Screenshot from Jogo da Mafia, a newsgame created by videogame developer Fred di Giacomo
Forget for a moment about deep home delivery discounts, ramped up coverage of the local pro sports teams, or even a few extra Sudoku puzzles.
At a time when newspapers and magazines around the world are struggling to find ways to keep readers and attract new ones, some Brazilian media outfits are trying out a new tactic to build interest: online videogames.
The games are also known as newsgames and, according to the overview for the book Newsgames, published by The MIT Press, they can “persuade, inform, and titillate; make information interactive; recreate a historical event; put news content into a puzzle; teach journalism; and build a community.”
Newsgames are relatively new.
In 2007, The New York Times published the game Food Import Follies, where gamers were charged with trying to protect the U.S. from contaminants in foreign food imports using extremely limited resources.
Two years later, Wired magazine released a game called Cutthroat Capitalism, which explains the economics of Somali piracy by putting the player in command of a pirate ship, offering choices for hostage negotiation strategies.
In a recent Q&A with Brazilian journalist Natalia Mazotte, game developer Fred di Giacomo explains when and why a media company might want to experiment with a newsgame:
"Is the story I want to tell best told through a game, a post, or an infographic? If I wanted to explain how to avoid catching swine flu, for example, I would never do it in a game. Will making a game facilitate understanding of information? That is the starting point. To make a newsgame, you have to ask two questions: Does the game inform? If it doesn’t, it’s only a game. Does the game entertain? If not, it’s only journalism."
Di Giacomo has a growing resume. He helped Mundo Estranho (Strange World) magazine develop Strip Quiz, where users respond to questions on sexual health, dealing particularly with issues such as STDs and pregnancy. For each correct answer, the model in the game takes off a piece of clothing until she is left with a bra and underwear.
In another game developed in 2008 for Mundo Estranho, di Giacomo developed a CSI-like game called CSI – ciência contra o crime, where a player acts as a forensic police officer investigating crimes.
In 2009, there was Jogo da Mafia, and later, the Cidade de Famosos (City of Famous People.)
In September 2011 di Giacomo helped the magazine Superinteressante launch its first game for Facebook, Quiz City, in which the player constructs a city and sees it grow while responding to questions about general knowledge. In that game, di Giacomo created a system of micro-payments in which the user bought credits on Facebook or subscribed to the magazine to win tokens and continue playing.
One more recent title, Filosofighters, which highlights the teachings of various philosophers, had 150,000 visist in 45 days, di Giacomo said.
“The difficulty with working with newsgames in independent journalism is the cost," he said. "This type of work requires a multimedia team that not every small outlet has.”
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead