behind the news

What game design can do for journalism

Three newly selected fellows at American University talk about the medium's future
January 21, 2015


From left to right: Cherisse Datu, Kelli Dunlap, and Joyce Rice.


As journalism is increasingly experimenting with innovative platforms and tools, some news media have started noticing the potential of computer games to tackle real-life issues in an engaging way. The New York Times and ProPublica are already designing digital games that integrate journalistic reporting.

To explore this potential, the American University School of Communication has selected three fellows for a new program aimed at developing leadership in media and journalism through game design theory. The JoLT program, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, builds on the university’s new Master’s of Game Design, which trains students to develop digital games that deal with larger societal issues. The three JoLT fellows, Joyce Rice, Kelli Dunlap, and Cherisse Datu, will be taking MA classes in addition to other projects aimed at studying games as an integral part of modern media, including digital, journalistic storytelling.

CJR got Rice, Dunlap, and Datu together during their second, busy week as JoLT fellows to talk about what game design has to do with journalism and how the two can enrich one another.

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Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and what motivated you to apply to the fellowship?

Joyce Rice: I’ve been working for the past two years on Symbolia, which is an interactive comics journalism magazine. I think game design principles have a lot to bring to new media, and I’m interested in ways that we can use those in more accessible, universal ways.  

Kelli Dunlap: Before this program, I graduated with a PsyD in clinical psychology, and my research interests have pretty much always been in digital content and bringing those kinds of tools either into the therapy room or using them to talk about mental health issues. I primarily joined this program so that I can start to carve out that niche.

Cherisse Datu: I hail from Al Jazeera English and America’s social media program “The Stream,” where I’ve been lead editor for about two to three years.

I want to break the usual narrative of video games. And I’ve noticed, as someone who’s worked in journalism, and as a gamer, many gamers don’t really tend to follow the news. So I figured: Why not bring the news story into the video games?


What can computer games bring to the news media?

Rice: I’m interested in seeing the new ways that game design can bring a new perspective to news media that are having a lot of problems right now with decreasing engagement. A lot of legacy publications are dangerously tied to an aging subscriber pool. Something is going to have to change about the way we are sharing and telling stories.

Dunlap: Games are masters of engagement, or there wouldn’t be 600 million people worldwide playing video games. Games hook you. So, is there a way to take that hook and channel that to other industries?


How can game design principles increase audience engagement?

Datu: Basically, we’re trying to get people to think about news in a fun way.

Rice: We’re trying to get people to actually interact with and feel like they have a stake in the news, because I think that’s not something that especially many young readers feel right now. Theres so much news about stuff that’s so far away and far outside their sphere of perspective. A game puts you into that story, as a way of developing a narrative around an experience, instead of around prose.

Dunlap: Or around somebody else’s experience. It’s one thing to say, let’s really care about World War II Germany—if you like history, thats great. Or, we’ll put you in World War II Germany and in order for you to escape, you’ll need to know the language, signs, everything that’s necessary in that environment. Learning becomes a tool to your objective as opposed to learning being the objective. That is what hooks people.

Rice: And it allows them to apply that information to future experiences and narratives. They have had this immersive experience and have a greater understanding of these communities, or the kinds of experiences other people have. More so than from just reading.


Do you have any examples of games that focus on contemporary issues?

Dunlap: There are several games out there that are tackling social issues. Just the other day I played a game where I was given a stipend as someone living on minimum wage, and I had to see how long I could last. I didn’t last three days. My dog needed to go to the vet, I went bankrupt, and I lost the game. That makes you think about poverty a little bit differently. There’s games about domestic violence, mental health, war, but I think if you’re outside that game sphere bubble, all you hear about is “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto.” You don’t hear about the smaller, more innovative, creative games that are art, science, and health.

Datu: And maybe we have to rethink how we get those games out there to people too. It’s not just us talking to the news media, but looking at the industry as a whole. Gaming can’t be an island anymore, it’s time for people in the industry to push out and work with everybody else.

Rice: How can the game and news industry work together as collaborators to bring that content to readers?


To achieve that, what will you be working on during your fellowship?

Dunlap: In addition to our coursework we are going to be working with the staff here at American University to help develop summits in Washington DC.

Datu: We all brought individual talents to the table, and the thinking behind that is that game-design thinking is not just for game design, so for these summits we’ll connect professionals all across the board.

Dunlap: In addition to all that, we are going to be working in the game lab at the university, developing games. So, just working within this entire ecosystem to really move games forward as a serious medium to be taken seriously.


Are games not taken seriously right now?

Rice: I think it’s a very new concept. Its not really something people are talking about a lot right now. A lot of what we ran into with Symbolia was people really sensationalizing the idea of comics as news, so I expect to see people react in a similar way, seeing it as this crazy one-off thing. The challenge will be keeping it pervasive, allowing it to really seep into the ecosystem of media.


Last year, Gamergate drew attention to sexism in the gaming industry, and New York Times reported that while 48 percent of US game players were women, only 21 percent of game developers were female. All three JoLT fellows are female; does that signal a growing number of women in game design, and an industry shift?

Dunlap: Even though women have always been in the industry, it’s been tough, and the women are hard as nails. That has always been an inspiration for me.

But it’s changing, and that’s the most exciting thing. I think our generation, we’re just done with being excluded.

It is definitely an interesting dynamic with the three of us. The professors are all male, and the majority of our classmates [in the MA in Game Design] are male. And I definitely think we bring different ideas and experiences to the table, and that can only enrich what we create.


Will games become an integrated part of news media in the future?

Rice: Definitely. Other sectors are already using game design to engage their customer base. I think it’s inevitable that it will come to news media.

This new generation is consuming news in a totally new way. It’s hard to respond to that quickly. I wouldn’t tell the news, “You’re behind, you need to catch up,” but the news needs to accept that there are going to be new models for readership, and be willing to accept disruption in order to experience innovation and continue to stay relevant. And it’s hard, but it’s what we have to do.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.