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Playing the Field




Bouncing a two-dimensional white circle between white bars on a black screen laid the foundation. A little yellow chomper munched his way through a maze and into the history books. Then, within a decade, a mustachioed Italian in red overalls, an elf, and a blazing-fast hedgehog helped to cement video games into the mainstream, and to define a generation. From a humble background, video games are now an international craze, each generation’s games becoming more “real” than the next.

Though it doesn’t involve hunting bloodthirsty zombies, or three-dimensional athletes, Nora Paul has created what may be one of the realest games ever made.

Professor Paul has created a game to teach students how to be journalists. Being a good journalist doesn’t happen overnight. It requires training in writing (there’s a world of difference between paper writing and feature writing), effective and efficient reporting skills, as well as the ability and understanding to make sound ethical decisions.

Paul’s game, titled Playing the News, wasn’t created from scratch. It was “modded,” or modified, from a popular role playing game (RPG) called Neverwinter Nights. This means that the original Neverwinter setting was used as the basis for game play, while the characters and story were modified to fit the creators’ purpose. In this case, that purpose is to teach journalism students about journalistic integrity and good reporting practices.

Paul began work on this project after a keynote speech she observed where the same RPG was developed to teach the American Revolution. During the presentation, a friend and colleague named Matt Taylor leaned in and whispered, “We can do that.” They applied for a small grant, created the characters and dialogue, and Paul’s job, she says, “was to come up with the game play.”

The player is a reporter in a town called Harperville, where a train collides with a truck carrying noxious chemicals. “The first step,” Paul says, “is to make up which kind of story you want to write.” It could be a traffic story, a health liability, or an environmental hazard piece—each a probable angle for a story. An angle is how a reporter views a story or event and decides which direction to take it. Reporters often face choices like these when working on a big story that could be written about in many different ways. The player must then sequentially follow through the necessary steps of reporting—talking to the editor, doing the required background research to prepare for interviews, and finally, interviewing the sources. Paul emphasizes that it eventually comes down to “efficiently seeking information.”

There are nine locations and twenty-two characters the reporter may interact with, Paul says. “The challenge is to get back to the newsroom by 4 o’clock” to file an update. Preparing one’s information ahead of time and asking the right questions to the right people becomes crucial. If the player were to ask a question to an inappropriate source, he might be—as they say—blown off.

To give players a more personal feeling, they can also select the manner in which they pose their questions. By choosing between four options, the player can opt to be cocky, tentative, clueless, or straightforward with their queries. Depending on the source, the player must decide the correct manner of approach. “If you’re real cocky, some sources will say ‘I don’t want to talk to you,’” Paul says. Good reporters, in many circumstances, may curb their questioning technique in order to get the information they need.

The game is used in an hour-long lab, and recently in a required class for journalism students at the University of Minnesota in place of a midterm exam. Clear assessment of students’ progress is hard to identify when compared to traditional methods, but Paul asserts there has been an “elevation in people understanding the process after the game.”

Professor Paul, having grown up prior to the video game era, has played the original Neverwinter Nights, and acknowledges that it’s “not something that particularly floats my boat.” Regardless, she is a pioneer who believes that “educators are in another environment in trying to be innovative in approaches.” Times are changing, and Paul, Taylor, and the Institute are showing that they’re willing to change with them.

The University at Buffalo doesn’t have a major course of study focused in journalism, but it does have a certificate program. The program plays out kind of like a minor, and intends to teach students the fundamentals of the field. The instructors of these courses are experienced professionals, many of whom work at The Buffalo News. Bruce Andriatch, suburban editor of the News, teaches one of these courses.

Andriatch teaches English 393: Ethics in Journalism, and says the goal of his course is in the fundamentals of journalism. “There are more gray areas than black and white,” he says, and says that he focuses on “helping students to become good decision makers.” He stresses that students must learn to defend and be comfortable with their decisions in order to get the right interview.

Andriatch admits that in his class he hasn’t taken full advantage of the technology at his disposal, having only employed the assistance of a DVD player to show his classes a few relevant films. He prefers to take the traditional approach to teaching ethics. “When we have ethical discussions in my class, they’re based on real events,” he says. Teaching the same material through a video game, Andriatch says, “sounds like it’s more of a hypothetical approach.”

And it is a hypothetical approach. Still, journalists and educators in the field can’t ignore the fact that Paul’s results have proven to be effective in teaching valuable lessons. “Video games are a major part of culture now, and most [college-age students] have played video games quite a bit. It gives students a chance to apply a skill they may have learned in childhood to apply to something more serious.”

Journalism is a serious business, and ethical decision-making is a serious part of it. Professor Paul confesses, however, that while Playing the News should be taken seriously, there is always someone in the class who has played the original Neverwinter Nights and implements the cheat code that could direct characters to, as she puts it, “Lose their clothes.”

She jokes, as well, about a comical glitch in the game, where the reporter, in order to leave the news room, must battle a fellow reporter…to the death. The player must then, if killed, re-spawn into the game, and start reporting. And while she claims it was an unintentional error, in the cutthroat lives of journalists, the idea of two reporters brawling it out for a story may not be too far a stretch. Playing the News, without knowing it, covers all the bases.

 

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