Journalists’ values, challenges are at the heart of the latest game from UW–Madison’s Field Day Lab

By Laurel White

You’re a fresh-out-of-college journalist and you have three hours to write a breaking news story about historic flooding in your new home, a small Wisconsin town known for its cherry festival. 

City Hall won’t provide a comment — a spokesperson refers you to a stale website. Volunteers helping with response efforts are wary of an outsider and won’t agree to an interview or photo. The one woman who agrees to talk is more interested in telling you about her houseboat than what she’s seen of the disaster. The clock is ticking, and your hopes of serving the community with a factual, engaging, and well-researched story about a very important event are dwindling by the minute.

Oh, and you’re hungry. You rushed out the door this morning, inspired by your tight deadline, and skipped your breakfast. 

This scenario is familiar to many journalists working in today’s often punishing media landscape. And that sometimes frustrating reality is exactly what UW–Madison’s Field Day Lab was hoping to capture in its latest educational video game, Headlines and High Water. 

Image courtesy Field Day Lab

The new game, released this week for free public use on Field Day’s website, is aimed at giving middle school students crucial media literacy skills by allowing them to step into the shoes of a journalist, gaining insight into reporters’ values, challenges, and what it takes to make — and recognize — quality journalism.

Sarah Gagnon, creative director at Field Day Lab, says this unique “real world” perspective is a hallmark of the award-winning lab’s work. 

“One of our design philosophies is teaching not just the facts or skills of the field, but the practices — what are the values, what are the ways people in the field operate?” she says. 


Field Day has built a stellar reputation for games that have allowed kids to step into the shoes of ocean floor researchers, historians, and urban planners. For Headlines and High Water, the game builders partnered with journalists, media researchers, teachers, and students to create a realistic experience that offers more complexity and nuance than many other games focused on media literacy.  

Gagnon says many other news and media literacy games are narrowly focused. They task students with gathering facts to write a story, or swiping left or right on fake or genuine headlines. Her game-making brain itched to provide kids with something different, something a little more nuanced, aimed at the heart of newsmaking itself. 

“I thought, if we haven’t done a good job to explain what news is, what the series of practices for making news are, this means that any time there’s an error or we find out something new, kids come to disrespect the news,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is more important than being able to identify the scams.’” 

To imbue the game with the necessary professional realism, Gagnon and her team tapped into the expertise of journalists Azeen Ghorayshi of the New York TImes, Sammy Gibbons of the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group, and Alexandria Mack of PBS Milwaukee, as well as Siri Carpenter, the co-founder of science journalism nonprofit The Open Notebook. The team also worked with a consortium of Wisconsin teachers as consultants during the design process. 

Sue Robinson, the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism in the UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, also brought her valuable expertise as a former journalist and current media researcher to the game design process. 


Robinson’s research focuses on how journalists and news organizations build trust with their audiences. Her latest book, “How Journalists Engage: A theory of trust building, identities and care,” will be released this month. Fittingly, how journalists build trust is a key facet of Headlines and High Water. In the game, the main character earns and loses points in six key areas: research, resourcefulness, endurance, trust, social, and tech.

“A lot of this game is explaining to kids that journalism isn’t just about politics or facts — it’s about community, about building relationships,” Robinson says. “It’s about how you build trust with the work that you’re doing as a journalist.”

In the game, students are put on a deadline (countdown clock and all) and given a slate of options for spending their reporting time. As they work to produce a story about the flood in their town, they must decide between time-consuming reporting tasks like searching for a source at City Hall or attending a business group’s advocacy meeting. Should they try to get a photo of volunteers piling sandbags, or do online research about marshlands and flooding? Each choice gets them points in one of their strength areas. 

Robinson says Field Day figured out how to make some of the most abstract values and tenets of journalism — things like audience trust and building strong source relationships in the community — into concrete, strength-building areas for the game.

“Each choice in the game has consequences, sometimes they’re positive and sometimes they’re negative,” she explains. “But they get at things like what it means to build trust. It’s a very complex and multi-dimensional game.”

Image courtesy Field Day Lab

“It’s super interesting to think about the process of journalism and how we convey those values to audiences that are increasingly finding mainstream media irrelevant,” she adds. “We turned this whole problem on its head, thinking more about how journalists might explain to communities what they do and why they do it.”

Headlines and High Water is a web-based game and is available for free to play on Field Day’s website here. Additional public releases in partnership with PBS LearningMedia and the educational game site BrainPOP are coming soon. 

The game development was funded by a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment grant. The Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, funded by a generous gift to UW–Madison from Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin, is aimed at supporting collaborative efforts that fully capture the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea is the notion that the knowledge and solutions generated at UW-Madison will benefit the people of Wisconsin, the nation, and the world.

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