As a gamer I enjoy playing games set in fictional universes; recently I've played the role of wind pollinating flowers, I've played a pilgrim on a mysterious journey and I've played a soldier in a high-tech future war. However all of these are make-believe. As a games designer I wanted to explore issues in the real world and it is natural for me to turn to the medium of games to do that.
Games have something to offer in engaging people in ways that linear forms of media don't. So began the project GameTheNews.net - we are still in beta but so far we've covered news like Space X's new rocket or the world's first solar powered nation. Then we decided to explore the ongoing conflict in Syria and what we did has become a global talking-point.
Making a game exploring an ongoing war was always going to get a reaction, though this was not our motivation, it was a topic I'd been following regularly. What has surprised me about the response is that the majority of it is very positive and in support of what we are trying to do with the project and how we've gone about it. I'm pleased that most commentators played the game first before casting judgement. By playing it first, it is obvious that far from making some tasteless shooting game, the form we actually chose of a turn-based simulation, offers something new. I'll quote one of the many positive responses as I think it captures much of our intent with the game (by Michael Peck at Foreign Policy):
"Many people would be hard-pressed to find Syria on a map, let alone know the factions that are fighting and the outside nations that are backing them. A simple computer card game may not be deep, but when players ponder whether to play a "Saudi Support for the Rebels" or a "Rebels Assassinate Key Regime Leader" card, they are making decisions, and that is how humans learn best. Perhaps it will spur them to learn more current events, or if nothing else, they may remember a few names and places, and who is fighting who. At the least, they will learn a lot more than playing Angry Birds on an iPhone."
That is a sample of the many the positive reactions (more here) - but what about the negative ones? Interestingly those hold up a mirror to both perceptions of gaming, media and the war itself. I'll run through the main objections and how I respond to them.
'Making a game of war is wrong'
Some of the objections focus on the fact that it is a game. The very word 'game' is associated with fun and enjoyment - the very opposite of a war. However games are now a broad genre covering everything from medial rehabilitation to casual entertainment. Just as a film does not have to be a comedy, nor does a game have to be about fun - indeed one of the news-games we've made on cotton picking in Uzbekistan is deliberately not at all fun, to emphasise a point. Keith Stuart over at the Guardianwrote a powerful article exploring the difficulties and opportunities of news-games and within it, from games academic and designer Ian Bogost, that making games from news triggers the 'shock-of-the-new' nerve in many people:
"What this comes down to is a problem of familiarity and convention... When you stop to think about it, there's really no reason to believe that film and television aren't inappropriate media for exploring real-world issues and events. I mean, Michael Bay made a film about Pearl Harbor, even. But we're more accustomed to non-fiction film and television because there are more examples of them."
Games are not the only form of media to hit this raw nerve of familiarity and convention - showing images of news on TV was also once feared to be a form that would trivialise news, as Andrew Marr's 2004 book reports;
"The BBC's first answer was to ignore the pictures almost entirely, in the cause of pure news. The newsreels were still being brought in, often out of date and lacking real sound... By the early 1950s the BBC had its own newsreel department... But [the newsreels] were really short feature films... For the BBC News people, who had grown up in the culture of words, this was fine. Moving pictures could never be serious. They conceded that news bulletins should be aired on television too. But how to marry the raw visual power of film with the sacred duty of news reporting?"
So we're all going to have to get used to the fact that games as a form are here to stay and they are as versatile as the written, audio or visual form.
'Making money from a game about war is wrong'
If you accept that games are a valid medium to explore news, then the people doing that need to earn a living as do journalists and others. There are no easy answers here about the balance between income and objectivity across the board. Sci-fi author John Scalzi wrote a great article exploring how those of us who create still need to make a living in what we do:
"What gets missed is the fact that work is work, and that we as humans live in the real world, and sometimes we have to make less than optimal choices in order to keep going. It's easy enough for someone on the outside to mock a musician for doing the state fair circuit, or an actor for showing up in an appallingly terrible film, or an author for writing yet another book featuring a protagonist you think is past her prime -- or whatever. But people have to work and eat and keep moving, looking for their chances. I'm not going to dump on them or judge them for that."
Our aim for GameTheNews is to pay our staff from ad revenue. Not all our games carry ads and there will be a mix of those that do and don't. Where they do, the ads are separated from serious content within the application. If this model of operation offends you, then please also direct it at CCN, the Guardian, this very site indeed, all ad-funded media operations, because we do the same thing as them. We see our content as serious exploration on important subjects where we offer a different approach to the traditional means. We don't think we'll replace traditional means of news coverage but enhance them.
So unless somebody wants to step in with a huge wedge of money to pay the bill so we can remain pure in our ivory tower, then our choices are either we explore news-gaming and offer new ways to engage with the real world and bring people into news who might not have considered it, or we go back to making games about monsters and not rattling any cages. Given we're updating Endgame:Syria with the latest often terrible events on the ground, I think you can see the choice we made.
'It's just not as deep enough nor as good at this other game'
Yes this is all probably true. But it all misses the point of news-games; that they are topical. To remain relevant, that content needs to be made quickly and with a short development time, you have to make tough choices about what to cover and what you won't. A single news report does not give the full picture of an event, nor does a single news-game. We have to pick aspects of the whole that we feel able to represent through a game. Endgame:Syria was made in two weeks, by contrast a major PlayStation or Xbox title will be made in two years and by over 20 times the number of developers. We want our games to have resonance and we're not writing history, we're engaging with current events, that means we have to make imperfect representations of events so we can keep them current.
'Its bias/propaganda/factually incorrect etc'
What media isn't? What we are is independent and transparent - nobody paid us to make Endgame:Syria and we had all the say about what it was, how it worked and what it would and would not cover. We've also posted a list of the sources we used to make the game, so you can judge it in that context. Russia Today was particularly scathing on this issue saying you could tell that the game was inaccurate because it portrayed Russia as on the side of the Assad regime when they claim to be neutral. Interesting how the game is indeed holding a mirror up to reality. Russia does have a key role in this conflict, as the game shows, but neutral? I asked Michael Peck of Foreign Policy is the game had this bit right in his view? His reply was clear:
"If Russia is neutral, then why does the Assad regime have advanced Russian weapons and advisers, and the rebels do not?"
What the game shows is that various countries have allied themselves to different sides. The game does not speculate on the motivations for these alliances, which I'm sure are driven by their own national interests as much as anything else, a motivation as old as nation states.
As the designer I was listening to a debate between pundits arguing about if the west should arm the rebels and the outcomes this could lead to - and that is where the seed of the game idea was sown - that particular conundrum. So this game puts you in the role of the rebels; not a homogenous group, who face choices over whose help they accept and what tactics they should use. If somebody else wants to make a game showing another angle to the conflict, I say great, the news-gaming door on this issue is now wide open!
I'd like to end the article with a quote from the book Digital Journalism by Janet Jones & Lee Salter, as I feel it puts the whole issue in helpful context:
"With every new distribution medium, be it the telegraph, radio, television or now the internet and mobile phones, there are always those who say that things will never be the same again; but, the change is rarely quite as radical as pundits first prophesise. The key objective for journalists and news executives is to understand and adapt to technological change. However, as in the early days of television, so too during the first decades of digital journalism, the potential of new technology was rarely understood."