When it comes to our communities, are journalists “casual” or “hardcore” gamers?

I’m helping organize a Poynter summit on audience engagement. (It’s Aug. 29 in New York, and you should grab one of the remaining seats!) One of the panels will look at inclusion as it relates to community work. In a planning call this week, the speakers (the amazing Anika Gupta, Andrew Haeg and Michelle Ferrier) asked questions like:

  • Who are we engaging with?
  • Who do we WISH we were engaging with?
  • Why do we think people will want to engage with us? What would their motivation be?
  • Does our interest in our communities feel authentic or self-serving?

The conversation has me chewing on some overlaps between community journalism and gaming or other niche communities.

Join me in mulling over this question: How does it feel when newbies (noobs in gaming vernacular) dive into something you know a lot about, overestimate how much they really know, mischaracterize your culture or truth and don’t seem to care or even be aware?

Now, to connect the gaming element.

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My boys’ Pokemon love runs deep. At one of their early Saturday afternoon Pokemon Club experiences, they brought along their Pikachu pillow and tattered Pokemon book.

My 13-year-old, Patrick, is so frustrated by Pokemon Go. To him, it’s a slap in the face for “hardcore gamers.”

He’s been playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game and the video games for years. When my two boys were younger, we spent many a Saturday afternoon at the Pokemon club so they could match their skills against those of other club members. They both are what I’d call Pokemon experts (though Patrick says he’s not, really) and have been rattling off evolutions and gym leader descriptions since they were much smaller munchkins.

I’ve learned enough to play cards with them a bit, but my knowledge and understanding of the world of Pokemon are unimpressive and worthy of lots of household eye rolling.

But I love Pokemon Go. It makes me want to explore our city. It gives me a reason to go to new parks and libraries. I (with the kids and their friends in tow) chat with strangers, exchange knowing grins and compare our catches.

The boys’ shared birthday cakes the year they turned 9 and 6.

On the surface, I’ve caught the Pokemon fever. But the flip side is that I still I have to ask the kids which Pokemon evolves into which. And when they ask me what “region” the original Pokemon played in, I have no idea. (Kanto, duh.) And I keep assigning the cute creatures the wrong name. (I swear, Snorlax looks like Totoro and Exeggutor resembles a pineapple.)

To Patrick, Pokemon Go is an inferior experience compared to the “main series games.” It invites noobs (“casual gamers” — Patrick’s ultimate insult) who know nothing about Pokemon to jump on board without actually learning or caring about the full experience. It’s watered down, condescending and has very little to do with Pokemon culture as he knows it.

He’s right — I really don’t know much more about Pokemon than I used to. And I could enjoy the scavenger hunt augmented reality experience with other creatures.

Patrick’s rant this week (on the drive to a video game animation camp, natch) reminded me of how I feel about Harry Potter. Patrick and I read all seven books aloud and have a sort of reverence for the series and the bond it gave us. James, my 10-year-old, first learned about Harry Potter through the Lego game on the Wii. He figured out that Dumbledore died when he reached a new level on the game rather than at the end of book 6. I was so sad that he would miss the authenticity and immersion of having the story unfold the natural, “right” way. I was afraid his interest and understanding would be casual.

Similarly, community members are often wary that journalists’ interest will be fleeting or casual. (See how I transitioned there?) We have a tendency to parachute into issues or communities, learning enough to share the highlights with a wider audience but not much more.

That’s not always the case, of course. Sometimes reporters develop such expertise that they know much more than their sources or readers about a topic. That’s hardcore gaming.

But often, it’s the nature of the business that journalists’ work is more general. We learn as we go. We rely on sources and research to get us up to speed. We ask the best questions we can think to ask, then we cross our fingers and hope we got it right.

And sometimes our actions and our coverage feel like a slap in the face to the communities we cover. We don’t invest enough time (or don’t care enough) to really understand the crux of an issue or the nuanced perspectives involved.

Our interactions with communities too often feel transactional. We’re there to extract a story or experience, and then we’re out. We need something, and sources meet our needs. They become the voices or characters in our story. We enjoy talking to them, but we don’t have time for a more meaningful connection or deeper knowledge. That’s casual gaming.

If you’ve had journalism done to you, you know how frustrating it is when what’s said about you or something you care deeply about is not quite right. It might be factually inaccurate. Or more commonly, it might miss the point or be contextually inaccurate. And that feels lousy. You feel used, unheard and misunderstood.

I hope journalists can respectfully, humbly acknowledge that we’re noobs and ask for each community’s help as we navigate our shared storytelling. I hope we can look for opportunities to listen when we’re not on deadline — to have conversations that are more about understanding than about the exchange of information.

Are we casual or hardcore in our commitment to the people we’re here to serve? I hope my answer is a happier one for my journalism than for my commitment to Pokemon.

(Thanks to Patrick for his fact-checks, clarity and ideas as this post took shape. He’s a heck of an editor.)



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