J-School students play games to learn

Journalism students will use a game this semester to develop research skills.

Jeannine Aquino

This just in: A train derailed in the city of Harperville and spilled its load of anhydrous ammonia, a highly irritating gas with a sharp, suffocating odor.

The story is assigned to a rookie reporter at the Harperville Gazette. He has only a few hours to get information, find people to talk to and figure out an angle for his story.

These are just a few challenges working journalists face every day. Now, through innovative use of the commercial computer game ìNeverwinter Nights,” University journalism students will have the opportunity to take on these challenges virtually.

This semester, in the Information for Mass Communication honors section, 25 students will perform the role of the rookie reporter. Each student will have to research, report and eventually write a 1,000-word article about the virtual spill in hypothetical Harperville.

Journalism professor Kathleen Hansen teaches the class. She said there are a lot of skills the course is designed to give students that they might not necessarily be able to practice.

ìPart of what we are doing with this game is to give students the opportunity to practice these techniques without having to go out in the physical world,” she said.

Hansen, along with Nora Paul, director of the Institute of New Media Studies, decided to use computer games because they were interested in whether the games would enhance a studentís comprehension of the information-gathering process.

ìItís one thing for people to read something in a book,” Hansen said. ìItís another thing to have a game that simulates that process and forces you to put it together.”

Similar to real-world reporting, the game allows players to do a little research before heading out for a virtual interview. Reporters can go to a news library stocked with hundreds of pages of documents and sources from online sites. The reporter even has the option of looking up a potential sourceís address and making a few calls to prepare for an interview.

Paul and then-Dunwoody College of Technology instructor Matt Taylor approached Hansen about the possibility of using computer games almost two years ago. Hansen and Paul provided the journalistic content while Taylor worked on the actual development of the game.

Taylor updated the original medieval content of ìNeverwinter Nights” into a more modern setting for journalism students.

ìWe donít want students to be able to hit someone with a club,” he said, referring to the commercial gameís ability to allow players to fight a multitude of fantasy characters.

Hansen introduced the teamís first working version of the game to honors students last semester. The version had several bugs that needed to be fixed, including an actual battle between the newspaper editor and reporter near the end of the game, Hansen said.

ìYou might have arguments with an editor, but they donít usually try to kill you,” she said jokingly.

The bugs have since been fixed and a more refined version of the game will be available for students to use in March, said Ted Whelan, a child psychology junior who was hired last week to help make the game more realistic.

Hansen said the game was not intended to replace the actual class.

ìItís another way weíre trying to convey some of the ideas and concepts in the class,” she said. ìYou can almost think of it as an enhancement.”

The use of computer-assisted instruction is a significant change from thinking of games purely for entertainment purposes.

ìGames can indeed be useful and not just frivolous or dangerous,” Whelan said. ìI think that games as educational or research tools hold a lot of promise.”

Barbara Garrity is a sophomore journalism student in the courseís current honors section and soon will use the game.

ìIt could be more beneficial than reading because you actually have to interact with it,” she said. ìLike, with reading, I kind of zone out.”