Journalism Needs More Dungeons & Dragons

Have technical writers have figured out something about storytelling that could help journalists?

John Strieder
Jun 15, 2015 · 5 min read

Graduate students at the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism Review recently published “The Experiment” — after 10 weeks of research, the class picked 11 cutting-edge journalism things that they think represent the “best journalism experiments.”

But not all the writers are impressed with every experiment.

Take a closer look at Alexandra Hoey’s writeup on the Des Moines Register’s Harvest of Change project:

“The graphics have the look and feel of a videogame, with blue floating icons that viewers can click to reveal videos, information and quotes from farmers. It’s still a novelty and the presentation is a great draw to get eyeballs on well-produced videos about serious topics like agriculture, something the media industry has long struggled to achieve.

Nuggets of information are, however, far and few between. Most of the time, users are maneuvering through a quiet farm with little character interaction. It can feel a little bland.”

How is this presentation a great draw if it is devoid of both information and entertainment value?

It doesn’t help that interacting with the piece requires either downloading a new, Chrome-unfriendly video player or getting Oculus Rift. But in one word, her problem is playability. The more a piece is designed to be interactive, the more users will expect it to play like a game. That ups the ante for multimedia journalists.


One solution: Dungeons & Dragons

As it happens, attendees at a Portland conference for technical writers called Write the Docs wrestled with the same questions.

They face the same challenge journalists do — disseminating fact-based material to an audience that is overstimulated and gadget-focused. In discussions about journalism, technical writing tends to be forgotten, even as we examine commercials, memes, viral videos and even novels. Documentation is arguably a closer cousin than any of these.

And they were thinking about the same things we think about.

Matt Ness, a technical writer with Splunk, presented a talk called “Let’s Tell a Story: Scenario-Based Documentation.” His model? Dungeons & Dragons.

His point is that Dungeons & Dragons games are multimedia storytelling models at work. They must deliver a lot of data that could easily numb the reader: text, maps, math. The characters and monsters in D&D’s Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual are constructed entirely of numbers that determine strength, charisma and so on. “I was fetishizing a manual — documentation — when I was in middle school,” Ness noted. “Suddenly my career choice makes sense.”

Leading willing participants through these adventures, with “railroading” to keep the story pointed at the author’s destination, is a form of scenario-based documentation, he concluded, and tech writers can use it as a model.

So can we. D&D lives and dies by how playable it is, and maybe interactive storytelling does too.

Ness says a scenario-based documentation should offer an epic journey, amazing feats, and an opportunity to level up, giving readers more confidence then they had when they went in. By confidence, he means knowledge. “Get to know your customers well enough to figure out where they want to go, then take them there on an express train to Awesome Town,” he concluded.

Here are Mike Ness’s tips for creating good scenario-based documentation. How many of these could apply to journalism too?

· Know your customers.

· Develop customer profiles and create for those profiles

· Don’t write tutorials. They’ve already received that basic information. The scenario is for showing them how.

· Don’t write case studies that tell the reader what could happen — show them what could happen.

· Break a complex process into simple procedures.

· Use video strategically and as a supplement only, keeping it short — customers should not have to watch video to learn how to use a thing.

· Have fun with it.

More solutions: Journalism games

Around the world, others are trying to work this alchemy too — packaging information and journalism as a game.

  • Northeastern University offers a concentration on Game Design as part of its Media Innovation program (i.e., its MA Journalism program). The concentration is “A four-course program that provides a firm grasp of the essential fundamentals of game design.” Associate program coordinator Dina Kraft told me that the program is new and no student has taken this focus to date. But she thinks the idea has a future:

I think there is a compelling future for empathy games in journalism — the idea of having a reader walk in the shoes of a character featured in a story, whether it’s a homeless veteran or a freshman congressman, and having the reader/player navigate between the same real life choices facing that individual drawing on quotes and anecdotes gathered in the reporting.

“News games tap into a really lovely playfulness in an organization’s relationship with an audience.”

“I think one of the things that’s most sort of promising these days is using games as kind of an inroads to the complexity of a particular story,”

  • Molleindustria creates playable games that advocate and explain ideas. For example, this game examines (and expresses) the animosity that many progressives feel toward the fast food industry.

One potential pitfall that I can see from using games as journalism is that the idea could short-change less glamorous subjects. How much playability should users or producers demand from a farming economy story?

On the other hand, Molleindustria has designed a role-playing app about the dark side of smartphone production. If coltan extraction can be a game, a lot of things can be games.

Molleindustria’s “Phone Story,” an app about the dark side of smartphone manufacturing. Apple’s App Store refuses to carry it, but Google allows it.

re: imagine

exploring journalism innovation, excellence and ethics

Thanks to Andrew DeVigal and Wes Pope

    John Strieder

    Written by

    Writer/editor/multimedia journalist in Oregon. DJs some, travels a bit

    re: imagine

    exploring journalism innovation, excellence and ethics

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade