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My next book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play (co-authored with my graduate students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer), is being prepared for publication, and it should hit the streets in late summer of this year. In anticipation, I’ll try to offer some occasional previews of the content we cover in the book.

One of the chapters in Newsgames covers infographics, exploring the ways data and information visualization intersect with games in the news. In the chapter, we take a strong position against the “chart porn” that has become popular online and in print in recent years.

Here’s a real edge case. David McCandless recently authored a book called The Visual Miscellaneum. It’s a book of infographics about a variety of topics, all beautifully rendered. In fact, the UK title for the book bears that very sentiment in its title, Information Is Beautiful. The work certainly does present the information depicted in a more appealing and engaging way than simple lists or charts or graphs might do.

The problem is this: infographics like this may be beautiful, but they are not necessarily informative. Specifically, pretty charts often fail to synthesize the meaning, relevance, and impact of information as it pertains to decision making.

You can find a great example of the beautiful uselessness of information among the visualizations on McCandless’s website. Consider Reduce Your Chances of Dying in a Plane Crash. This well-designed multi-form infographic offers information about the locations, equipment, seating locations, dates, airlines, and cities involved in plane crashes over time.

Yet, it doesn’t actually do anything to reduce the viewer’s chances of dying in a plane crash. Sure, they could play the odds based on past cases, but the reasons behind these patterns are utterly lost in their graphing. And the process of surviving a plane crash if one happened to be unlucky enough to be involved in one appears nowhere in these charts. While we might find the work visually appealing, it does nothing to explain why these plane crashes have taken place, or what one could do to avoid future ones.

In Newsgames, we connect infographics to games precisely here, at their ability to create meaningful synthesis of information by making information playable. In these infographics games, players don’t just look at prettified information, they engage with processes that depict how information arises or interacts, they reconfigure information to replay possible scenarios, or they experiment with information for the simple enjoyment of play itself.

published February 9, 2010

Comments

  1. Jeff Medcalf

    That image is just more evidence that reading Tufte should be mandatory for anyone writing about infographics.

  2. Federico Fasce

    Can’t wait to read it. I’m currently studying how to build playable infographics, and your insights will be really precious for me.

  3. nick

    I thought you were going to say that you have developed a game meant to be played during a fatal plane crash.

  4. Shane

    Your book sounds very interesting. Just wondering, though, are there already lots of such games, or are you theorizing possible new avenues? Sorry for being so naive, but I haven’t run across anything for Wii or PS3 along these lines, and I’m not sure I could imagine this kind of thing working on one of those platforms. (I know, you didn’t claim here that they would, but what platform would they work best on? Maybe browser games? I could also imagine maybe Nintendo DS, though I don’t know if any exist…)

    Very curious,

    Shane

  5. Aaron Lanterman

    Three random thoughts:

    1) Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” should go in there somewhere.

    2) I assume you’ve seen this:

    http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/images/afghanistan-1300.jpg

    3) The trick to designed an “infographics game” seems to be that players must be able to mentally trace back and figure out which actions were involved in which consequences, so there can’t be too many variables. Chris Crawford’s ambitious “Balance of the Planet” falls down on this – even with being able to open up the game and see the formulas, there are so many complex interactions that the results feel random no matter what strategy the player uses. There’s no way to “reverse engineer” what happened.

  6. Ian Bogost

    @Jeff

    Tufte is helpful indeed, but also has his flaws. His idea that more information is always better doesn’t take into account the way information and process interacts. But overall, yes, ++Tufte.

    @Shane

    We’re mostly looking at existing work and then extrapolating the future potential. Most of these infographic games are smaller scale works that appear online; you’re right that they’re not at PS3 scale.

