Playable Models and the News/Tensions Between Journalism and Design

Check out the “White Paper” John Sharp, Colleen Macklin and I wrote for our Data Toys project.

Data_ToysThe back story

Who: Colleen Macklin, John Sharp and Heather Chaplin. We’re two game designers and a journalist. We were generously funded by the Knight Foundation’s Prototype grant fund.

What: Using game design, play theory and systems modeling to create new journalism products that reveal the complexity behind the headlines.

Where: The New School, New York City.

When: Spring 2013 – Summer 2014

Why: We wanted to use interactive and playful systems to express the dynamic relationships behind the headlines and move beyond the myth of linear causality. Could exploratory, playable-models help in the hunt for new forms of journalism?


Heather was a journalist covering the game industry. She met John and Colleen, professors of game design at Parsons who were making games for learning. (John used to be an art historian; Colleen was an interaction designer and artist).

Over the years, John, Colleen and Heather grew increasingly passionate about bringing lessons from game design into journalism. This was the start of the Data Toys project: could we use play, interaction design, and human-centered design processes to create new kinds of journalism?

A big focus in recent game studies is the design of games to help people become better systems-thinkers. Could we bring this idea into journalism and help people understand not only the headlines but also the complex systems behind the headlines? Could journalists take advantage of new technologies and the emerging ideas of game design to do a better job showing the underlying ways in which the world work?


  1. Understanding how systems work is crucial to being an informed and engaged citizen.
    To be systems literate is to see the mechanisms underlying the goings-on in the world, whether it be the seemingly mundane system of roads, traffic signals and vehicles, or matters of international politics and climate change. Systems thinking is the study of wholes. To be systems literate, one must begin to see the interrelationships between components rather than just the components in isolation and to recognize the dynamic, often changing nature of these relationships.
  2. Journalism has a role to play in explaining the complex systems that lie behind the headlines.
    The role of journalism is to report on the important events around us, but traditional linear narrative may not always be best for showing how systems work. By giving people a playable model, the dynamic interconnectedness of the different components in a system become clear—whether that be relationships between government agencies or the way climate change is influenced by economic policies in one city, traffic patterns in another and wind conditions in a third.
  3. Play brings it all together.
    Just showing how systems work is not enough. Getting people to engage with systems fosters real and deep learning. When we play, we’re in an active and dynamic dialogue with ideas, other people and materials. We’re testing boundaries, developing strategies and learning about cause and effect. Play is also open-ended, enabling us to make choices and come to our own conclusions about how things work.
  4. Journalistic and open source values are key.
    For this kind of work to win the ongoing trust of users and gain momentum, assumptions as well as methodologies and data sources should be transparent. In addition, to foster a community of practice, prototypes should be released under open-source licensing.



So what did we do? We created prototypes to try and answer some of these questions. In the process, some tension points emerged.


Tension Points

Besides the prototypes themselves, we discovered the cultures of journalism and iterative design differed in fundamental ways. We found ourselves struggling to find language to explain our work and even to find a common language for our team of journalists, designers and technologists.

We quickly noticed the “no, but…” healthy skepticism of journalism and the “yes, and…” optimism of design; a tension between the speed of journalism and the more slowly-unfolding processes of human-centered design; the differences in data-driven and systems-thinking processes; and the importance of accuracy in journalism and the use of abstraction and simplification in design.

“Yes, and”… vs. “No…but”

Journalism culture and design culture are different. The way we came to think about it was the difference between the “yes, and…” culture of design versus the “no, but…” culture of journalism. Do you start with a playful experience and figure out a way to get it into a news model? Or do you start with an important event and then spin it out into a playable model? How do you maintain journalistic rigor and accuracy while allowing for experimentation and failure? We don’t think this is a deal breaker, but we do think there is future work to be done bringing the disciplines together.

The pace of news vs. the pace of design; where playable models fit in
Playable models are not a replacement for daily reporting. That would be absurd. The kind of work we’re talking about is not the quick turn-around of daily reporting. Playable models may, however, be ideal for helping express certain kinds of complex stories that elude traditional linear storytelling — climate change, corruption, foreign conflicts, global poverty, immigration, food, etc. Playable models should be thought of as part of larger reporting packages, and the time involved in the design process needs to be considered. There is also opportunity for modeling systems that change over time as new data emerges.

Focusing on data vs. mapping the system
When we started the Data Toys project, we started with data sets. What we discovered, however, is that starting with data is not necessarily the best way to understand and model the underlying system behind a story. In fact, we found ourselves wondering if “Data Toys” was even the right name for our work. When we changed tactics later on, we found that coming to understand the moving parts of a system and how they connected first was more useful – this allowed the “story” in the system to reveal itself. This was a more natural process for the designers on the team, but more challenging for the journalists.

Accuracy vs. abstraction
One of the biggest challenges in designing representations of anything is what to leave out and what to include. We found ourselves wondering: How do we maintain accuracy when we create models that isolate out some of the complexities of the real-world? Our approach: to perform what we call ‘faithful abstraction’ – choosing the core elements of the system that we want to model in order to represent the story we are telling. Think of models of the universe like orreries (those solar system models you played with as a child): if an orrery is to fit in one room, it cannot be built to scale. Scale models of the solar system have been built, but they span a kilometer and the earth is scaled down to the size of a peppercorn. This is also a conundrum faced by journalists, who are always looking for angles and telling stories from specific vantage points. We realized that these issues are inescapable. A representation is, inherently, not the thing itself, and there’s no such thing as no perspective.



While these tensions were present throughout the project, they were by all measures constructive. In fact, identifying and articulating these tensions may have been the most valuable part of this project. They helped us see the challenges and opportunities in bringing the cultures of journalism and design together and informed our work beyond Data Toys.

Just a cursory glance at the project’s legacy lets us know we are on to something. Heather drew upon the Data Toys project to help shape the Journalism + Design program at The New School and is working on a longer white paper on playable models for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Jane Friedhoff, a project fellow, joined the New York Times R&D Lab; and the team shared ideas and processes with the likes of Radiolab, Public Radio International and The Migration Policy Institute.

We are all excited about the potential of design-empowered journalism and continuing to explore play as a vehicle for creating a more engaged and informed audience.

For more information about the project and to contact us, visit:

We’d love your thoughts.


Heather Chaplin, director, Journalism + Design, The New School for Liberal Arts

Colleen Macklin, Associate Professor, Parsons The New School for Design

John Sharp, Associate Professor, Parsons The New School for Design