Photo: Nonny de la Peña A woman is scanned to be featured in the virtual reality piece Use of Force
Media organisations like the BBC, The Guardian and The New York Times have all created their own “news games” in recent years, while BuzzFeed recently announced the creation of a “gaming” team devoted to creating content for the site. What is driving this interest?
Engaging with serious subject matter
The BBC attracted controversy in early 2015 for its interactive text-based game Syrian Journey. The choose-your-own-adventure-style game allows users to become Syrian refugees fleeing the country as they attempt to enter Europe. The participant begins by selling his or her Damascus home at a vastly reduced price, and then makes a number of decisions to get to mainland Europe. Consequences and alternative endings include drowning and arrests.
The Daily Mail and The Sun criticised the decision by the BBC to gamify the Syrian refugee crisis and collated criticisms of the game that were posted on social media. The Sun quoted a Middle East expert who says: ”In the midst of probably the bloodiest Syrian crisis this century, the decision of the BBC to transform the human suffering of literally millions into a children’s game beggars belief.”
The criticisms, The Guardian’s Games Editor Keith Stuart wrote, come from a “misunderstanding about what games are – or can be.”
“The inference is that all games are for children and that this is not a medium that can support or explore serious subject matter,” Stuart writes. “It is, in short, an old-fashioned moral panic, a dated reaction to a medium that has been maturing for over 40 years.”
Florent Maurin, a game designer and journalist, agrees that people misunderstand the potential for games to cover serious topics. “Most people think that games have to be trivial, they are not fitted to serious topics,” Maurin says. “They are not adapted to serious issues. That’s because the entertainment industry took games and made them what they are today.”
“There’s no reason games should only be for entertainment,” Maurin says. “If you can make movies or you can make comic books on serious issues, why couldn’t you make video games about that?”
Maurin’s company The Pixel Hunt worked with a team of journalists, game developers and programmers to develop the game Rebuilding Haiti. A-choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive story, it allows the user to make a series of development decisions as they attempt to rebuild the island nation after the 2010 earthquakes. Despite the billions of dollars in aid money pledged to the country following the natural disaster, Haiti continues to be plagued by issues surrounding long-term sustainable housing and health care infrastructure, along with a number of other social and economic problems.
The European Journalism Centre (EJC) granted funding to the Rebuilding Haiti project, because the Centre was impressed with the story’s gaming element. “We thought that the news gaming approach was very interesting for development reporting,” EJC’s Antoine Laurent explains. “We see a lack of engagement and a lack of innovation on these topics, on development issues and developing countries.”
The gaming platform, Laurent says, brought a new dynamic to the way development is covered. “The economic situation of developing countries, the development aid delivered by Western countries, it’s covered in quite a traditional way by media organisations.
“It’s not what the audience finds the most engaging because usually the most engaging news about these countries is when there’s a big crisis, or catastrophe, or war. We want to help produce a different kind of reporting about these countries and about these issues.” -Antoine Laurent
Gamification is popularly seen as a way of engaging audiences with otherwise complex content. Maria Ressa, Editor-in-Chief of Rappler, has used the format to build communities around statistically heavy data. Ressa and her team noticed that despite the increase in the Philippines GDP, there was no correlating reduction of the incidence of hunger in the country. Ressa was faced with the dilemma of how to make the content engaging. “How do you make a story like this sexy?” she asks. “As a traditional story it’s boring… Right? It’s a statistics story, but on the web, on the Internet, on your mobile you can do so much with it.”
In Rappler’s project #HashtagHunger, the website saw gamification as a solution to this problem. “We gamified certain aspects of it – we do videos, we do infographics. It’s not the major hit driver on Rappler, but there’s a community that gathers around it.”
For Laurent, gaming allows audiences to engage with content in a way that traditional journalism techniques do not offer. “When you read an article, of course you want to read the article until the end, but you can always stop because you’re distracted or something like that,” he explains.
“But if you have a game, then there’s really the beginning and the end, and if you stop in the middle you kind of lose, or you don’t see the end of the game if you are doing good or not. So there’s a very strong mechanic, there’s almost all the things a reader or a user needs to stay on the piece and to go step after step to the end,” he says. “The reader’s engagement is very strong.”
