Gaming the news

Online news editors began using games to create more engaging and interactive presentations shortly after they began publishing news online in the 1990s. But the concept hasn’t really taken off yet, despite some early successes. 

Back in 2001, the newspaper I worked for received a grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism to develop an innovative project. I used some of the grant money to hire a Flash animation shop to build the first clickable map for a news project called the Waterfront Renaissance. It won a couple national awards and was copied by a handful of other news organizations, but the development of a Flash-based game was not a native skill to a news organization. And hiring up became untenable as staffs began to shrink instead of grow. So we still only see piecemeal attempts by news organizations to use gaming with the news.

As we near the end of the decade, digital games are flourishing. The Wii at home, Facebook games on laptops, and iPhone apps and other mobile games are surging in popularity and – in some cases – revenue.

So isn’t it time for news companies to take another look at games and see what they can bring to news?

A London-based company called Hubdub thinks so. It recently received $1.2 million in venture funding to continue development on its news predictor platform which it is developing as both a portal and as a service to news organizations.

And consider this recent news from Techcrunch:

Mob Wars – a largely text based strategy game that throws users into a virtual underworld of organized crime – has become a Facebook phenomenon, with 2,680,129 monthly active users and monthly revenues rumored to exceed $1 million. The game isn’t the first of its kind (in fact, similar text-based games have been around for many years), but it is among the first to go truly mainstream. 

The company I’m working with, Serra Media, thinks there is potential in this space. We crafted an application for a Knight News Challenge grant to build a casual gaming platform for local news. It will combine some news predictor activities with user generated content to provide a local news operation an engaging way to capture and mobilize an audience.

If games can bring loyalty and new revenues to news sites, we will figure out how to make them complement the journalism they support.

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