A new video game immerses players in a flood of journalistic decisions

“Headlines And High Water,” from UW-Madison’s Field Day Lab, shows us how all kinds of small decisions shape the news.
In a screenshot from the game “Headlines And High Water,” reporter El Benjamin arrives on the scene where officials and volunteers are sandbagging the Upper Lake Dam in the rain.
In a screenshot from the game “Headlines And High Water,” reporter El Benjamin arrives on the scene where officials and volunteers are sandbagging the Upper Lake Dam in the rain.

“Headlines And High Water,” from UW-Madison’s Field Day Lab, shows us how all kinds of small decisions shape the news.

In the game Headlines And High Water, rookie reporter El Benjamin wakes up in her leaky apartment to five missed calls from her editor at the Twin Lakes Gazette. The city is flooded on the day of the big annual Cherry Festival, and El needs to get to the office. 

Should she grab some food? Check social media? Dig through the many still-packed boxes in her apartment to find her gear? Check in on her neighbor? As she runs out the door, another neighbor is desperately trying to corral her escaped chickens back into their enclosure. Should El stop to help or go straight into the office?

In real life, the answer is all of the above, all at the same time (and she should already have some snacks squirreled away in backpacks, cars, and desk drawers for these occasions). But as Sarah Gagnon, Creative Director of UW-Madison’s Field Day Lab (the same educational games lab that produced The Legend Of The Lost Emerald, about Lake Michigan shipwrecks) learned from journalists she consulted for this game, a journalist’s most scarce resource is time. 

“We had a mechanic that had money involved, like where you had a certain amount of money to spend,” Gagnon says about early drafts of the game. “And all the journalists that we talked to immediately reacted like, ‘We don’t have money. We have time. Our currency is time, contacts, and things like that.'”

A background image shows a flooded downtown. Scene setting bubbles say “Location: the Main Street Cherry Festival. Or what’s left of it. Yikes… this is terrifying. You can barely stand up in all this rushing water.” Below are three green bubbles showing options for what to do next: go to a specialty cheese shop, take photos, or follow the sound of sirens around the corner.
Choice menus in the game show how much time each decision will take using the shaded circles (one circle is one hour). The pink circles in the top right corner of the menu bar show how much time you have left before deadline.

After seeing game after simplistic game asking young people to discern “real” news from “fake” news, Gagnon was inspired to come up with a game that was about the reporting process and how the news is constructed.

“When you think about fake news, it gives you the sense that there’s a ‘real’ news,” as if there’s this perfect kind of news,” Gagnon says. “And I was like, ‘I wonder if kids understand that news is a process that’s mediated by this field of journalism, and it’s contested and complicated?’ News isn’t perfect or fake; it’s always going to be critical and something that we have to be questioning and engaging with.”

Gagnon approached Sue Robinson, a professor at the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to see if she was interested in helping.

“And I was like, ‘This is the most fun thing I’ll ever do.’ So of course,” Robinson says. 

Aside from the fun of creating a video game, Robinson saw an opportunity to combat false narratives and get at the heart of the challenges journalists face.

“The more we talked about it, the more we realized how aligned we were, in terms of our thoughts about how journalism is so essential for us to have a healthy, deliberative system and that it was more and more under attack,” Robinson says. “Kids didn’t really understand what journalists were about and how hard their job was, because there’s so many verbal and physical attacks on the profession, and the professionals. So this to me seemed like at least some kind of a step in helping to improve that situation.”

Headlines And High Water, which is geared toward middle-school students but available for anyone to play through their browser, demonstrates how the seemingly small decisions reporters make shape news stories. Once the editor, Dionne, assigns El a story, the clock begins ticking. Using Choose Your Own Adventure-style text options, the player decides where El goes, what she does, and who she talks to, with the goal of keeping her on track with the assignment and getting the right balance of color, facts, and useful information. Not every choice pans out, and when the clock runs out, you have to put everything together and face Dionne’s scrutiny. 

On the left side of the “notebook” are all the images and story segments El has collected. On the right, blocks where players have to fill in which segments they want to use for the final story.
Time’s up! Now El has to choose which quotes, images and facts she’ll include in her story.

El’s choices not only shape her reporting but also build her skills, which affect the outcomes of future decisions. If she grabs some food or rides her bike, she’ll have better endurance so physical feats will be easier. If she grabs her photo gear, she’ll take better photos. (In theory; she didn’t get the memo in J-school that newspapers are lucky to have photo freelancers or interns. Newspaper reporters need to be a one-person multimedia machine and El is… not.) 

