updated 3/9/2006 10:40:53 PM ET 2006-03-10T03:40:53

Being a rookie journalist can be intimidating. But what if your editor is an ogre?

To teach fact-finding skills, professors at the University of Minnesota have turned the fantasy computer game "Neverwinter Nights" into a tool for journalism students. Instead of slaying monsters and gathering gold, the players tackle sources and gather information.

"When we initially did the game, it still had lava pits, the editor looked like an ogre — stuff like that. The librarian had breastplates," said Nora Paul, director of the university's Institute for New Media Studies.

The team, which includes game designer Matt Taylor and journalism professor Kathleen Hansen, have now modified the game graphics to look like a modern town, the fictional Harperville. A train has derailed, spilling toxic ammonia, and the players are sent out to cover the story. They dig up information by going to the library, government offices or talking to a retired train engineer at the bar.

For each step of a conversation, the players have four choices of what to tell to the interview subjects, ranging in attitude from assertive to tentative. If players are too brash, the interview subjects will say "Excuse me, I don't like your attitude," and end the conversation.

The goals of the game are not only to reinforce the thinking process behind information gathering and distinguishing between different types of sources, but also to teach etiquette, Paul says.

The team had initially planned to have a crowd of game characters milling about the accident scene, but the game wasn't amenable to that. A bug in the program meant that any time a player approached a group of people, he was immediately attacked and killed.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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