top of page

Winning at Journalism: Lessons in Game Theory for Newsroom Success

As journalists, we are constantly seeking new ways to engage our audiences and deliver impactful stories.

Recently, I explored the world of serious games, game theory and the Three Pillars of User Delight, and put my learnings to the test by playing a serious game. In this blog, I share my experience and the valuable lessons I learned that newsrooms can apply to their reporting and audience engagement strategies that can lead to creating more impactful stories that drive awareness.

Playing With Perspectives: How 3rd World Farmer Uses Game Theory to Raise Awareness of Poverty

For this exercise I dove into the game 3rd World Farmer which is a thought-provoking simulation that lets you experience some of the hardships of farming in a developing country. On its site it describes itself as “a serious game, developed on a very slim budget. It is not precise in all details, but covers a wide range of topics. It is meant to be both educational and slightly provocative, with the sole intent of making people think about these topics and, hopefully, realize that each of us can make a difference in helping to end poverty.”

In the game, players manage an African farm and face challenges related to poverty and conflict. They make decisions such as what crops to grow, whether to invest in education or healthcare, and how to respond to unexpected events like droughts or raids.

The goal is to improve the farm's output and the living conditions of the farmer's family, while facing the difficult realities of poverty and limited resources. The game aims to provide players with a realistic and thought-provoking experience of the challenges faced by farmers in third-world countries.

Most serious games are built to do one of the following:

  • Transfer knowledge

  • Teach skills

  • Create awareness*

  • Change behaviors

  • Increase motivation

* In the case of 3rd World Farmer, I believe the game is there to create awareness. This playing experience is effective in making the issues more relevant to players, who invest in their game character's fate. The game aims to foster personal reflection on poverty-related topics by having players experience injustices rather than just learning about them.

Let's Break Down the Parts of Game Theory in the Game:

  • Information you need to be successful: In 3rd World Farmer, players need to gather information about the farm and the environment in order to make successful choices.

  • Incentives for the users: The game provides incentives for players to improve their farm's output and living conditions for their family such as more coins to buy more crops.

  • Interacting choices: Players make interacting choices, such as what crops to grow, what investments to make, and how to respond to unexpected events.

  • Economic agents: The game models economic agents, such as market prices and government policies, that affect the farm's performance.

  • Outcomes: The outcomes of the game depend on the player's choices and the external factors affecting the farm.

  • Preferences and/or utilities: Players have different preferences and utilities, which influence their decisions and strategies in the game. You can choose which crop to grow or even which farming tools to invest in.

  • Can the outcome have been predicted?: In some cases, it may be possible to predict the outcome of certain decisions based on the rules and mechanics of the game, but there are many uncertainties and unexpected events that make it difficult to predict the final outcome.

UX Delight 3rd World Farmer

User Delight is the overall satisfaction and positive experience that a user (player, customer, audience member, etc.) feels when engaging with a product or service.

"Three Pillars of User Delight" refers to the three key factors that contribute to a user's overall enjoyment and engagement with a game or interactive experience, namely visceral, behavioral, and reflective design elements. These design elements aim to create a cohesive and enjoyable experience for the user and encourage them to continue engaging with the product.

How does 3rd World Farmer apply the Three Pillars of User Delight"?

  • Visceral: The visceral part of UX delight in 3rd World Farmer is the visual and auditory experience, such as the animations and sound effects that create a sense of immersion and emotional connection with the game.

  • Behavioral: The behavioral part of UX delight in 3rd World Farmer is the ease of use and the feedback that the game provides to players, such as clear instructions and visual cues that guide the player's actions and help them understand the consequences of their choices.

  • Reflective: The reflective part of UX delight in 3rd World Farmer is the game's ability to provoke thought and inspire a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by farmers in third-world countries, encouraging players to reflect on related topics and ways to make change (end poverty in this case). When tying this back to journalism, reflective is a key factor in how newsrooms can apply UX delight to drive impact.

What Newsrooms Can Adapt and Learn From 3rd World Farmer?

A game like 3rd Wold Farmer can engage a wider audience and promote a greater understanding of the topic among the general public. By playing the game themselves, people can experience the challenges faced by people living in poverty and gain a deeper understanding of the issue. By putting themselves in the shoes of those experiencing something otherwise unfamiliar to then such as poverty in this case, the audience may be more motivated to support poverty reduction efforts and take action towards positive change.

As the Nieman Lab's article The newsonomics of gamification — and civilization puts it:

"Game dynamics isn’t about time-wasting. Au contraire: it’s about a seductive, powerful drawing-in of human habit. It’s about changing those habits, leading us to do new things (over and over again)."

A newsroom can try to create similar gamified content based on a story that can drive more audience empathy and understanding. One common goal with journalism is to expose readers to different sides of a story and by turning a complex or polarised topic into a simulation such as 3rd Wold Farmer, a reader previously not open to the concept can learn more information.

Overall, incorporating a gamified story like this can lead to more informed and critical readers. By playing a serious game and experiencing the complexity of issues, readers can develop a more nuanced understanding of the topic, which can lead to more informed and critical reading of news articles and other media about the same topic.

Exploring Climate Change in a New Way: Turning the New York Time's Guide into a Game

Let's apply game theory to an article to test out these ideas.

First, the Columbia Journalism Review writes in their article Play the News: Fun and Games in Digital Journalism, "There is a wide spectrum of possibilities for injecting games into current affairs."

The article also mentions how "Games tackling serious subjects, like climate change, or those supporting literacy, education, and skill development are produced worldwide with the assistance of governments, universities, and grants."

Newsrooms alike can consider climate change an example of turning a story into a game. The New York Times has a post called This Guide Can Help You Save Money and Fight Climate Change. There are actionable tips and costs explained, such as installing a heat lamp.

The New York Times could consider building a simulation game inspired by 3rd World Farmer where you do tasks that can help fight climate change and can see the impact on the environment improve in the game. This could inspire action in the real world and even show how easy small changes can be.

Would you play?


ChatGPT March 25, 2023


bottom of page