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Virtual Reality News: Not All Fun and Games

An interview with Emmett Butler, Parse.ly Software Engineer. 

We’re all looking for it. The hot new thing. The jackpot that will set our monetization woes to rest. The Pokemon Go of digital news. And as newsrooms pursue new ways to innovate — from going all-video a la Tronc to going all-angles with 360-degree recording video games and virtual reality news may be close to getting their moment in the spotlight.

Why is virtual reality the future of news? According to Latoya Peterson, deputy director for digital innovation for ESPN’s The Undefeated, it all comes down to the “magical metric”: engagement. While we at Parse.ly know plenty about engagement, we aren’t quite as fluent in the video game space. To get a better picture of the gamification of editorial content, we asked Emmett Butler, a video game developer and Parse.ly software engineer, to walk us through his predictions for newsgames.

faceEmmett started making video games during his second year at New York University’s computer science program when he met Diego Garcia: “I hung out with Diego a few times, and one day he texted me and asked if I wanted to make a game with him about putting hot dogs on people’s heads. Of course I was interested, so we spent the next year working on weekends to create ‘Heads Up! Hot Dogs’ for iOS.” Since then, Emmett has worked on several games with his partner, Nina Freeman, and other collaborators.

For me, making video games is a way to exercise and improve my engineering skills in a context that allows more wackyness than working at a SaaS company does. I’ve been quite addicted to gaming, video, and otherwise for the majority of my life, and this interest has dovetailed nicely with my interest in creativity through system design. I also enjoy the fact that I get to see people engaging with the software I make on a personal level. Though the games I’ve worked on are software systems, they’re not “tools” in the sense that many other things I could be working on might be. They’re expressions of how our team was thinking and feeling during their creation, and they’re often personal stories that are interesting or relatable to people.

This relatability may be a big reason media companies are turning toward video games and interactive, virtual reality news. Video games, Emmett says, can bring users into the experience in a way traditional news cannot.

Games have the capacity to create feedback loops between themselves and the consumer. Often, this extra layer of information encoded in the interaction model of a game is used to engender empathy in the player. It gives people the chance to interact with something in a visceral, “first-person” setting that may be very different from their personal consciousness.

On the video game side of things, producers have been working on games that are true to life. Take Use of Force, a virtual reality experience that gives the player the ability to experience an incident in which U.S. border patrols beat a man to death at the U.S.-Mexico border. It uses virtual reality technology to make the player an innocent bystander at the event, giving them the ability to walk around the scene as it unfolds. The developers themselves say, “By putting the audience on scene at the harrowing night of Hernandez Rojas’ death, Use of Force will provide a deeper understanding of what’s happening on our borders.”

Separately, BuzzFeed and ClickHole have both been using quizzes for the last few years. Some are less informative, and some more so, but these quizzes are a great example of how game mechanics are regularly being used to disseminate news and news-like information.

Some games that challenge the typical definition of the word “game”:

Will publishers begin creating games to show off their content? The future is unclear. Butler hypothesizes: “The only thing I’m sure of about the future of games is that they will continue to be made by more people with more varied experiences, which means the medium will become richer and more widely accepted as an art form.” As to whether games will be a source of revenue for publishers, he is less sure.

But he maintains the attitude of a gamer and innovator: “It’s unexplored territory, so why not try it out?”