Playing The News: To Push Social Gaming Forward, Two New Startups Look To The Real World

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When most people think of social gaming, they likely think of Zynga and its flagship titles, like FarmVille and CityVille — or even Words With Friends. Yet, as Facebook social gaming matures (right along with mobile technology and platforms), we are starting to see studios begin to push the boundaries more, looking for new ways to engage and educate gamers, maybe even reinventing the wheel while they’re at it. One example is the New York City-based startup Playmatics, part of the Swiss-based Shadow Government Ltd., which collectively raised $1 million last year to build a new game franchise called Shadow Government.

For those unfamiliar, beginning with mobile and later moving to Facebook, Shadow Government looks to bring real-world data and modeling to the social game sphere. To do that, the startup has partnered with the Millennium Institute to leverage its economic and sustainability data, and government-modeling software to allow players to build and run their own virtual countries. The Millennium Institute is perhaps best known for its Threshold 21 (T21) software, a dynamic simulation tool that allows policy makers and development organizations to run comparative analyses of different policy scenarios, identify the policies and strategies that lead to their desired developmental goals.

Using this reality-based simulation model, the goal for Shadow Government is not only to create a gaming experience that is entertaining but also one that is decidedly educational. For example, the Millennium Institute wants the franchise’s games to become a part of the curriculum for K-12 education. In that sense, Shadow Government sounds like a suped-up, hyper-modern Sim City, that might even be tweaked into something that could be used to educate high school students in a civics class.

What’s so unique about the model is that it is among the first to make a big push to “incorporate real world news and data,” often in realtime, says Playmatics CEO Margaret Wallace. The games could alter the game content depending on what’s happening in the world at any given time, integrating current events and creating different scenarios in the game based on the news. And this of course is all deepened by the participation of friends via integration with users’ social graphs. Studios like Trion can do this with their deep-end MMORPG games, like Rift, changing scenarios, characters, worlds in realtime, but this isn’t typically something that social, casual games entertain. (You can check out more on the game’s actual narrative here.)

But Playmatics is not the only studio playing around with reality-based social gaming: Today, North Carolina-based fiveonenine Games officially launched into the space, with plans to build its own franchise of social games for mobile and Facebook that are inspired not only by reality, but by current events, specifically politics.

While fiveonenine doesn’t have government modeling software, it is backed by two old media giants: The E.W. Scripps Company and Capitol Broadcasting. When you think social games, you think modern, you think of the present. E.W. Scripps was founded in 1878, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence with many of its major newspapers having gone out of business, but it’s still ticking, and has teamed up with another old media empire to bring its educational and journalistic content to social games.

It also helps that the startup’s roster includes veterans of Disney, Washington Post, Playdom, RealNetworks, and RIM. The startup is still in its early stages, but basically it’s looking to build an alternative way for younger generations to get news and learn about politics, campaigns, and government. As more and more young people get their data and news from social networks, The Daily Show, and less from traditional media sources, fiveonenine is looking to move that to social gaming — a venue that’s actually relevant to them.

The startup’s first title, Political Rampage, will be released on iOS and Android later this month, and will feature figures like President Obama and Sarah Palin facing off in a tongue-in-cheek “match-three format,” the company said in a recent statement. Other upcoming titles include Campaign Story for iOS, Nook Tablet, Kindle Fire, and Real Politics (Facebook, iOS) — both are due out by mid-April.

There’s still so much opportunity in the social mobile gaming space, and plenty of room for startups and studios to have an impact in defining what the landscape will look like going forward. Playmatics and fiveonenine are just two of the players looking to either blur the lines between reality and gaming, or better leverage reality-based data and information to inform and educate. Both have merit, and it will be interesting to see which approaches hold up. But trends now seem to be indicating that the demand is growing for deep, immersive, and original social gaming content. Educate users without letting them know what you’re up to, in gameplay, UI, or otherwise, and you’re onto something. Just ask Carmen Sandiego!!

For more on Playmatics, check them out here and Fiveonenine here. Side note: Both companies need better websites.