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Nov. 2, 2022, 10:50 a.m.

You are a rat. You are an umpire. You are an engaged news consumer.

Call them games or “interactive, fan-centered service journalism.”

The New York Times and The Washington Post each published a fun game-with-a-news-angle last week — one that placed the reader behind home plate calling balls and strikes as a Major League Baseball umpire and another that, uh, made the reader a rat scavenging for food, water, and a place to nest in Washington, D.C.

Folks couldn’t help but compare the offerings:

Games, I probably don’t have to tell you, can be pleasantly diverting, especially when the rest of the news is about election deniers, political violence, and tragic mass-death events.

In the quest to create the daily habits that many publishers see as critical to retaining subscribers, news organizations have invested in digital games and puzzles, from the classic crosswords to shelling out seven figures for a game called Wordle.

The rat and umpire games we’re talking about here are a little different than those examples in that they’re not ones you’d play again and again. (Though some wouldn’t mind changing that!) Instead, the creators  described them, alternatively, as “gamifying the news,” “interactive, fan-centered service journalism,” and “evergreen news-you-can-use.”

With news fatigue and news avoidance on the rise, the thinking goes, being able to deliver your core product — journalism — in a ~~~fun~~~ format can’t hurt.

Jonathan Ellis, deputy sports editor at The New York Times, said on Friday that the interactive umpire game has been one of the most-read pieces across the site since it published last week. The Times has turned sports news into interactive games in the past, too, challenging readers to beat sprinter Usain Bolt off the blocks or predicting whether an N.F.L. pass is complete or incomplete.

For the umpire challenge, the Times created a social-friendly shareable score reminiscent of Wordle:

Ellis edited the piece, while graphics and multimedia editor Sean Catangui, The Upshot’s Kevin Quealy, and other editors on the sports and digital news design teams made contributions. Ultimately, though, Ellis credited graphics and multimedia editor Mike Beswetherick for coming up with the idea and pursuing it as a “passion project.”

“[Beswetherick] was intrigued that Major League Baseball was talking about the idea of using an automated strike zone to call balls and strikes, replacing the umpires’ traditional role, and wanted to explore just how accurate or inaccurate human umpires are,” Ellis explained. “There are already various websites that track umpire accuracy, but we quickly came up with the idea of letting readers see for themselves how hard (or easy?) it is for umpires to make the right calls — and so that in turn became the idea for a gamified format.”

“We felt that a simple game could really show, not tell, readers what it was like to try to make accurate calls as pitches sped toward them,” Ellis added.

The Times converted data provided by the MLB — including the starting position, velocity, and acceleration of each pitch — to create the three-dimensional game.

I did, embarrassingly, manage to slip in that I got a perfect score under the pretense of asking Ellis what percentage of readers “also” called all seven pitches correctly. He told me that the Times didn’t track how well users played in the game — but that I shouldn’t wait at home for a call from the MLB.

“I’m sorry to say you’re not alone atop the standings,” he said, noting that many of the scores shared to social media were also 7-for-7. “The game wasn’t intended to make umpires’ jobs look too easy — and we note in the piece that the professionals are highly accurate. Even if you miss just one of the seven pitches, you only got 85.7% correct, which is lower than the M.L.B. umpires’ 2022 rate of 93.8% correct.”

(The last pitch, a fastball on the outside corner, did trip up many players, Ellis added.)

Staff at The Washington Post described their game as a “passion project” as well. Inspired by “the nearly endless stream” of videos of rats around the city on social media, designer Tara McCarty conceived of the initial idea for a rat-based video game. The Metro desk’s Dana Hedgpeth and Alisa Tang, designer/developer Joe Fox, illustrator Shelly Tan, and several others contributed to the game, part of a bigger package about rats in D.C. that also includes a rat quiz and a feature with rat catchers sharing tips as well as videos of their epic “showdowns” with the large rodents.

If that last line made you shiver, you’re not alone. The Post took pains not to make the game too realistic by giving the main character — a long-toothed fellow named “Cheddar” —  a pixelated, retro feel.

“We leaned into a retro theme for the game to make it feel softer and more engaging. People have strong reactions to rats — if it’s too realistic of a rendering, it might scare off potential users,” deputy design director Matthew Callahan said in an email. “Everything from the color palette to the rendering was meant to evoke a retro and soothing game — sort of a Super Mario meets Animal Crossing — rather than something grotesque.”

Still, there are plenty of disgusting/amazing moments in the feature. The pet poop left in backyards is described as a nutrient-dense “energy bar” for rats and, as players maneuver into a restaurant’s kitchen as Cheddar, they learn the rodents can squeeze into spaces the size of a marble due to their collapsible rib cage.

“Parsing through fact and fiction when it comes to rats was fascinating,” designer Tara McCarty said when asked what stuck out. “The idea that rats gnaw things to prevent their teeth from growing super long is a myth. Learning about sebum — the dirt and oils that rub off of rat fur onto the sidewalks and cement they frequent — was an eye opener.”

“We can’t unsee or unlearn the things we’ve come across in this reporting process,” McCarty added.

The Post has experimented with newsy games dating back, at least, to the 8-bit-style Floppy Candidate game in 2016, in which presidential candidates navigate news-centric obstacles. They’ve produced various “SantaSearches” every year since 2017 (including one where Christmas elves battle supply chain issues) and, in May 2022, Fox and graphics reporter/illustrator Dylan Moriarty built a game that uses a round of mini golf to illustrate how politicians can use gerrymandering to tilt elections. (“Think of us as your caddie,” the game instructions read. “We’ll show you how the district shapes are the result of careful calculation and offer help to spot gerrymandering in the wild. Can you beat par — and other Washington Post readers — in our first-ever Gerrymander Invitational?”)

“Rather than just reporting the news or trying to explain it, it encouraged readers to engage with it,” Callahan said about these types of games. “It can make it easier for a reader to spend time and create a connection with the story.”

The Post’s rat game is available on desktop and mobile, but the teams said they designed Cheddar’s adventures through a community garden, neighborhood dumpster, and restaurant with mobile in mind.

“A few things were trickier than expected — for example, making sure the user could hold down the on-screen buttons without triggering their phone’s text selection. That was fundamentally a completely new interaction we haven’t really used before,” designer/developer Joe Fox said.

“From a format perspective, The Post is deeply interested in pushing our storytelling — we aim to learn from a technological and editorial perspective on each project like this that we publish,” Callahan added. “By taking these learnings back, it gives us a head start on the next story, enabling us to build faster and smarter, and put tools in more people’s hands. This helps us think more about the story and less about the code roadblocks.”

The Washington Post said they’d seen the topic of rats resonate with their readers on social media, and that even internally, every time they talked about their game idea, “more and more people in and out of the newsroom wanted to share their own rat stories and things that they had learned.” The interest helped get the package off the ground.

For smaller newsrooms with fewer resources than the Times or Post — and that’s most of us — publishing as many interactive games at the same level might be out of reach. But games also don’t have to be high-tech marvels. If your small and/or local newsroom is experimenting with games or puzzles, let me know.

POSTED     Nov. 2, 2022, 10:50 a.m.
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