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Playing the News - A Chat with Asi Burak

playthenews.pngI wrote about the "BoingBoing Censored" game on Play the News last week, and designer Asi Burak left a comment in reply. The ensuing conversation in email brought up some interesting issues, and Asi has generously allowed me to publish his subsequent responses here.

Jamais Cascio: The version that I saw of BBCensored allowed me only to "play" as the editors, and the play amounted to two polling questions: what I think they should do, and what I think they will do.

Asi Burak: Our current template/platform allows us to publish multi-role games (up to six), in this case we chose only one. Obviously, the more roles and actions we design, the longer it takes to compose a specific game. In certain cases we choose not to represent certain roles (for example Violet Blue in this case) as we don't believe they have an impactful action to take in the current situation.

JC: There were no consequences to the questions/options, other than "we'll tell you at some point in the future how right you were or weren't." I was expecting, at the very least, to see some kind of follow-on question arising from the expected results of having taken whichever action. I was hoping, when I saw the format, that what would happen was that answering one stakeholder's questions would change the options available to subsequent stakeholders.

AB: I heard these comments before, especially from game developers. Interestingly, that's our background- our first product PeaceMaker is a complex simulation of the Middle-East. It got significant press as a long-form game around current events with a clear social agenda. In our eyes, PtN is an evolution of that concept: rather than us being the "game gods", deciding what are the winning conditions and assumptions, we wanted to create something that equates more with interactive journalism than with traditional video games. The consequences you are looking for have different forms: the consequences in real-life, your ability to predict reality, your reputation in the community, your voice and participation in meaningful discussion etc. ( Btw- Many times we create a follow-up "turn" after we "close" a certain game and introduce new actions. )

JC: The Play the News network seems pretty diverse, although the difference in scale between the BoingBoing argument and (say) the rigged re-election of Mugabe seems a bit stark.

AB: mmm... not sure why. Right now, PtN is in its infancy and we create a game a day. The idea would be to create 10-20 headline games a day in conjunction with media partners. We are like a newspaper or a TV station. You could find stories about Britney Spears and Zimbabwe in CNN, side by side. I would argue that either story includes moral and social dilemmas worth exploring.

JC: Navigating those social dilemmas can be tricky for a game. Having been writing about the social and political uses of games for about 15 years now, I've learned that the biases built into game structures tend to be overlooked because they're for "play."

AB: Well, this is the core of our modest struggle. We argue a lot against the perception of games (and the people who play them) as a lesser medium, in the sense that they are "just for fun" or cannot convey meaningful messages. You can read more about it in the Guardian interview I gave recently.

JC: I will definitely watch the evolution of this project eagerly.

What was notable to me about the BB Censored game in particular, however, wasn't how detailed it was or wasn't, but how quickly it emerged to cover such a relatively obscure topic. In my work as a futurist, I pay a lot of attention to "weak signals" -- distant early warnings of changes coming. This game struck me as indicative of where things could be heading more broadly in our blended online/offline culture.

AB: Yes, and I read it this way. The reason I emphasized the broader context of PtN is because there is clear tension between what you liked to see (the speed with which we responded to the story or any story for that matter) to what you were missing (more depth and details). Clearly, we are looking to find the balance. But again looking at other media- you cannot expect a new story to be as deep as a magazine article and definitely not a book on the same subject. And if PeaceMaker was a short book, PtN is a newspaper.


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