At GameTheNews.net we have been working on creating news-games for the past three months. We’ve covered a wide range of topics from solar power to the US election. However it was Endgame:Syria that got people talking and reopened the questions about games and reality. (For those new to Endgame:Syria, it is a game that looks at the Syrian civil war and the best way to understand the game is to play it – free to play here.) So what is a news-game? Simply its a game that explores news. Because a news-game may be exploring a serious issue, it is more about engagement that fun. News-games need to have a number of other crucial features to them, which we applied to Endgame:Syria.
We were far from the first developers to attempt to create games from news; the form has its roots going back a decade or more, notable examples including titles including PeaceMaker and September 12th. What became apparent to me as a designer looking at the form was that a news-game needs to deliver something to the user that a linear form of media (text, images, video) does not, else what is the point of creating it? With Endgame:Syria one non-linear aspect is that we can to put the user into a role, that of the rebels. I was not seeking to make a game of simplistic ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, indeed quite to the contrary, by placing the player into the role of coordinating the rebel side was a deliberate choice to offer some degree of insight into the challenges faced with such a disparate group. So for example, you can deploy tactics like assassination but whilst militarily effective, the serious price you for selection this route is paid in civilian casualties and that it may cost you the peace even if you win. Another non-linear aspect that Endgame:Syria was able to do is the replay value, so that you can see how different choices would play out over time. So if you don’t want to accept help from any Western powers, you don’t have to and can see how that will play out. Indeed, the re-playability is at the core of the design and was the seed of the original game.
A news-game needs to be responsive to events and feedback. The first point here stands to reason; if you can’t produce a game fast enough for it to be topical, then it is no longer a news-game. The second point is also important; what we create is not the last word on that topic. As a story evolves, so should we be able to evolve the game too. Again this is a method we’re applying with Endgame:Syria, amending the content in response to feedback to improve its accuracy (some of this is from Syrians in the midst of the conflict) and also adding new events such as Scud attacks and fears of WMDs. This also underlines the fact that a news-game is not the ‘whole story’. Nobody expects only a single news story for a major event. We are in the same position with news-games. With Endgame:Syria, events start well into the conflict, once it had become a civil war. I chose not to cover the initial non-violent protests and the government perspective too. These are deliberate design choices to allow the game to focus in on what I did want to cover; the difficult position the broad rebels are in, buffeted between frontline reality and the interests of other countries and factions. News-games, because they are created to be timely and current, have to limit the development somewhere and as a designer, it is about being clear to the player what the scope of the game is intended to be.
Being timely means a couple of important development issues need to be faced; both of which we encountered with Endgame:Syria. First is that you’re dealing with very raw events and some may find the medium you’re using uncomfortable, to say the least. This is part of a wider debate on what games are and how we understand them. This, in part, may account for the reason Apple refused version 1 of Endgame:Syria to the App Store. A disappointing decision to say the least for us, but one that asks structural questions as to the role of game distribution systems that have evolved, I suspect, without considering that games might deliver news. This may account for the reason why Apple, for example, treats games differently from how it treats books. The problem is that news is often about controversial topics which means the games that reflect it will inevitably encounter friction and if the systems designed to distribute them are risk-averse, then the form is in trouble. If distributors are not able to rethink their approach then news-games will (as they have been) migrate to more open platforms.
One of the things we are still experimenting with is the scope of news-games. We’ve experimented with games that have taken just over a day to develop (see here), to Endgame:Syria which took about two weeks. I suspect that the scope of the game will, to an extent, be driven by the news story, so we plan to try making some games that will take longer than 2 weeks (the forthcoming game about the War on Drugs in Mexico currently in development) as well as week long ones (for example Climate Defense) that take less then a day. What is exciting is that as this is a new form, there is still so much exploring to do!