Eric Johnson

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Kids Won’t Read Investigative Journalism — But Maybe They’ll Play a Videogame With the Same Message

toxicmonsterIt’s hard enough to get adults to read serious journalism online. Even on its homepage, the Center for Investigative Reporting has “Read This Later” links to let readers save its articles (which sometimes run longer than 3,000 words) to Instapaper or Pocket.

But sometimes investigative pieces like the ones found at CIR also pertain to children. To get those same facts across in a kid-friendly format, the nonprofit is this week rolling out a game, Hairnet Hero, with the help of a Berkeley, Calif.-based animation studio, Coco Studios.

Hairnet Hero aims to “teach kids what’s in their food” by asking them to build a healthy school lunch, which CIR’s reporting has shown to be extremely difficult. Senior manager Meghann Farnsworth said the organization also hopes that parents and teachers will use it as a new way to approach the topic of healthy eating — and maybe learn a few things themselves.

“I didn’t know how much sodium was in a doughnut,” she said.

It’s an interesting twist on “advergaming” — think Chipotle’s buzzy Scarecrow game — in which games are served up with a targeted message, explicitly or implicitly. Unlike edutainment (another unwieldy portmanteau), the goal isn’t to teach a skill, but rather to sell a brand’s value. In CIR’s case, that’s trustworthy donation-funded journalism.

Hairnet Hero originated at the TechRaking conference last year, but the bigger goal of reaching children started with a coloring book about earthquake safety that CIR published last year under its website’s Junior Watchdogs section for kids. Today, that section has been relaunched in tandem with the new game, Farnsworth said.

The free game will be available for iOS and Android, but also may be embedded and played for free online via Unity’s Web Player (which requires a browser plug-in). Noting that CIR is “aware of the digital divide,” Farnsworth said that a physical card-game adaptation will also be distributed in some California schools.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work