Learning through play
Editor-in-Chief of USA Today, David Callaway says the benefit of gamification of news is its capability to teach users. “I think it really helps people understand the news,” Callaway says. “It’s another way of telling the story and helping educate, and in some cases, entertain people.”
Maurin agrees that gaming has the potential to help people understand complex material through play. “I’ve been playing games for the last 30 years,” Maurin says. “Very soon I noticed that when I was playing games I was learning lots of stuff.”
“When I was playing [Super] Mario for instance, you learn you should avoid falling into the pit or you are going to die. That’s something you learn through play,” he says. “Nobody explains to you the rules of the game, you just try and [if you] lose, then you know you shouldn’t do that again.”
“So I thought about that critically, and I thought to myself ‘If I learn a lot through playing games, maybe those things can be not only relevant for entertainment but also real stuff, such as news.’”
“As I was a journalist, I thought to myself ‘Maybe it’s possible to design games to be a bit of fun but also a lot of information through the rules of the game.’ So that’s how I tried to mix journalism and games together to see if it’s possible to achieve some new way of conveying information.”
According to Al Jazeera documentary filmmaker Juliana Ruhfus, gamification allows people to engage with a topic on a much deeper level. “You learn by doing a lot more than by being told,” she says. In conjunction with Altera Studios and Al Jazeera, Ruhfus turned what was originally a two-part video documentary into a game. Participants in Pirate Fishing become investigative journalists, collecting evidence and taking notes as they chase illegal fishing trawlers off the coast of Sierra Leone. Working as an investigative journalist Ruhfus says, naturally lent itself to becoming a game. “Where it started overlapping with game-like elements where you really work yourself through an investigation, and at the end, we felt very rewarded when we solved it on location,” Ruhfus says. “I think where gamification works is that it introduces an element of competition and that reward system,” she explains. “That would lead to what you actually do as an investigative journalist on location.”
On mistakes and failure
Allowing users to make decisions in games, and as a corollary, allowing them to fail, enlightens participants to the complexities of certain issues says Maurin. “We wanted to involve people, and we wanted them to make actual decisions and understand the consequences of the decision,” he says. “The main problem that Haiti is facing is that a lot of things are made for beneficial short-term consequences, but the downside to that is that the long-term consequences are very bad and terrible for the country,” he explains.
“So, we wanted the people to make mistakes and choose things they thought would be right at the first time and understand that what is right in the short term can end up very wrong in the long term.”
Ruhfus agrees that allowing users to make mistakes facilitates the learning process. “You really pass on moral choices on a much deeper level and the consequences of your action,” she says. “I think that will be an exciting thing to explore the consequences of action. What if you get it wrong? In theory we could have included something like ‘Sorry, you haven’t got enough evidence, you’re being sued by a South Korean fishing company.’ I think that’s when it could get really exciting.”
With the popularity of gaming, as well as on demand services such as Netflix, newsrooms are embracing unconventional forms of storytelling because younger audiences expect interactivity, says virtual reality (VR) storytelling pioneer Nonny de la Peña. “The people working in news who are warming up to this are often people who have kids who have played Minecraft,” she says. “These kids are used to having a virtual representation of themselves, they’re very comfortable on the computer.
“They’re not necessarily reading a newspaper or watching TV news, but this would be a really great way for them to get their knowledge and keep them informed with a global sense of the world.”
A former documentary journalist, de la Peña is a world leader in using VR technology to create what she calls “immersive journalism.” Using VR goggles, an individual walks through a 3D-rendered reality, which recreates scenes and events. The stories she covers have a distinctive human rights element to them. In Hunger, you walk around a food bank line in Los Angeles where a man collapses from low blood sugar. In Use of Force, you witness Anastasio Hernandez Rojas – an undocumented immigrant – being brutally beaten to death at the US-Mexico border. In Project Syria – a virtual reality project funded by the World Economic Forum – you witness a bombing in Aleppo and you’re transported to a refugee camp in Syria.
