My next book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play (co-authored with my graduate students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer), is being prepared for publication, and it should hit the streets in late summer of this year. In anticipation, I'll try to offer some occasional previews of the content we cover in the book.
One of the chapters in Newsgames covers infographics, exploring the ways data and information visualization intersect with games in the news. In the chapter, we take a strong position against the "chart porn" that has become popular online and in print in recent years.
Here's a real edge case. David McCandless recently authored a book called The Visual Miscellaneum. It's a book of infographics about a variety of topics, all beautifully rendered. In fact, the UK title for the book bears that very sentiment in its title, Information Is Beautiful. The work certainly does present the information depicted in a more appealing and engaging way than simple lists or charts or graphs might do.
The problem is this: infographics like this may be beautiful, but they are not necessarily informative. Specifically, pretty charts often fail to synthesize the meaning, relevance, and impact of information as it pertains to decision making.
You can find a great example of the beautiful uselessness of information among the visualizations on McCandless's website. Consider Reduce Your Chances of Dying in a Plane Crash. This well-designed multi-form infographic offers information about the locations, equipment, seating locations, dates, airlines, and cities involved in plane crashes over time.
Yet, it doesn't actually do anything to reduce the viewer's chances of dying in a plane crash. Sure, they could play the odds based on past cases, but the reasons behind these patterns are utterly lost in their graphing. And the process of surviving a plane crash if one happened to be unlucky enough to be involved in one appears nowhere in these charts. While we might find the work visually appealing, it does nothing to explain why these plane crashes have taken place, or what one could do to avoid future ones.
In Newsgames, we connect infographics to games precisely here, at their ability to create meaningful synthesis of information by making information playable. In these infographics games, players don't just look at prettified information, they engage with processes that depict how information arises or interacts, they reconfigure information to replay possible scenarios, or they experiment with information for the simple enjoyment of play itself.