Even staying focused on the assignment at hand can feel tricky. One dilemma I struggled with involves El covering the lack of supplies, no pets rule, and accessibility issues at the city’s temporary shelter ahead of another oncoming storm and potential flood. While talking to one resident, she learns that a senior living facility that closed during the flood three weeks ago still hasn’t reopened, and the seniors don’t know what they’re going to do. El doesn’t have enough time to thoroughly report on the shelter and the senior home still being closed, but the senior home is a story worth reporting. In real life, I’d call my editor and see if we could follow up the next day on the senior home, or if someone else could cover it. 

The background image shows a high school gymnasium with cots. In a larger bubble in the foreground we see an older, worried man. To the right, bubbles explain he is Doug Walter, who has been turned away from the shelter. Below, Walter’s story is shown as a potential segment for the article.
El has a new story snippet after talking with Doug Walter about being turned away from a shelter because it won’t allow pets.

While taking big influence for the game’s structure and storytelling from The Yawhg by independent developers Damian Sommer and Emily Carroll, Gagnon and Robinson also consulted several journalists with a range of experiences including Milwaukee PBS, The New York Times, science journalism, and a small-town reporter in Door County. 

“That game is actually based on a lot of the experiences [the former Door County reporter] talked about,” Robinson says. “I wanted to put together a real diverse set of journalists who had a broad set of experiences, but also who were talking from different perspectives as well.”

When it was ready for tests, they brought in their target audience: kids.

“One thing that is really funny during all the testing with a kid is that it makes them so angry when people don’t talk to them, because they don’t have enough trust,” Gagnon says. “Or they feel like it’s very unfair when they run out of time. And so I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m sure journalists feel that way too.'”

Robinson bribed her 12-year-old son and some kids in the neighborhood with brownies to test out the game.

“I just loved listening to them, talking about how frustrated they were getting sometimes,” Robinson says. “Somebody wouldn’t talk to them in the game or their editor told them the story was bad. I could see them understanding information quality and like, what makes it good? What makes her story good?”

Back to El running out the door: No one wants to face an impatient editor, so why do I, an experienced newspaper journalist, always immediately choose to save the chickens? Maybe the Adventure Time-y illustration of that poor panicked old lady and her hens scattered in the rain pulls at my heartstrings. Or maybe it’s some of my local-reporter instincts kicking in. Helping the chicken lady improves El’s social skills and trust in the community, which makes future interactions more likely to be fruitful. Plus, you never know who the chicken lady knows and who’s going to notice the new reporter being neighborly.

A screenshot from the game shows El standing on her porch while her elderly neighbor next door looks shocked at the sight of her chickens in El's front yard.
Should El get a move on and keep her editor happy, or help poor Maureen round up her chickens? Each decision will affect outcomes later in the game.

But aside from the pragmatic benefits, the game shows how reporters, even those who take jobs out of desperation, come to care about their communities. El goes from counting the days until she can leave Twin Lakes and go to a big-city paper, to choosing to stay even when the big-city paper offers her a job. Which gave me a little heartache. 

My first newspaper job was in rural Nebraska, which is understandably not everyone’s cup of tea. But I loved it. I loved covering agriculture and talking to farmers. I loved driving on dirt roads past cornfields with rain boots in my trunk for when there was mud. (There was a lot of mud.) I loved taking photos of kids with their calves, chickens, pigs, and goats for our multi-day, multi-page county fair coverage. 

And to an extent, the feeling was mutual. In this deeply red, conservative, Trump-supporting area, I got a lot of positive feedback about my work. The weekly paper for Schuyler, a neighboring, majority-immigrant, meatpacking city, was often an afterthought to the bigger five-day paper. But I made sure we had Schuyler-centered stories and a local official told me he was grateful there was “finally something worth reading” instead of a bunch of syndicated Associated Press stories and leftovers from the other papers.

But I was making $12 an hour in 2015, less than grocery store cashiers, with not even a whiff of hope for a raise someday. The cost of living in rural Nebraska is lower, yes, but I had to scrimp if I ever hoped to see a doctor. But the final straw was when we changed publishers to someone who pushed and pushed for more (in ways that were… not helpful) as corporate gave us less and less resources. Less than five years after I left, so had everyone else. No one I worked with is still in that newsroom today. All that institutional knowledge, local history, and personal connections, gone.

Conglomerates bleeding newsrooms dry—and don’t get me started on the pitfalls of “both-sides” journalism—is a little too complicated and frankly depressing for middle-school students. But moving past the real/fake news binary could open the door to more frank conversations about what’s really causing the decline of local news and what can be done to address it. I can only hope.

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