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News+Gameplay: Bin Laden Raid

May 20, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Can games be used to report on the news -- and if so, what do we gain from it? In this article, Bin Laden Raid developer Jeremy Alessi discusses the creative process, final game, public and press reaction, and potential of the newsgame form.]

The September 11th attacks on the United States were traumatic tragedies that not only affected victims directly in the path of the planes. These events struck a chord with people the world over -- including Gonzalo Frasca, who coined the term "newsgame" with a title dubbed September 12th.

It was a simple web game that allowed players to take aim at terrorists roaming about a village. The problem is, killing one terrorist only spawned more. September 12th is a prime example of a persuasive newsgame. Frasca was trying to make a point.


Until about three weeks ago, I didn't know who Gonzalo Frasca was. My interest in newsgames was formed independently of the founders of the movement. For me, newsgames began with JFK: Reloaded. While the title disgusted most people, I found it to be a valuable frame of reference for the event.

For years I watched the documentaries about the event with my father, who was always particularly interested in it, and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. When I got to see JFK: Reloaded for the first time, it all became so much more concrete in my mind.

It was as if, for the first time, I could really understand the events that took place. The physics, viewpoint, and general motion available only in a 3D game environment gave me an understanding that I could have only otherwise achieved by having been there in the first place.

My interest in newsgames was furthered on January 19th, 2009. It was on this date that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River adjacent to Midtown Manhattan. I remember the day well. I was actually driving to New York that day to visit family.

After some of the details poured in, I got my brother, a pilot, to set up his MS Flight Simulator rig for me to recreate the event. We spent several hours tweaking the settings, attempting to recreate the flight. We got pretty close.

At the time I was working on Skyline Blade for the iPhone and thought about doing an app to recreate the flight. I didn't act on it but Austin Meyer (X-Plane) did. Sully's Flight was launched on the iPhone -- quite successfully, in fact. If memory serves me, it took the number one slot of the racing and simulation categories.

In the end, though, the app was removed from the store because US Airways claimed copyright infringement -- its logo was on the plane. To add insult to injury, Apple further requested that Austin acquire approval to use "Sully's" name. This was all on top of the fact that a lot of people viewed the game as cheap, opportunistic, and disrespectful of the people who almost lost their lives that day. Austin gave up, and removed the app from the catalog of X-Plane games on the App Store.

The final straw for me came just two months ago, when Japan was devastated by an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. It wasn't the earthquake or the tsunami I was interested in doing a newsgame about, though. No, instead the thought crossed my mind that a newsgame about the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could actually be useful. If users could get down to ground level, take measurements, and share potential solutions, they might actually come up with something to help those in need. About three weeks after the event, a Fallout 3 mod was announced that showcased the damaged nuclear facility.

Three weeks ago, I became really obsessed with the idea of newsgames. Never again was I going to think about making a newsgame, only to have someone else do it. I set up the website and began work on a format that I thought would be easily consumable, so anyone could experience the news in 3D.

After setting the website up and throwing up a simple mouse-driven 3D prototype, I thought about which story to cover first. The Royal Wedding was non-offensive, but it was only a week away. That alone would scare most people off. In fact, it did scare most people off. I couldn't find a 3D artist who thought they could handle the task. The Royal Wedding came and went, and I still didn't have content for my new website.

May 1st 2011

I didn't hear about the death of Osama bin Laden until my wife was watching the Real Housewives of New York after-action show. The host and one of the women were talking about being in the city on 9/11, and then being in the city that night. I turned to my wife and asked her if she knew what they were talking about. She shook her head as I grabbed the remote and switched to CNN.

As soon as I got a handle on what occurred, I pulled my laptop out and began searching for the compound on Google Earth. The news moved so fast through the internet that the Google Earth location of the compound had already been reported. Before long, there were two simple 3D models on Google's 3D Warehouse. I rushed to find the specific aesthetics and location of the compound. The initial location reported proved false, and the early 3D models were too simplistic to be useful. That was the beginning of a long week of research on an ever-evolving story that I needed to cover with a compelling 3D game.

The Team

I knew I was going to go for this project, but I also knew I couldn't do it alone. The first order of business was to put a team together. I had been telling my longtime friend John McIsaac (who helped me design Fat Rat) about this "newsgames" concept for the past few weeks, and he was already ready to jump onboard when the time was right.

Indeed, the time was right. John became the designated researcher. As such, it was his job to collect every detail from every news source possible. John scoured the web and watched the news collecting videos, images, diagrams, and more.

With John on board, things were looking up, but I still needed a 3D modeler with the time to pull the project off. Rich Smith is another long-time local friend. Rich had helped me work on Crash for Cash in the past, and he was pretty good with 3DS Max, but he didn't have much real-time experience. The biggest problem is that he usually worked long hours, so I wasn't too hopeful. On the off-chance that he had a day or two off, I gave him a call anyway. As it turns out, his previous employer had bounced payroll twice so he was home, bored, and looking for a good challenge.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Game Designer


JB Vorderkunz
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D'oh - posted on the news item instead of here!

This is very interesting stuff! Many devs dance around the ethical issues involved in game design vis-a-vis social impact and responsibility - newsgames puts that conversation front and center...

Ian Bogost
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Jeremy, I'm glad to read this write-up of your game, and I appreciate the mention of our book and exchanges.

That said, I think you may be overstating the role of objectivity in journalistic values and in simulation. The idea that the world is a knowable and singular system that can be instrumented and scientifically modeled--this is not necessarily the way things really are. What we ought to want is something a bit more subtle, something that presents the weird squishy uncertainty of the world and makes us slightly more comfortable with that uncertainty. I think spatial realities are one way to do that, and as we wrote in the book, it's one of the "low hanging fruits" of newsgames. But there are others too.

Here's another way to put it: is physical reality to be the only reality? Is the really-real just a set of rigid bodies describable by a physics simulation and a 3D renderer? I'm sure you'd agree that it's not. But it's one perspective, and a valuable one, but one that we have to figure out how to frame effectively as creators and players.

Conor Mckeown
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This is very troubling. Your intentions seem to be 'good', but then, a reluctance to bat about such ontologies as 'good' and 'bad' are exactly where my troubles are stemming from. What really strikes me is how the Newsgame as a medium is so very first world in its inception whilst simultaneously triumphal in its broadcasting of nationalistic feelings and ideas of moral objectivity. Surely this game should have been designed in the spirit of modernism and allowed the player both to play from the side of the US force and Bin Laden's associates. Such a model of game play already exists in something like the Alien versus Predator games, where by reality is presented as something subjective due to the differing perceptions offered from each species. Yours and Zuma's games at present seem to be intoned with mockery, both intra-textually (you are a solider, kill Bin Laden or fail) and outside of that (rich Americans have the free time and resources to quickly make games which celebrate the assassination of a revered spiritual leader). At present your game is burning effigies, not challenging perceptions.

@Stephen, I hope your comment was laced with irony. "...what kid wouldn't want to kill arguably the biggest 'bad guy' of our time?" The obvious answer being, his own children. I believe you are being ironic however as you then invoke the capitalist flag of the "dollar sign". Capitalism based on the spectacle of of a revanchist killing of a cult figurehead. We aren't that far away from the Running Man are we?

Jeremy Alessi
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Sweet, these comments are full of intelligent insights all the way around. I think that it's true that this newsgame can only be taken so seriously because it's based on the news sources we had available to us. Without our own independent investigation we are limited to showing the "truth" as it was fed to us. Ultimately, this is what I want to avoid ... but you have to start somewhere.

Ian likened spacial realities to the low-hanging fruit and in this form I agree. We didn't do much in terms of journalism beyond its simplest objective; we just regurgitated the facts in 3D interactive format. However, we were more concerned with the technical challenges of getting a game up quickly while coinciding with the news reports. Ian's team at Georgia Tech is working on a tool for journalists to create games quickly. I think we already have the tools and so I aimed to prove that. If I could leverage my skills as a game developer in conjunction with a real team of investigative journalists then we'd really be cooking. Newsgame developers are really just another sort of camera crew (albeit a highly specialized camera crew with an emphasis on engineering).

Of course in the future even that won't be enough. That's where crowdsourcing comes in. For right now though we'll probably go the route Stephen suggested. Our next news story will be fun and light (based on much less serious subject matter). I see a really deep funnel in the business model for newsgames but we're at the top of it right now and I think that translates to the typical ad driven game portal model to start with.

As for Conor's remarks, I addressed those a bit in the article. It might be cool to setup a simulation of what could have occurred. Certainly, Osama bin Laden has supporters who may like to see him escape unscathed. I think that is another game altogether. Again, that would be a game based on the news instead of a newsgame. We were simply trying to convey the news in another format other than text or video. That which you suggest would be a more powerful simulation in that it could actually be used to create strategies to be used in future raids. Such a game would be more of a training tool than a news report.

Altug Isigan
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I'd love to see Naom Chomsky playing this game and commenting on it.

Gael Dalton
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@Stephen Agreed re futility of attempting realistic rendering of a real military operation.

@Conor & Jeremy, it would be controversial, of course, in this case, to provide an option to play the "other" side. As a general rule, though, that's an important point. US foreign policy and actions often look very different from the "other" side, and from the POV of 3rd parties.

I would have liked very much to see the development of the news game around the Japanese nuclear disaster. I didn't begin to understand what was happening until they started providing diagrams in an x-plane format. The news reporting varied wildly and eventually obvious conflicts of interest among sources of information became clear. Then the reporting was over and other stories took precedence. Although it's probably too late to have any effect on that situation, the opportunity is still there to encourage dialogue among interested players in a game based on that news. I was disappointed that the only mention (in the news reports I saw) of planning for future disasters consisted of bringing out "experts" reassuring that this could never happen in the US. I'm convinced that those responsible for the planning in Japan did plan for what they considered the worst case scenario. And now the bar has been raised.

Ben Chang
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An interesting challenge: games may be criticised for reducing and oversimplifying their subject matter, losing the messy complexity of the real world in the process. The news industry as a whole has the same problem - we may have 24 hour news, but arguably with less emphasis on real understanding of events and issues than ever before. Let's face it - when the best option for thoughtful coverage in US TV news is "The Daily Show," there's a problem.

Can newsgaming come from left field and bring back the depth and complexity that cable and internet news washes out? Perhaps the kind of engagement that players have with our medium provides an opportunity. Can playing a game make you see something in a new way? Take something you thought was black-and-white and make it gray? Make you care about something you never knew about before?

Your example also made me thing of this:

(Read the whole thing and also this: before angry responses ;)