Can Studying the Minds of Video Game Designers Make For Better Journalists?

"Timmy, come inside and play your video games right now!"

We admit, it sounds a little bizarre and it's probably a bit far-fetched to think any right-minded parent would say such a thing, but recent news out of our nation's capital made us think twice, if only momentarily. The Knight Foundation gave a $250,000 grant to the American University School of Communication to launch a program that aims to train journalists in applying video game design to the challenges of leading a media organization. 

We admit, our first reaction to this news could only be described as mild confusion. We could see, for example, the principles of video game design being applied to, say, an architecture program or other elements of design work. But journalism?

"Effective game designers excel at weaving together a compelling mix of context, goals, challenges and rewards that encourages players' ongoing involvement," wrote American University School of Communication dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck in a blog post about the program. "What can journalism learn from the way they think?"

Once we peeled back the onion that was Rutenbeck's quote, Knight's decision to cut the check made a bit more sense. First off, American University views video game design through the lens of content and operational management. Let's first take the content piece. Designers, much like journalists, create and handle a ton of content, including characters, dialogue, and graphics, and compose it in a way that is compelling to the player. And isn't that what journalism strives to accomplish? Engage readers?

Secondly, designers and journalists have to manage their respective content. As a result, the program isn't concerned with retraining journalists in the fundamentals of the craft, instead applying video game design principles to the day-to-day management challenges of running a newsroom. We're talking Leadership 101 stuff here. Setting goals. Balancing multiple projects. Collaborating with others. Motivating staff.

To that end, the money will be used to fund a Journalism Leadership Transformation pilot program with three fellowship positions for working journalists, and three for journalism students. Fellows will enroll in the university's Game Design master's degree program, work in the university's game lab, and help organize two summits in Washington D.C. to explore topics like the role of "news games" and systems design in contemporary media.

(This isn't to say American University isn't also concerned with how video game developers think. They are, but that's old news. The university already runs a program, called the Game Design and Persuasive Play Initiative, to familiarize journalists with the thought processes of game makers.)

Ultimately, we can't help but wonder where else these principles are applicable. If the principles of video game design can be applied to the field of journalism, so much so that a foundation like Knight feels compelled to cut a $250,000 check to fund it, what's stopping other areas like dance, film, or theater from getting in on the act?

We'll let that spooky and Matrix-like question linger unanswered for the time being. In the meantime, feel free to check out Knight's recent journalism work here.