For the record, I would never go to a talk about me... unless I was invited. Nora Paul, with the University of Minnesota school of journalism's Institute of New Media Studies, emailed me over the weekend to clue me in to the talk she was doing entitled: "Being Brian Crecente: Using an Off-The-Shelf Role-Playing Game to Teach Journalism."
Actually, the whole name thing really was a last minute add-on. It sounds like Paul had been working on the idea, introducing college-level would-be journalists to the profession through a video game, for a number of years.
After playing around with a couple of different concepts, Paul said she saw a presentation Kurt Squire did about how he and his team made an American Revolution mod for Neverwinter Nights.
Paul scraped together some grant money and 20 copies of Neverwinter Nights. Using a pool of student assistants, and consultant Matt Taylor, Paul and her team rewrote the dialog trees and reworked the graphics for Neverwinter Nights to make it match their goals.
"The course objectives was to teach information gathering, synthesis and analysis," she said. "We wanted the game to let them practice (journalism) and find out the implications of their choices.
"The idea was to develop a game that would reinforce good reporting practices."
In the game, the players take on the role of a reporter (no, not me) who is covering an accident in which a train carrying anhydrous ammonia hits a truck and derails, forcing the evacuation of the surrounding neighborhood.
"We had to create the city...22 different characters," she said.
Students had to figure out what story angle they wanted to take, covering the health, public safety, transportation safety or environmental issues, before getting started. Once they figured that out that have to identify the important questions, collect the necessary background information, find the right sources and interview them, keep notes, and eventually return to the newsroom to write and file a story to the paper's website.
When Paul contacted me over the weekend, she asked what my take was on reporting, what important things had I learned over my years as a police report. I gave her three key lessons, which she included in her presentation and, in some sense, the game mod.
Treat people like you want to be treated.
This is one of the most important things you can learn not only in journalism, but in life. Treat people like crap and you'll get a double dose of it in return. I was happy to learn that Paul's mod incorporates attitude a bit. The game allows the questions to take essentially four forms.
They can can come from a cocky journalist, a very competent reporter, a ditzy journalist or someone so tentative that they don't seem to know what they were doing.
Don't rely on the officials.
Paul said this was a tricky, but important thing to incorporate into the game. They had to make it possible for a reporter to get conflicting information from different sources and then figure out what the real, and full story is.
If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.
A famous journalism chestnut, that couldn't be more important. No matter who tells you something, never assume it's right, check and double check everything. Something that seems ingrained in the journalism training mod.
While Paul and her students seemed to like the mod, she said that Bioware didn't really cooperate much with their effort, making it nearly impossible to roll out the program to more students or larger classes. So Paul decided to transition the mod over to a different program.
Now Paul's team is working with Pine Tech's Johnson Simulation Center and a program they have called MULE.
I loved the concept of turning journalism into a video game. Funny enough, years ago when I was still a full-time police reporter I was contacted by a fairly sizable development studio who were playing around with the idea of creating a mainstream game about being a police reporter. They asked me about consulting for them.
That never went anywhere, but I've long thought that in many ways being a reporter, in particular a police reporter, is a lot like being in a role-playing game. You need to explore, talk to people, figure things out. I think that could be made into a great game.