Storytelling and playing with systems

This journalist gets it:

Maybe journalists shouldn’t tell stories so much. Stories can be a great way of transmitting understanding about things that have happened. The trouble is that they are actually a very bad way of transmitting understanding about how things work. Many of the most important things people need to know about aren’t stories at all.

Our work as journalists involves crafting rewarding media experiences that people want to engage with. That’s what we do. For a story, that means settings, characters, a beginning, a muddle and an end. That’s what makes a good story.

But many things, like global climate change, aren’t stories. They’re issues that can manifest as stories in specific cases.

… the way that stories transmit understanding is only one way of doing so. When it comes to something else – a really big, national or world-spanning issue, often it’s not what happened that matters, so much as how things work.

…When it comes to understanding a system, though, the best way is to interact with it.

Play is a powerful way of learning. Of course the systems I’ve listed above are so big that people can’t play with them in reality. But as journalists we can create models that are accurate and instructive as ways of interactively transmitting understanding.

I use the word ‘play’ in its loosest sense here; one can ‘play’ with a model of a system the same way a mechanic ‘plays’ around with an engine when she’s not quite sure what might be wrong with it.

The act of interacting with a system – poking and prodding, and finding out how the system reacts to your changes – exposes system dynamics in a way nothing else can.

If this grabs you at all, take a look at the original – it includes some nice graphics and an interesting application to class in the UK. The endpoint of the forthcoming class experiment is something like a data visualization tool. It would be cool if they didn’t stop there, but actually created a way for people to explore the implications of different models accounting for the dynamics of class, as Climate Colab and Climate Interactive do with climate models.

2 thoughts on “Storytelling and playing with systems”

    1. Interesting …

      I think there’s a lot of power to such things, but also a lot of danger. Models have to be extremely transparent and robust to give people useful insights. Most are black boxes; if people don’t take he time to interact with them thoughtfully, they devolve into just another form of propaganda. Chevron produced a game a few years ago (can’t remember the name – something like “Energyville” I think). The basic dynamic was, “you need more oil.” Propaganda games could poison the well for acceptance of more serious models.

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