The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's News Challenge award winners were announced Wednesday at MIT, and my project was among the 12 of 2,400 entries to have been awarded a grant. It's research I'm working on with my colleague Michael Mateas (UC Santa Cruz). Here's a summary of what we're doing:
Among the casualties of local newspaper cuts and closures has been the local editorial cartoonist. There is reason to believe that the abandonment of traditions like the local editorial cartoon have accelerated the downward spiral in print news readership. The Poynter Institute has reported that the daily editorial page gets as many readers as sports and business, and cartoons often serve as an appealing and familiar entry point into the news. Additionally, local papers often have difficulty differentiating their print and online editions, failing to produce content that is uniquely suited for online distribution.
Our answer to both these problems is Cartoonist, an authoring system for the rapid creation of current event games, playable editorials that we hope will adapt the cartoon onto the computer. A user of this system will take a current event, define topics and roles, and generate a simple game that represents those relationships through its game mechanics and visuals. The result: newsgames that represent a story as an interactive system, inviting online news sites to introduce readers to local issues and then to direct them to additional coverage.
This work comes partly out of research for the Newsgames book (also funded by Knight), partly out of my own experience making commercial editorial games at Persuasive Games, and partly out of work on game generation Michael and I have been talking about individually and together for many years now.
We talk about these issues more extensively in Newgames, but the idea is this: the newspaper used to provide soft-landing welcome mats for readers, largely in the form of content like sports, comics, and puzzles. People may have appeared to read the paper for the news, but many bought the paper for the funnies or the crossword, getting the news as a bonus along the way. The comics and the crossword are more orthogonal to current events, but the editorial cartoon offers a more direct vector into civic matters, particularly for local issues that might not be as familiar or visible.
Of course, small and local newspapers have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn in the news business. One way such organizations have reduced costs is by eliminating seemingly extraneous work like op-ed columns and local editorial cartoonists. And with the move to online distribution, local newspapers have not reinvented these forms for the digital age, and they are at risk of disappearing. So even though cartoon games may seem like an unintuitive way to advance the cause of journalism writ large, we believe they are much more central than it seems on first blush.
I'll be working on the project with Georgia Tech Digital Media PhD students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer, who also co-authored Newsgames, and UCSC Computer Science PhD student Mike Treanor. Others will surely (I hope!) join the project at both institutions. Many thanks to the Knight Foundation and the KNC jury. We're very grateful!