Playing for keeps
September 3, 2013

Busted! Hair Net Hero is part of a new breed of news game (Center for Investigative Reporting)

Looking for a new way to involve readers in your stories? Get them to play games.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) is launching its first videogame, Hair Net Hero, to teach children how to eat more healthfully at school. Aimed at third graders, the game revolves around a school-lunch lady and her valiant attempts to get kids to eat healthy meals. “It’s part of our strategy of trying to take our big, investigative work–and a lot of great data reporting that happens here–and translate that for different audiences,” said Meghann Farnsworth, who manages distribution and community building for CIR. Children aren’t likely to read a long article on nutrition or watch the evening news, “but they may want to play with a game, and that same information that we could get across in an investigation can come through in that way.”

Hair Net Hero is just one of an innovative new breed of news games that explain difficult issues by immersing players in stories. At the nonprofit website Games for Change, you can see what it’s like to run a sweatshop, become an on-the-ground reporter in Darfur or Haiti, or manage a newspaper under a totalitarian regime.

Sweatshop is especially addictive. Developed by Littleloud and funded by UK broadcaster Channel 4, the game offers a blackly comic look at offshore manufacturing. Players rush to complete increasingly high quotas of bags, shirts, and shoes before workers are injured or die of dehydration–and it’s all set to cheery techno music.

CIR’s new game is nowhere near as grim, and is part of the organization’s continuing effort to engage children through play: CIR also features a Junior Watchdogs section on its website for young users and has released a coloring book. Hair Net Hero was co-produced with Coco Studios, and will be hosted online, on tablets, and by iPhone and Android devices. cir also hopes to work with schools and other groups to distribute the game and an accompanying activity book to children in California.

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu