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Gaming for news: What is it and why do we believe it can be important?

The Storytelling Studio partnered with American University’s Game Lab to conduct an experiment. How might we create a game to engage our audience with Polygon’s Final Fantasy 7 oral history? We asked game designers Cherisse Datu, Kelli Dunlap, and Joyce Rice to write about their experience and why gaming matters to journalism. They’ve been experimenting with the relationship between journalism and news during their fellowship with the JoLT Initiative.

The Rundown

You read the news. You watch the news. And despite being surrounded by news, understanding the news is a passive experience. News organizations aim for more engagement with their stories; however, engagement can be hard to achieve as we scroll through feeds of widely disparate content.

The Stats

Games are really great at engagement. Here are some stats to back it up:

  • There are approximately 1.6 billion digital game players globally (1).
  • We collectively spend more than three billion hours every week playing digital games (3).
  • Sixty-five percent of American homes have a video-game-playing device.
  • In 2015 consumers spent a collective 23.5 billion on game content, hardware, and accessories (3).
  • The average game player is 35 years old.
  • Despite common misconception, women make up a significant amount (41%) of game players (4).
Two donut charts. One is percentage of game players by age: 27% under 18 years, 29% 18–35 years, 18% 36–49 years, 26% 50+ years. Two is percentage of game players by gender: 59% male, 41% female. Entertainment Software Association, 2016 - Essential Facts About the Video Game Industry

Games tell stories and news does too

One key thing games do differently from other forms of media is that they allow audiences to explore systems rather than feeding them linear content. Games have the ability to tell stories through actions and constraints, rather than prose. News stories often describe systems, networks, or abstract environments, and we’re deeply interested in ways that might translate to play. We were so excited to have the chance to collaborate with the Storytelling Studio on an experimental piece of play-based non-fiction.

Games. Srsly? Yes, srsly!

Although play is often perceived as childish, it is a critical part of human development and crucial to well-being for all ages.

Play is OK.

For adults, play is highly effective at relieving stress (1), boosting creativity and problem-solving skills (2), and strengthening interpersonal relationships (3). According to play researcher pioneer Stuart Brown “Nothing lights up the brain like play” (2). One of the hallmarks of play is that it’s done for its own sake and often appears purposeless (2). That’s where games come in. Games are organized play, play with a purpose.

Games teach us things

Games are more than time wasters, they are adept teachers (4). Games like Mancala and Go date back more than 3,000 years and are still popular today. These games informed players about important economic and social systems at work in their culture. For example, Mancala is a game about sowing and harvesting requiring resource management and planning, two skills critical to survival in ancient Mesopotamia. Go was created in ancient China and requires players to think strategically about the capture and sacrifice of territories. So if someone tells you that games and play will detract from the seriousness of a story, refer them to this post.

Play is action and action is play

Journalists often struggle with visually expressing complicated systems, but games are really good at that because games ARE systems. As a journalist, you can ask yourself “What is this story about?” Or, if you think of a story as a game, you can ask yourself “what is the player doing?” Anna Anthropy, game designer and scholar, suggests we think about games first in terms of the verbs players have at their disposal. Examples of verbs are jumping, matching, or shooting. These are all common verbs used in popular games. Think of Mario (jumping), Bejeweled (matching), or Call of Duty (shooting). Verbs are action, and action is engagement.

One example of play expressing complicated systems is Parable of the Polygons, a playable post about segregation. The player moves shapes to different areas on the board. The verb is tightly coupled to the concept of individuals moving to places where folks look similar to them.

What types of news or feature stories work well within a gaming framework?

Games have many applications for journalism. They are often used to instill empathy or show a perspective, much like an op-ed. And like Parable of the Polygons, games are good at explaining complex systems in a simple way. Games lend themselves to stories that have large bodies of facts and fluid narratives and systems. The length of games is as adaptable as traditional news stories. From short mini-games to lengthier choose-your-own-adventure games to roaming sandbox games, games enhance and tell stories in ways traditional prose can’t.

This graphic plots how the kinds of news stories might become relatable games, plotting different nonfiction and news games according to the size of the system and the degree of narrative flexibility. You can find Square Off in the upper left, and the games on our playlist (at the end of the story) also plotted. Games within the light pink circle are examples of highly systematic stories with lots of explorable depth.

Making Square Off

“Final Fantasy 7 An Oral History” was a massive journalistic undertaking. Matt Leone, Polygon’s features editor, had been reporting on the story for more than two years. As Final Fantasy 7 fans ourselves, we were so excited to be invited to collaborate around this story. We felt our charge was to make something we would be excited about as former players.

Final Fantasy 7 is a name that holds a lot of nostalgia for RPG players. Therefore, the first game verb that we thought about was “share.” In addition, we wanted players to use Matt’s oral history to win the game, so “learn” also became a key verb. We played a word association game with the storytelling team. We asked what they’d like players to do. After that, we went to work.

A lot of our initial concepts echoed mechanics from the original game. We played with the idea of mixing up materia to summon development team members. Another idea was based on finding characters on a map resembling Final Fantasy 7’s Gaia. We also thought about having players share how old they were and where they were when they first played Final Fantasy 7. After a round of brainstorming, we came up with a turn-based battle trivia game.

Square Off was a happy marriage of Matt’s two-year investigation and a playful tribute to Final Fantasy 7. Our verb was “attack,” but also “attack correctly.” Coupled with the feature to share answers on social media, our main verbs of “share” and “learn” were achieved.

What we learned

Working with the Storytelling Studio gave us a unique opportunity to collaborate with other experimental news designers. The diversity of expertise and the agility within the team helped us challenge our ideas and iterate on lots of different levels, showing us how valuable it is to work with existing media teams.

Square Off was also the first time our team designed a game explicitly as a companion piece to an existing story. Working with Matt to create something coupled so directly with his work gave the the project strong parameters and end goals, which was incredibly valuable for a format still in its infancy.

What we’ll learn later

Telling stories through play is still a risky endeavor, so it can be hard to find partners who are ready to dive into something for which we don’t yet have a ton of metrics. Square Off was an opportunity to collect some more data about how reader-players interact with this kind of content.

A few of the questions we hope to answer are:

  1. Did accessing the game content encourage engagement in the long-form article?
  2. Were game players more likely to repeatedly return to the article, possibly to obtain a better score?
  3. How does the flow from game-to-article compare to the flow of article-to-game?

From these metrics, we hope to glean some insight into how games can support journalism.

Making Square Off was a challenging and valuable first collaboration, but we hope to take even deeper risks with play-based news design going forward. Square Off reimagines a quiz to give the player a more active role that is more tightly married to the subject matter, but it just scratches the surface of potential journalistic player-verb interactions. It’s a trivia game.

We’d like to keep exploring collaborations with journalists and other news designers to make riskier work that continues to push the envelope. We hope to see more and more play embedded in news design going forward!

We’ve included a playlist of games and playable interactives. The themes are varied but they all express complicated ideas through play. Most of them are short experiences. For more recommendations, you can check out our JoLT site or talk to us on Twitter.


  1. American Journal of Play. 2009. Discovering the Importance of Play through Personal Histories and Brain Images An Interview with Stuart L. Brown.
  2. Brown, S. 2008. Play is more than just fun. Serious Play.
  3. Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engles, R. 2014. The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1) 66-78 doi:10.1037/a0034857
  4. Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. 2003. Rules of Play. MIT Press.