  7. @netwurker

    *scratching my projective noggin o’er this post*

    ….ian i’m intrigued re: the notion that infographics [such as "Reduce Your Chances of Dying in a Plane Crash"] fail in presenting adequate synthesized>’practical’ information.

    the idea of laying a concise>direct summation pathway seems symptomatic of a colour-by-numbers cultural angle whereby a user/viewer/info-absorber is hand fed conclusions [usually via long strands of reasoned text] in order to obtain ‘relevant’ information.

    in my [potentially fluctuating + possibly whack-job] world this idea of providing fixed>utilitarian conclusions reduces the ability of users>persons 2:

    1. account 4 individual variance according to contextual variables

    2. display curiosity, experimentation, or adaptability [specially in terms of the eg u cite or in relation to "out of the box" (game)play vs innovative strat development].

    this view may even encourage a dependency model that presents fixed information nuggets as the ultimate “truth” without taking in2 account the ‘satellite’ effects of presenting infographics in this way [think: colour perceptions +/or unquantifiable pattern recognition]. when u say “…the reasons behind these patterns are utterly lost in their graphing” i’d say the reasons aren’t as easily perceived [able to be mapped or distilled] but are not lesser in terms of potential impact?

    chunks,

    @netwurker

  8. Greg J. Smith

    I think most information designers can be best appreciated if you think of them in the same light as your local alt-weekly columnists – journalists who have a certain toolkit that they repeatedly apply to different problems. A lot of these designers don’t make the tools they use, they just use precedents to (re)present new information as per the language of certain typologies (specific types of graph or interfaces). The work is nothing more than op-ed that is intrinsically biased.

    Good info design CAN be extremely revelatory but I am so tired of designers immediately invoking Tufte as some kind of divine vision of what infoviz could be. Like Ian says, he DOESN’T really address interactivity and his particular brand of minimalism is really irritating to see (or hear) parroted by a lesser designer. What baffles me about infoporn is the fact that it is extremely rare that you see any of these graphics taken to task – people just take them at face value and (on the internet) circulate them like might trade baseball cards. That is why I enjoy chartjunk and flowingdata because they tend to read and scrutinize graphics from a production or statistics perspective and generally promote visual literacy.

    I still think the most concise dismissal of data visualization that I’ve encountered was written by Rob Myers.

    I’m looking forward to reading the chapter (and the book wrapped around it).

  9. Greg J. Smith

    Errr.. I meant Junkcharts not chartjunk. I don’t know if I should blame dyslexia or an uncontrollable urge to parrot Tufte.

  10. Mark N.

    A sort of related thought: perhaps the popularity of the infographics isn’t because they convey information, but because they showcase something the people passing it around already know in an aesthetically pleasing manner? Sort of like a flattering caricature. That’s my anecdotal read of a lot of the responses to the very popular ones that get passed around on twitter/facebook/reddit/digg, anyway: not a reaction of, “aha, I finally understand this!”, but rather, “wow, what a beautiful way of presenting that!”

    That makes a “good infographic” from that perspective have the weird criteria that it has to authenticate as an infographic so people treat it as such, but it doesn’t have to actually convey information, because it preaches mainly to an already-informed choir.

  11. Ian Bogost

    @Aaron

    On variables: one of the features of these infographic games is a sort of playfulness of consequence. So you can set up scenarios and see different outcomes. Multiple variables is not always the problem. The problem with BoP, I think, is that it didn’t make the connections clear/interesting. Also the interface was really awful.

    @nick

    You say these things JUST to tempt me.

    @netwurker

    I think the reasons are often, not always but often, the only important knowledge to have. The rest amounts to trivia.

    @Greg

    The baseball card analogy is apt. Or LOLCATS maybe.

  12. David McCandless

    In fairness (and slightly defensively ;), my Plane Crash graphic was just a playful troll through aircraft data. It wasn’t intended as a truly informative or rigorous piece. That’s one of the reasons it’s not the book.

    So I’m not sure all the infographics in my book – or all infographics – are useless. Some are real attempts to link ideas and data and perceptions in interesting visual ways.

    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/the-billion-dollar-gram/

    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/left-vs-right-world/

    Also, surely, one way of playing with infographics is to play with the reader? To tweak and tickle their knowledge and understanding, their cultural references and worldview. To play with their perspective. That’s an exciting potential for me.

  13. Ian Bogost

    David, thanks for dropping by. You’re right of course that I picked an easy target, so to speak. I think we’re fair in the book about characterizing a wide variety of uses of infographics past and future.

    But wouldn’t you agree that there’s a real risk that pizzazz often overtakes informing the public in today’s infographics? I’m not thinking of yours in particular, but just overall?