People play the game Spark at the Newseum

Journalism, Games and Play Collide at SXSW

Some casual onlookers of South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals may think of this yearly showcase for the interactive, film and music industries as a haven for bands with odd names and people wearing intriguing shoes, but it’s much more than that. SXSW is a high-profile spotlight for some of the most creative people and organizations in the world.

This year, JoLT Fellows from American University Game Lab hold one of the more outside the box panel sessions. “Engineered Collisions Between Games and News” at SXSW on March 13, 2017, will dive into this cross-sector initiative’s efforts to help media leverage the power of games and play to transform the way audiences experience and engage with journalism.

Experts From Many Industries Apply Games and Play to Media Challenges

Trends in journalism, social media and technology certainly aren’t slowing down or becoming less complex, which means the outlets available to consume and interact with news must become incredibly nimble — far more so than in the past.

The JoLT project, part of the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., was created in 2015 to define and cultivate disruptive leadership in media and journalism. Through JoLT, which builds upon AU’s Game Lab, diversely talented and experienced media leaders, game designers and students are collaborating on projects that both diagnose problems in media engagement and prescribe potentially paradigm-shifting solutions and tools.

JoLT facilitates “engineered collisions” between media and systems professionals, multi-disciplinary workshops and legacy media organizations. The resultant projects have been fascinating, with topics ranging from iterative design and “thinking beyond the page” to reader efficacy and reward systems.

What the JoLT Initiative Has Uncovered

Square Off, Factitious, Spark, Commuter Challenge

Opportunities like the panel session at SXSW are further proof that JoLT’s work is gaining traction. In less than two years, the group has already progressed toward understanding and shaping change. Here are a few examples of what JoLT’s team has learned and worked on thus far:

Human-Centered Design

The ability of game designers make the player the main priority relates to journalism, in which news experiences should be crafted with participants in mind. What that translates to is focusing on providing a wider range of choices and using feedback to quickly adjust those experiences.


With inspiration from game designers, the JoLT team is exploring how to combine context, goals, challenges and rewards in a way that encourages consumers’ ongoing involvement. The idea is to get people as absorbed with news as they are with the fantasy games with which they are so enthralled.

Fellows recently collaborated with WAMU 88.5, NPR’s Washington DC affiliate, to create Commuter Challenge, a narrative-driven game about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s multi-year SafeTrack initiative. The game uses original reporting to create a character that the player helps guide through their commute with constraints like time and money that must be budgeted throughout the week. The player becomes not only the audience for WAMU’s original audio story around Metro’s SafeTrack but also an engaged player.


Interactivity is the new normal. It’s much more engaging than the traditional one-sided broadcasting of news to the general public. With that in mind, the JoLT fellows designed News Park, which allows passersby to play a card game that shows them how much water is required to make their favorite foods. The game then deftly transitions participants into information and dialogue about news consumption, which is the project’s underlying goal.

The JoLT team also put together Factitious, an online game that asks people to identify fake news stories.


Like game players, news consumers want to not only receive information, but also actually be able to respond. Online polls are a good, albeit simplistic, example.

Another example would be the Square Off that the JoLT team designed in collaboration with VOX and Polygon to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the classic role-playing game Final Fantasy 7 in early January. After people read the article, Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History, they can engage and put their newly found knowledge to the test with Square Off at the end—or even test what they know in the beginning before diving into the article for more information.

Journalism is at its best when it helps news users do something — anything from sharing an article to donating money to a nonprofit.


Play fosters experimentation, but in a contained world — not unlike what many news organizations find themselves doing amid rapidly changing tools, expectations and parameters.

JoLT fellows created a game/workshop called Spark to encourage nimble, innovative ideas, decisions and responses to constantly changing constraints. Spark presents a series of lively, fun design challenges, which participants address as they hone their ability to improvise and adapt.

Panel Will Discuss Games and Journalism at SXSW

Members of JoLT’s team will dive further into its research and projects that address problems in news and community engagement at SXSW on March 13, 2017. The panel will include a game designer, clinical psychologist, comic artist/entrepreneur and TV editor.

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