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Can Game Design Concepts Increase Journalism Engagement? New Report Says Yes

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News outlets seeking to increase reader engagement should look to concepts from game design, according to a new report from American University (AU). The study, done in collaboration between AU's School of Communication and the AU Game Lab, is the culmination of three years of research and development by a diverse group of journalists, academics, students and other experts who came together to examine the impact of game design techniques in news.

Read the executive summary

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided support for the project, which saw team members embedded in several Washington-area newsrooms where they developed a series of games. They found that designing a news experience rather than just a story built trust among readers, told complex stories more effectively, and created loyalty by transforming the audience into participants.

Lindsay Grace, director of the American University Game Lab, says games are effective because they allow the user to engage with a story the way other methods of content delivery do not.

"The difference between other types of storytelling and games is that players act," Grace says. "It posits you as responsible for what happens. It creates a more engaged relationship to the story. It doesn't move without you. Nothing happens if you stop doing."

Among the highlights were "Factitious," a game that tested players' ability to spot fake news, which was played more than one million times by more than 500,000 people.

Another game, "Commuter Challenge," developed for Washington, D.C., radio station WAMU, put players in the shoes of workers who depend on public transportation to get to work. Players are given a certain amount of money to get to and from work for the week, and get a sense of the real consequences that riders can face. One man, who lost his restaurant job because service disruptions made him late three times in two weeks, was the inspiration for the game's main character. "Commuter Challenge" garnered more than 15,000 plays in three months and brought more than 6,000 new users to the site. The game has a "long tail," still attracting between two and four dozen unique visits a day, nine months after the launch.

In addition to the traffic bump, newsrooms the researchers were embedded in also recognized the benefits to engaging readers through gaming.

If the prospect of creating an original game sounds like a monumental task, the researchers say there's nothing to fear. Simple games that yield high engagement can be created in a short period of time, without creators knowing how to code, through open-source tools that simplify programming.

View the full report

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation's capital and around the world. American University offers a master's degree in Game Design, a joint effort from the School of Communication and the College of Arts and Sciences.