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Tow/Knight Projects

Play The News: Fun and Games in Digital Journalism

Understand the role of play in the news, and implications for digital journalism including case studies about BuzzFeed and the NYTimes.

Project Leader:

More than ever before we’re consuming news in strange contexts; mixed into a stream of holiday photos on Facebook, alongside comedians’ quips on twitter; between Candy Crush and transit directions on our smartphones.

In this environment designers can take liberties with the form of the news package and the ways that audiences can interact. But it’s not just users who are invited to experiment with their news: in newsrooms and product development departments, developers and journalists are adopting play as design and authoring process.

Maxwell Foxman‘s new Tow Center report, Play The News: Fun and Games in Digital Journalism is a comprehensive documentation of this world. You can download your copy here.

Chapter 1: History and Discourses

This chapter scrutinizes the history of play and the news by tracing the origins of crossword puzzles in newspapers and exploring the fluctuations in popularity of those news products based primarily around video game-based elements, such as newsgames in the mid-2000s and gamification in the past five years. These historical vignettes expose some of the key motivations for newsrooms to use games and play—to engage and maintain users, provide support and richness to the news bundle, and modernize traditional news formats.

Chapter 2: Features of Play

The second chapter establishes some of the common attributes of games and play in current digital news products. Initially, it distinguishes between content-driven and situation-specific features—such as the MTV newsgame Darfur is Dying and The New York Times “Dialect Quiz”—and the use of stock formats and other elements from games and play to enhance user experience and participation. Following this discussion is a glossary of existing game and play mechanics in journalism. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each, the categories discussed are: “Badges, Points, and Prizes,” which have fallen out of favor after their brief stint of popularity at the beginning of the decade; “Quizzes and Questions,” which have seen increased acceptance, particularly due to their positive reception and their ease of production; “Situation-specific Designs and Packages,” which are often used as part of multimedia bundles to present particular content in a novel and engaging fashion; “Newsgames and Gameworlds,” which most closely adhere to traditional video games, but require significant effort in terms of both time and expense to conceive and build, and tend to appeal to specific niche groups.

Chapter 3: Newsroom Culture at Play

Certain digital newsrooms are becoming increasingly playful environments in which news producers and the products they create are both experimental and fun. Rather than snubbing play as merely childish, it inspires a variety of newsroom practices, from bolstering reader loyalty to encouraging improvisation Little is taken for granted in this dynamic news environment, and empathy, fun, and novelty are continuously encouraged. Using the entertainment and news website BuzzFeed—and specifically its game team—as a case study, this chapter analyzes some of the organization’s playful practices, the relevance of data and metrics, and the role of iteration and experimentation in news creation. It examines how play fits into developers’ digital toolboxes and how the infrastructure and space of the newsroom has changed in order to facilitate this agenda.

Chapter 4: Games and Play as Business Models

As the news industry struggles financially, the video game industry has become one of the most lucrative in the world—a seventy-six billion dollar industry in 2013. Furthermore, there has been a meteoric rise of independent, or “indie,” gaming both online and across game platforms. What economic lessons could digital newsrooms take from the game industry, even as both compete for views and clicks? This section breaks down different business models in the game industry and their applicability to news products. These include the AAA major studio games and freemium mobile game models, such as the trendy Candy Crush Saga.

Chapter 5: Challenges to Play

Even the most fervent newsgame advocates recognize that there are limits for when and how to use games in the newsroom. Certain types of content may not be best represented in game formats. Also, the culture of journalism, from graduate and professional schools to entrenched news organizations, seems to have become resistant to playful environments, which leads to the isolation of playful designers and developers in newsrooms. Furthermore, the use of games and play appears to have both negative and positive effects on the perceived brand of a news
organization. Practically, the most significant deterrents in game usage are the skills, time, and financial resources required to create, deploy, and maintain these products.

Chapter 6: Getting Into the Game! Advice and Recommendations for Newsmakers

The last chapter of this report dispenses practical advice and best practices for employing games and play within the newsroom based on the work of not only successful journalists, but also game designers and developers.



Download the full report here.

Maxwell Foxman is a PhD candidate at The University of Columbia’s Department of Communication. His research focuses on digital technology, internet and web culture, video games and gamification. He has an MA in Media, Culture and Communication from NYU and a BA in American Studies, Music and Creative Writing from Columbia University.

February 17, 2015