War, What Is It Good For? Three Points!

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”Corinthians 13:11

Last night, I visited the BBC News website for the first time in a week. Imagine my surprise on learning that, while I was busy hanging out with strippers and watching 80s boy-band stars in Vegas, I missed the entire federal government almost being shut down.

That insulation from reality is both a problem and a selling-point for this town: what doesn’t happen in Vegas stays outside Vegas.

And so it was with some interest that, during my news catch-up, I spotted the headline on PBS’s Idea Lab: “Why Are Newsrooms Resistant to Creating Newsgames?“ In a well-argued post, Chris O’Brien outlines various reasons why news organisations should explore ways to include elements of videogaming into their reporting.

“The majority of people in the United States play videogames of some kind: console, browsers, on their mobile phones. If you don’t play a single game, you are part of a shrinking minority. And many of these forms of games, particularly social, mobile, and casual games have now expanded deeply into mainstream audiences of all ages.

And far from being just trivial or simply fun distractions, these games offer benefits that ought to appeal to any newsroom. The best games create deep engagement, they are intensely social, and in some cases, they show a path to new ways to think about making money from digital content. Any of those items ought to resonate with publishers.”

Indeed so. In fact, I can’t disagree with a single word that O’Brien says: the majority of adults do play games, and repeated studies show that a large proportion of people are turned off by straight news reporting and are turned on by game mechanics in all their forms. Companies like Zynga and Rovio have made billions from social games: there’s gold in tham thar villes.

And yet, for all that I agree with O’Brien’s arguments, I couldn’t help buy answer his rhetorical headline thus:


Maybe I’m getting old. Certainly I’m an old media journalism snob. But the fact is, when faced with the fact that an increasing number of people can’t process news without a game element, my instinct is to reply… well… fuck ‘em.

It was ever thus: a world divided into those with the mental capacity and attention span required to read and digest the day’s news, and to understand the importance of doing so — and  the perpetual children: the proud morons who say things like “I’m not interested in politics” (despite being mortgaged to the hilt) or ask “why should I care about stuff happening in countries thousands of miles away?” (despite those being the countries that own all the debt). You can tell those people by their drool, their bumper stickers — and, oftentimes, their chronic addition to videogames, used as a way to escape the harsh reality of the world.

Increasingly, though, everyone is a gamer; if not through traditional videogames then through the increasing “gamification” (ugh) of real life. It’s no longer enough to enjoy a meal with friends: unless we check in (and maybe – gasp! – become Mayor!) the experience is hollow and meaningless. Every soda we drink, or cereal box we open, or wrap of cocaine we score is emblazoned with its own QR code allowing us to unlock points or win some unrelated thing; otherwise, why choose that brand? There is almost no area of life – finance, taxation, education, health that remains un-gamified. And now, apparently, it’s news’ turn. Because, let’s be honest, unless I can pull the trigger and take Gaddafi out myself, who gives a shit?

Of course, on that last point at least, I’m exaggerating. O’Brien isn’t suggesting that all news should be gamified — just that reporters shouldn’t be afraid to make it part of their arsenal. Likewise people aren’t socialising with friends, or rearranging their finances, or learning new languages just to earn points: the game element is merely a fun way to encourage them to do those things more frequently, or to guide their choices towards certain brands or venues.

And yet…

The popularity of gaming – and the time spent doing it – continues to increase (the average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21). Meanwhile, you only have to look at the success of the Daily Show, or Fox News, or Michael Moore to realise that audiences increasingly prefer to get their news from sources which sugar the bitter pill of reality with entertainment. With news organisations struggling to attract and retain audiences who would rather spend their days planting virtual crops than doing… well.. almost anything else – the slope between “gamification is a useful add-on” to “if it’s not a game, people won’t engage with it and we’ll all go out of business” is a slippery one.

At the top of that slope is a grown-up world where we’re smart enough to realise that certain decisions (to stay informed, to look after our health, to monitor our finances) should be made because they’re important, not because they’re fun. And at the bottom of the slope lies a dystopian future where every aspect of our lives – from the food we eat, to the relationships we form, to the information we process – is driven by the childish question: is it fun? A world where, like drooling, gurgling Peter Pans we never have to grow up.

How far we slide down that slope will, of course, depend entirely on humanity’s capacity to choose the pursuit of information for its own sake over the childish imperative to always chase fun and prizes.


If you run into me on the streets of Las Vegas in the next few days, you’ll understand if I look a little freaked out.