“Once I started working in this format, once the technology kind of caught up, to me it has a whole different impact than a documentary film – extremely visceral, extremely deep,” she says.
“I feel like I get stronger reactions now in the pieces that I build in VR than I did in even the most powerful of my documentary films,” she says.
De la Peña’s work is different to the other journalism gaming pieces we’ve looked at so far. Compared to Rebuilding Haiti and Pirate Fishing, where the user has autonomy, you’re given few choices as a participant in de la Peña’s stories. You can’t change the narrative and you don’t score points. A person taking part in de la Peña’s immersive journalism project is a passive observer in an event. So, why is there no agency for the user? This was a deliberate decision she says.
“I don’t think that any more than you’re allowed to change what you’re reading in a newspaper, or what you’re watching on television, that you should be allowed to change the events as they unfolded,” she explains. “Do I want to make you feel engaged, or make you really feel like you’re a witness present there?” she asks. “Yes. I think you can do an interaction, but it has to be done in a careful way. So that you’re staying within good ethical journalism tradition.”
Gaming and revenues
In 2014, the gaming industry grew four times faster than the US economy, due largely to the growth of smartphone sales. The popularity and financial returns that video delivers, Callaway says, means that VR stories are a natural progression that capitalises on this new market. “The ads on video pay higher premiums than the ads on stories, so everybody is looking to do new stuff on video,” he says. “Virtual reality is the next component, not just to show the reader what’s happening but also to bring the reader there. So it’s a logical step in the progression of newsrooms becoming more video adept.”
Gannett, which owns USA Today, has also been exploring VR stories. Subject matter covered include the piece Harvest of Change, which explores generations of American families on a farm, to the Vail Colorado Ski Championships, where users can “ski” down virtual mountains, and their latest work in 360 degree video, where users can “participate” in protests in Selma.
Gaming and audience development
One of the benefits of the game Pirate Fishing, Ruhfus says, was the new audience it introduced to the organisation. “The analytics showed that it brought over 80 percent of first-time users to the Al Jazeera website,” she says. “Now that, to me, is really exciting because that was the thing that we were trying to set out to do.”
“Take investigations out of the ivory tower, and stop preaching to the converted and try to bring it to a different audience – over 80 percent first-time visitors is fantastic.”
On making games as a journalist
There are additional factors to consider when making a game as a journalist. Is it entertaining? What’s my goal? How do you explain the rules? Should I let people have agency? How do I keep people until the end of the game?
Overwhelmingly, all the journalists interviewed for this chapter agreed on one thing – fundamental journalistic skills still matter.
“When you’re a journalist you have to understand the topic you are talking about globally, and you have to think about the situation and what are the elements that made the situation the way it actually is right now,” Maurin says. “That’s exactly what a game designer does. It’s almost the same thing.”
According to Maurin, a journalist making a game needs to think about additional factors. “The only difference is that a classic journalist only tells about what actually happens in reality,” he explains. “A game designer thinks about everything that might have happened.”
“When you make a news game, you make a game about what actually happened but also what might have happened in different situations should people have made different choices.
“So that’s what’s really interesting about this game, they are not just about telling stories, they are about describing entire realities, and reality is not a monolith,” he says. “It’s not only one thing. It’s not only what happened, it’s also what could have happened.”
It’s an issue that Ruhfus encountered when she made Pirate Fishing. Having never made a piece on a gaming platform before, testing the game on journalism students and gaining their feedback was her steepest learning curve. “I kept presenting the project to MA journalism students at City University in London, and they kept asking and saying, ‘Why are you asking us to go forward? What’s the point? Why shouldn’t we just watch the documentary?’ and so on,” she says.
On controlling the narrative
Ruhfus explains that gaming projects require balance between two competing factors: “the contradiction between giving the user, giving the audience, freedom to make choices, in particular freedom on how to direct the narrative, and as a creator maintaining creative control over the narrative,” she says. “Because somehow you need to shepherd the people from the beginning to the end.”
“We spent hours on that. We had massive diagrams that we kept doing, how do we give choices? Where’s the parallel process that still leads people to the point where we have them? I really love that bit, but it’s a giant headache.”
