to produce local cartoons — rather reprinting syndicated, broad-brush takes on national issues — could increase engagement even more. The goal is to draw readers in. Literally.

POSTED     June 18, 2010, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2010
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