In that great wave of innovation that represented the early days of newspapers, there were plenty of mis-steps,and  plenty of amusement. It wasn’t until much later on that journalists started taking themselves so seriously that they appeared on programs called The Insiders, apparently blind and deaf to  the sad irony.

One of the things that seems to hold journalists back from innovating these days is the pressing need some of them seem to feel to be taken seriously. News, they seem to think, must be sober. It must be good for you, like roughage. But if we take that attitude, we will shut ourself off from our audiences. We must embrace the way in which real people in the real world work, play and interact.

I woke this morning to find that The Australian’s media commentator, Mark Day, thinks I am a “serious person”, but nevertheless wrong, “confronting and off-the-wall” when I suggest that games might be one way of presenting journalism in a fashion that will appeal and cut through to all those people who are not presently reading traditional newspapers.

He wrote in his column this morning:

Gulp! Games? Video timewasters such as pub parlour machines online; all bells and whistles and gunships and broken bodies, the worlds of warcraft, avatars, fantasies and second lives a means of disseminating information? Are you serious?

Well, yes I am. And where on earth has Mark Day been for the last decade? Clearly he doesn’t know much about gaming, or its potential as a powerful new narrative technique.

As Day correctly states, my series on innovation in journalism is not presented as “the answer” or even as a series of answers. It is a set of ideas to consider. Or as I put it in the first episode:

It is intended as a counter to what I have been describing elsewhereas magical thinking, or a cargo cult mentality among journalists and media leaders. This is the idea that if only we can discover the magical key, the new trick, then it will be possible for big companies such as Fairfax and News Limited to keep on doing pretty much what they have always done….It was Albert Einstein who defined as insanity doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.But every time I ask newspaper media executives about what innovations in journalism they are considering, I get either a blank response or a slightly aggressive:   “What do you mean? Journalists ring people up, they talk to people. What else can they do?”

I am not sure whether Day actually clicked on the links in my piece suggesting that games, or game methodology, might be one good way of presenting thoroughly researched journalism. If he had, he would surely see that I was not talking about “video timewasters”. What on earth is timewasting about Darfur is Dying, or the sort of “games” given awards by the Knight Foundation for excellence in journalism?

The truth is, of course, that “game” technology is used for many things these days that are deadly serious. I mentioned a few in that initial article. Since then, I have been made aware of other examples, such as  Think Before, which uses games and social media to convey advice to international students in Australia. .Colleagues of mine at Swinburne have been using a game to teach good town planning practices. There are games that teach management techniques, negotiation skills, and on and on.

We still use the word “game” but in reality we are talking about a tool, or a new set of immersive storytelling techniques. Games use scenarios and examples. They are all about process, and they can be used to  inform and teach, as well as to entertain and “waste” time.

(An aside: I wonder if Day ever does a crossword or sudoku puzzle in his newspaper, and whether he considers that a waste of time too? Should we ban all games from newspapers? I think not.)

Day worries that by “embedding” journalism in “fantasy” we will be doing something dangerous. But as I thought my original piece made clear, the “games” would have to be  rigorously researche, to qualify as journalism. Thought of in this way, a game is simply another kind of documentary or feature article, and potentially a very powerful one, too.

And since when did all journalism have to be presented in a sober and serious fashion in any case? Vigor, accuracy, innovation. That is what those early newspaper editors had in spades. And they called their publications, not “Serious Matters of Public Concern” or “Matters in the Public Interest” but The Trumpet, the Tattler and so on. Silly names. Rather like Twitter, when you think about it.

Day and I agree on a fair bit. He says, and I agree, that people have always wanted and will always want news. It is the business model that is in trouble, not the appetite for information.

I also agree with him that:

The core product of information needs to be reworked and repackaged in an endless variety of ways, so that the business is across all forms of information and all platforms.

I thought that what what I was suggesting. Its not clear to me why he wants to exclude games from the “endless variety of ways”.

And I agree with him that there will be no single Eureka Moment in which we know we have “the answer” to the troubles of the news business.

But I am pretty sure of one thing. If journalists cut ourselves off from and sneer at the ways in which real people, and young people in particular, are engaging with media, information, each other and the world, then we are making ourselves into fossils. News and information will still be out there, but it will be disseminated without journalists being part of the process.

I am still old fashioned enough to think that journalists have a use. And that is why gaming is one tool I think we should explore.

It is happening anyway, as the examples I gave in the original article show. The only question is whether journalists want to use this new narrative tool, the better to do their job.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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