hypergene / media solutions

What Can News Media Learn from Computer Games
by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis

Presented at "Playing the News: Journalism, Interactive Narrative and Games" at the Institute of New Media Studies, University of Minnesota, Nov. 1-3, 2001

This is not a conference about how to turn stories into games. But what we can learn from games that will help drive interest and participation in the stories that we generate - perhaps even change how to tell stories together.

In the past, media have gathered and collected information to tell a story to the world. Then the world interacted and reacted to this information. Hopefully, we reported that along the way, and called it a "follow-up" story.

Now, with the Internet, we have the power to not only start stories (reporting, news gathering) but then capture how the world interacts with it, reacts to it and changes it. We now have the ability to hear the world tell the story back to us.

Media organizations don't realize that their job is connecting. They can no longer just be the 'big mouth', they have to be the 'big ear'.

Today's news media organizations are story instigators. They start stories. Once they are released, stories transform and can take a life of their own, well beyond the control of the media organization. Stories are then retold, appropriated and reused to explain the meaning of other stories.

These stories are not always made of paragraphs and pictures. Stories can take the form of a small box score for a baseball or hockey game. The numbers in a box score tell a story. They have a linear beginning, middle and end just like a traditional narrative, just like highlights on SportsCenter.

People take this story and tell it others. And in return, someone tells the story back to them. Retelling stories are one way that we make sense of the world we live in. For baseball fans, the box score is sometimes all they need to relive the game.

The stories that we are attracted to, our interests and our obsessions are what define us. They are what makes us unique. Naturally, we when find others who have those same intense interests, communities are built. Today, the Internet enables online communities to coalesce rapidly.

So why isn't news connecting with people like so many other interests on the Web? It's because we're still acting like tellers instead of listeners. We're not enabling people to tell stories back to us and to others. We're not enabling their obsession.

Oddly enough, the best model for how news organizations might better engage people can be found at Amazon.com. Amazon doesn't really tell you what to buy. It shares what others have considered buying, what they bought, and what they thought of it once they bought it.

Your interactions have a dynamic impact on the experience. That's magnified by all the buyers that are also part of this community. Amazon is listening and reacting to everything that's happening in the environment. It's truly a networked shopping experience. What we don't have right now is an equivalent networked news experience.

For discussion purposes, we took these ideas and came up with this example. The basic idea here is the "User as Editor or Storyteller." Instead of being spoon fed a 16-inch game story. People are presented with a story matrix. They can choose the breadth and depth that they want to explore. They no longer must be led slavishly by one story. Rather, the story becomes a point of presence for numerous associations. These associations provide the big picture and a snapshot of the collective consciousness.

Everyone who interacts with the story now has the chance to contribute or transform it in a small way. Also, the person coming to story has control of the immersion of the experience and the pace at which it unfolds.

There are several things that need to happen inside news organizations to enable something like this:

1.  Get better (more relevant, qualitative) data.
2.  Get better at storing, mining and presenting data.
3.  Be willing to redefine what a story is.
4.  Give control over to the reader.
5.  Learn from games. Greater interaction allows stories to transform.
6.  Understand difference between people as viewers (let me see), readers (let me know), gamers (let me explore).
7.  Value feedback. Be willing to listen to your audience, and transform content based on their needs.

We think the Amazoning piece shows that media primary value lies in its ability to connect people and relevant information around a story. Media organizations who can focus there efforts doing this will win.

Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis have worked as information and presentation designers for organizations such as The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, HOUR Detroit Magazine and Belo Interactive.

0  Playing The News

0  Related on this page
•  Conference web site
•  Video clip of our presentation
28 MB, QuickTime
•  Amazoning The News
•  Designing Your Audience by Jeffrey Zeldman


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