De la Peña’s work in VR and journalism requires different considerations. As people walk through her immersive journalism pieces, de la Peña has to direct people physically, without the benefit of a linear narrative – like the ones you can find on a traditional television or radio program.
“The thing you have to remember is that these are spatial narratives, meaning that things are happening all around you. It’s not like anybody’s focus is on one place,” de la Peña says.
She uses physical cues to combat this. “You can get people’s attention through an audio cue, or if a crowd of people is looking at something – just like in the real world, if you see a bunch of people staring at something, you’ll try and stare at it,” she says.
“These are the sorts of things that in the real world, if you’re emulating a real moment, a crowd staring at something, [it] is appropriate to assume that your participant will turn to look and see what people are looking at.”
In particular, when making a virtual reality piece, there are other physical considerations to take into account. “I think that one of the crucial things that you have to remember if you’re building in virtual reality is that people’s bodies are along for the ride.”
When people move in their virtual reality experiences, but not physically in real life, it has the potential to make people nauseous, de la Peña says. “What we do is we fade to black before taking people to a new scene,” she says. “So they get a second to know that they’re moving somewhere else, and they’ve been brought up in another location.”
Leading the industry or betting on the wrong horse?
Is it a gamble to explore this format? Virtual reality in particular appears risky on face value. Facebook recently acquired Oculus Rift – a company specialising in virtual reality technology – for US$ 2 billion. It’s a technology that’s not yet available to the general public. Should people be developing products and stories on a medium that’s untested by the general public? It’s an issue that Google Glass development faced. Exclusive sales, poor consumer response, and backlash by the general public to “glassholes,” mean that developers have left the technology in droves after seeing little consumer potential.
Gannett and USA Today are exploring other avenues to safeguard against risks that consumers will not respond positively to Oculus Rift, Callaway says. “The Oculus Rift goggles are a very limiting factor, most people don’t have them, or have access to them.”
“That’s why we’re experimenting with 3D video, so what makes those things cool can be applied in different ways,” he says. “Nobody has quite yet invented the product which is going to catch on as the iPhone of virtual reality but everyone is looking at different ways to do it. So it’s pretty cool.”
De la Peña predicts that virtual reality and journalism will take on differing forms based on budget and format, no matter which company or goggles succeeds or profits. “I think the way that it’s going to work is that it’s going to be three-tiered,” she says. “You’re going to have your mobile phone viewing experience, which is kind of like watching something on YouTube.
“You’re going to have your Oculus Rifts, or whatever goggles, and that’s going to be like having a DVD on a home entertainment system. And then you’re going to have the full walk around experience, which I really specialise in, and that’s going to be an IMAX version,” de la Peña says. “You have the three tiers, and there’s no doubt that these are going to become platforms that are just going to explode.The hardware is coming out very quickly, what we don’t have is the content yet.”
Is combining gaming and news a viable and sustainable pursuit for mainstream newsrooms? Maurin, like the others interviewed for this story, agree that gaming is a valuable new journalistic tool, but it won’t replace traditional methods of reporting news and features. “They are using games as a tool, as they are using video or text or photo or anything else,” Maurin says. “I don’t think games should replace all other forms of journalism. It’s one other tool in the journalism toolbox.”
Gaming platforms and news, Ruhfus says, have increased the storytelling potential for journalists. “I think what is happening is we’re looking at an increasing register of storytelling. We can do a lot more,” she says. “We’ve had for the last decade, print stories, television and radio, but now to the mix come interactive projects, news games, animated projects, so I just think there’s an increasing repertoire of how journalists collaborate with others. We just have to look very carefully at what medium we choose for a story.”
Enthusiasm is another commonality among the journalists using gaming platforms and methods. De la Peña’s enthusiasm is infectious. “It just seems like absolutely the right place to be doing journalism,” she says. “It’s really fun! It’s a really fun place to work, and the tools are getting easier and easier.”
“So, if you’ve got a dream to do one of these just go for it and hammer at it. It’s possible, it’s doable.”