Back in 2001, Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota started to think about tossing together journalists with game designers and theorists to discuss ways in which the medium's give-and-take trial-and-error self-motivated approach to learning could be academically applied to the process of news-gathering. The timing was unfortunate, however, coming just after the dot-com implosion.
Watching the Wheels
A few years later she pulled together a more academic discussion group on the matter, yet quickly became frustrated with the substitution of chin-stroking for practical application of any of their ideas. Whenever she suggested developing an actual teaching tool, everyone backed away, afraid how it would reflect on his tenure to be actively involved with anything using the word "game".
Eventually, Paul found $10,000 of leftover grant money and used it to hire designer Matt Taylor and license a couple dozen copies of Neverwinter Nights – selected for its powerful dialog tree system and easy modification. Some small graphical changes (like removing a lava pit from the center of what would be the news room) and a complete script overhaul later, Paul and Taylor had on their hands a rough sort of journalistic adventure game, titled Disaster At Harperville.
The principle behind the game is to teach the method and reasoning of information-gathering and synthesis, and communication-related analysis skills. As video games are, as a medium, essentially a simulation of the decision-making process, they provide a powerful tool for exploring the hypothetical implications of the player's choices. In contrast to the typical academic model of learning, where success is measured in terms of making the correct choices, video games follow a more naturalistic method, where every mistake adds to the player's overall sense of understanding, leading to a more nuanced grasp of the problem at hand.
Paul's game involves a crashed tanker truck, leaking a poisonous gas that has forced an evacuation of a downtown area. The player has to interview subjects, cross-reference accounts, and generally figure out how to interpret a broad and conflicting pool of information, much of which takes specific skill and nuance to wheedle out of subjects.
After a discussion with Kotaku's Brian Crecente, Paul chose to focus on three conceptual points in the interview process: attitude, reliability of source (as compares to authority), and secondary confirmation for every single detail. Subjects respond better to direct queries than to aloof or tentative approaches. They become annoyed when the player relies on them for basic information. Official mouthpieces and people with something to gain need be taken with a grain of salt, then revisited if an alternative take develops.
The Real World
As a quick, experimental mod of an off-the-shelf game, Paul's journalism simulator is riddled with logistical problems – bugs, irritating user interface and design issues, and tremendously rough and dirty visuals. If the player's editor (modeled on an ogre) is blocking the exit to the newsroom, for instance, the only way to get past is to battle the editor and die, then to respawn elsewhere. Paul is working on porting the content to a new game engine, however.
Though as yet the game's actual benefit has yet to be measured, it has certainly been received well, by students and teachers alike. One student commented that she appreciated the simulation of life experience, "without having to screw up in real life".