Gaming the news

Participants in the Editors' Lab, including a team of data journalists from Thunderdome, posed for a picture at the end of the weekend. News organizations represented include the Associated Press, Boston Globe,  Chicago Tribune, NPR, ProPublica and more. (Jeanne Brooks/ONA)
Participants in the Editors' Lab, including a team of data journalists from Thunderdome, posed for a picture at the end of the weekend. News organizations represented include the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, NPR, ProPublica and more. (Jeanne Brooks/ONA)

Why just read the news when you can play it instead?

A couple weeks ago, members of Thunderdome’s data team headed to the Global Editors Network Editors’ Lab at the New York Times to wrestle with how to turn news storytelling into a game. The event brought teams from 10 of the country’s top news organizations together to compete to build the best online news games over the course of a weekend.

Thunderdome data developer Vaughn Hagerty described the genesis of our game:

I came up with the basic idea for The Waffler while listening to Columbia Journalism School professor Susan McGregor speak about game design and the types of “play”:

  • agon (competition)
  • alea (chance)
  • mimicry (simulation)
  • ilinx (vertigo)

I wondered how we might incorporate a number of those aspects into a game that could be (mostly) built during the two days of the competition. The team had already discussed how at least some of the other teams’ entries were likely to be quiz-type apps. We also talked about apps that might highlight some of the shenanigans endemic in politics.

I thought, what about political flip-flopping, where a candidate changes his or her position on a major issue, usually to gain popularity and, of course, votes? Could we build a game to simulate that process?

Thus, The Waffler was born.

The Waffler, the game built by members of Project Thunderdome’s data team at the Editors’s Lab hack weekend.

The Waffler was built with HTML, CSS, a few images and a little over 200 lines of JavaScript. I used jQuery for some parts, along with a JavaScript templating library called Handlebars. A few data structures in the JavaScript keep track of the player’s choices and help determine when he or she “waffles.” I added a timer to help add excitement to the game and to make it more realistic. After all, politicians really don’t have the option of saying something like “let me think about it” when asked about their stances on issues.

While Vaughn worked on the game mechanics, graphics editor Nelson Hsu designed the presentation. Data editor Tom Meagher selected the questions that are thrown at players, researched the real polling data and crafted the final presentation for the jury. The Waffler was deliberately built to be used in any kind of election, from presidential to city council. Its use of poll data and hot-button issues ensure it could have universal appeal.

At the end of the weekend, we were thrilled to learn that our entry was chosen as the first runner-up by the judges.

The winning entry came from the Chicago Tribune’s news apps team, which designed a Game Center to showcase a series of mini and micro games that could be integrated into any story. There were plenty of other great games that emerged. In a blog post, the team from ProPublica offered a fantastic, in-depth look at HeartSaver, their health care game that will send your pulse racing.

Have you played the games from the Editors’ Lab hack event at the Times? Which was your favorite?

Tom Meagher

By Tom Meagher

Tom Meagher is the data editor at Thunderdome, leading a team of journalist-developers who build interactive web applications, support computer-assisted reporting projects in local newsrooms and offer training in data analysis and visualization.

Leave a Reply