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Web games, ripped from the headlines

A few days after South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford returned from Argentina and publicly revealed his adulterous affair with a Buenos Aires businesswoman, a group of five video game creators are gathered in a small conference room in San Francisco to discuss politicians with a wandering eye.

“The point here is to take the opportunity of Sanford to look at something that seems to be happening a lot,” declares Kate Connally, the only woman in the room, as the group reviews more than 10,000 Google News headlines on a plasma screen.

Guided by a reference document titled “Where’s the Naughty Governor?” the discussion runs through a recent bumper crop of philandering politicos: Eliot Spitzer, Jim McGreevey, John Ensign, John Edwards, Antonio Villaraigosa, Gavin Newsom.

The agenda, as Joel Breton describes it, is simple: “We have to decide who’s in this game.”

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Breton is the director of content at AddictingGames, a website owned by Nickelodeon that has carved out a unique specialty: Turning breaking news events into online video games.

In this case, the game, Where’s the Naughty Governor?, launched Wednesday, is a series of five Where’s Waldo? style puzzles in which players search for clues in a photograph before trying to locate the missing politician’s face. For Sanford, those clues culled from the news include a hiking stick, a sexy Argentine woman and a reporter’s microphone -- all hidden on a street scene from Buenos Aires.

The quintet quickly work their way through 15 politicians with slippery zippers before settling on five. Sen. Ensign of Nevada is labeled “kinda boring” and tossed out because he promptly admitted his infidelity; mayors Villaraigosa and Newsom don’t have big enough national profiles; former Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho is set aside because his arrest for allegedly soliciting sex in an airport bathroom by tapping his foot could, Breton notes, deserve its own game.

Those making the cut: Sanford, Spitzer, McGreevey and Edwards. Dave Williams, senior VP of Nickelodeon’s games group, even reaches into the past for one more addition.

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“Could we end on Bill Clinton? He’s the big boss!” he says with a laugh, using the video-game term for a final and most difficult opponent.

The contrast between popular video-game series such as Halo and AddictingGames’ self-described “news games” couldn’t be plainer: The former take years and tens of millions of dollars to produce, dozens of hours to play and sell for at least $50. News games typically take a couple of weeks, cost less than $10,000 and are free to anyone with an Internet connection and a few minutes to spare.

Such inexpensive, simple online games are becoming increasingly prevalent on a host of websites, some run by media giants such as Yahoo and Disney, others by independent designers.

Most of AddictingGames’ content is submitted by individual users, but since it was acquired by Nickelodeon parent Viacom in 2006, the site has produced more original titles aimed at teenagers -- even if the games aren’t exactly suitable for the cable channel’s kid audience.

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A majority are simple puzzle, shooting or sports games. A small but growing number, however, tee off the headlines that generate huge buzz on the Web and Twitter.

“If you want to make fun of something in politics or culture, games are now a great way to do it,” says Connally, the VP in charge of AddictingGames.

They’re also a great way to generate attention -- and they hope advertising. Eleven of the 19 news games produced by AddictingGames since 2006 have been played more than a million times, with the biggest, in which former President Bush abandons the White House to become a hot dog vendor, played more than 6 million times. The site’s first news game, 2006’s Cheney’s Fury, played off of the former veep’s accidental buckshot spray of a buddy during a hunting trip. Since then, the company has produced games based on topics such as the baseball steroids scandal, President Bush’s awkward massage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French soccer star Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butting incident at the 2006 World Cup and the U.S. government’s corporate bailouts.

There was even a game about January’s landing of a US Airways flight on the Hudson River in New York that led to a surprising question: Would people want to play a game based on an event that was almost a horrific tragedy?

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The answer has been yes. Since its launch more than five months ago, Hero on the Hudson has been played 4.6 million times, according to the company.

It helped that it’s not very hard for players, who take on the role of the pilot, to nail a successful landing. After an initial design that had test players crashing 25 times before avoiding disaster, the AddictingGames staff lessened the difficulty level to keep the focus on the uplifting experience, not the challenge.

“We want these to be some of the easiest games we make,” explains Breton.

Beyond their ease, most news games share other traits: They’re lighthearted, short and, whenever possible, include real world photos.

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Where’s the Naughty Governor, for example, is based entirely on pictures. That’s why after Connally and Williams have given their go-ahead for the game’s concept and the five politicians who will be included, Breton and free-lance programmer Chris Basmajian are hunched over a laptop computer scouring the Internet for a copyright-free photo of a John Edwards campaign rally.

Once they find it, Connally joins the duo for a crucial detail: positioning a photo of the former presidential candidate’s ex-mistress Rielle Hunter.

“I just need a place to drop her in and shrink her down,” says Basmajian as he drags Hunter’s disembodied head over the crowd, eventually settling on a group off to the side where there’s just enough room to insert a partially cropped face.

Once the team decided the concept of the game would be searching for hidden items, it took Basmajian only four hours to complete the basic programming. The remaining 31 that he worked consisted primarily of finding and altering photos.

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During last week’s brainstorming meeting, the group seemed to have only a single regret.

“Is there a Gov. Sarah Palin level?” Breton asked while considering options.

“What’d she do?” asked Connally.

“I don’t know,” replied Breton, musing about the online popularity of the former vice presidential candidate. “It’d just be fun to put her in there.”

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On Friday, the news obliged AddictingGames when Palin unexpectedly resigned, sparking a flurry of media speculation about her motivation and political future.

Which was good news for President Clinton. Sarah Palin is now the last level of Where’s the Naughty Governor?

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ben.fritz@latimes.com

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