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Credit: By Martin Lopatka on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Ten years ago, Escape From Woomera shook Australian politics. Awarded $25,000 by the Australian Council for the Arts, the 'hypothetical interactive documentary' was set to recreate conditions in the now-closed Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre.

"The decision [to award the grant] reflects poorly upon the Australian Council and its judgement," said Philip Ruddock, Australian immigration at the time, " that the organisation should lend its name to the promotion of unlawful behaviour."

Margaret Piper, executive director of the Refugee Council of Australia, was equally outspoken, saying "it really is trivialising something that is enormously serious."

But for Katherine Neil and Kate Wild, the development lead and investigative journalist that headed the project, the controversy was political rather than ethical. Journalists and media were banned from immigration centres like Woomera, so the layout was plotted from a blueprint leaked by a government employee and Wild interviewed ex-detainees to piece together an idea of day-to-day life.

"I took it as a sign that they were really sensitive about it," Wild said in a recent interview for ABC Arts, "so sensitive about the criticism they were getting over their handling of the refugee issue. Maybe he had just become irrational about it."

Neil was less forgiving. "Our statement was 'You say we can't have access — here's access’," she said in the same article. "Here's access for everyone. You say we can't take photos, or film, inside these places — okay, fine! We don't do photos. We don't do film. We do games — fuck you."

The political backlash died down, until footage shot by guards inside the camp was leaked to ABC, but Woomera represents a milestone in the use of games as a medium for serious issues says Mary Hamilton, audience development editor at Guardian Australia.

"It forces you to empathise in a way that is incredibly difficult to do," she told Journalism.co.uk. "If I could write stories that could do that I would be one of the  best journalists in the world. It's very, very hard for people to empathise with victims of systems in this way. And that's ten years ago."

A different approach to story-telling

sweatshop game screenshot
A screenshot from the Sweatshop game

The non-linear nature of games, with their exploration of cause and effect or multiple outcomes, mean they may be a more effective way of telling certain stories, believes Hamilton, especially when it comes to complex systems like the environment, the benefits system, the economy or international trade.

"Text isn't always a particularly good medium for explaining things because you very quickly become a textbook rather than a news article," she said, "What you want people to do is start to understand the human stories that exist within these things, to understand the kind of background for these things and people develop an intuitive understanding of a mechanic through playing a game that you can't get through other media."

As an example, she highlighted a game called Sweatshop, built by UK studio Littleloud in conjunction with Channel 4. In Sweatshop, the player is put in the position of a textiles factory manager, pressured by the factory owner to produce increasingly high numbers of clothes orders for foreign buyers. The player can hire and fire workers, including (cheaper) children, and choose whether to spend money on drinks machines, safety officers or other items that may improve workers' conditions. The equation of worker safety and profitability becomes increasingly hard to balance however.

"It's structured in such a way that you end up having to cut corners and having to run the belt at an unsafe speed," Hamilton explained, "having to forbid your workers breaks and so on in order to make up the correct number of orders that's required in order to win the game.

"What playing that game does is very quickly help you to understand why these decisions are made, what the pressures are in those situations on the companies who are making those decisions.

"You become a monster and it gives you a much deeper understanding of the way in which this happens than a text piece would or a video would."

In a recent episode of Panorama titled "Dying for a Bargain", Richard Bilton investigated conditions for factory workers in Bangladesh, almost six months after more than 1,000 workers died when a garment factory collapsed in the country's capital of Dhaka. Bilton reported that, in one factory, some shifts last 19 hours and the main exit is locked when the guard wants a break. Both claims were disputed by the factory management. Sweatshop, the game, is interspersed with information provided by Labour behind the Label, but does playing the scenario in a game format trivialise the topic?

"It's not trivialising the news in the same way that making a video isn't trivialising the news," says Hamilton. "These are different media and I don't think we can afford to be snobby in this day and age."

If someone wrote a deep series of interviews with sweatshop factory managers, in which they got unfettered access and focused purely on the manager's perspective and the reasons they make their decisions, that would be heralded as fantastic journalism, said Hamilton.

"It's all part of the same story and the idea that by focussing on some bits you don't focus on others, that's true of literally every news story that's ever been created."

A trivial pursuit?

In the early days of television news, the BBC really didn't like the idea of putting video next to the news announcerTom Rawlings, Auroch Digital
The trivialisation of serious news stories is an argument many games producers come up against, but Tom Rawlings, digital design and production director at Auroch Digital, says other new forms of media faced a similar backlash when they were first introduced.

"In the early days of television news, the BBC really didn't like the idea of putting video next to the news announcer, or even showing the face of the news announcer, because the concern was that seeing the face of the person reading it would trivialise the news," he said.

"Of course now we realise that's ridiculous and we need to come to a similar understanding with games. Games have grown up enormously as a medium and a game does not equal fun, a game equals engagement. That can be fun, and lots of games are, but it can also be very serious and very emotional and we have games covering everything now."

Unfortunately for Rawlings and the makers of Sweatshop, getting these games into distribution channels is not a simple task. Both Sweatshop and Endgame Syria, a strategy game made by Rawlings where the player explores different outcomes of the Syrian conflict, have been banned from Apple's app store for the controversial nature of their content.

Apple have not publicly given details as to why the games were rejected, but section 15 of their developer guidelines – on violence – specifically states that "enemies in the context of a game" cannot feature a real government and apps depicting "violence or abuse of children will be rejected". Neither Endgame Syria or Sweatshop feature any physical violence or aggression, yet the guidelines were left suitably vague as to be open to interpretation.

"We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line." the guidelines say, according to Cult of Mac. "What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it."

Sweatshop and Endgame Syria, it appears, crossed that line.

"If you have an image of a young child suffering, that would immediately be thrown out and censored as unacceptable because you have an image that is upsetting and possibly violent," Professor Janet Jones, head of the media department at Middlesex University, told Journalism.co.uk. "And if you were to watch that on the news that would be absolutely fine because it's contextualised as a news program.

"My argument to Apple would be if you have a factual newsgame it should be contextualised as such. But what's interesting is they will not make that step, they would censor and reject anything that has even infrequent sexual or violent images even if its done in a way that makes sense of it."

Jones, who worked as a television producer and broadcast journalist at the BBC before entering academia, is currently heading research that focusses on the "boundaries of acceptability" where newsgames are concerned, by making a "playable documentary" of the Jack the Ripper murders.

"It's something that someone might feel is a slasher game that can only have one outcome, which is X-rated and very poor taste," she said. "But we're not doing that. I want my children to learn from this, we're aiming for PG."

Small teams make newsgames work

IDS unemployment simulator
A screen shot from the Iain Duncan Smith's Realistic Unemployment Simulator game

By working with Auroch Digital, Jones hopes the Jack the Ripper project will be able to take the risks necessary in exploring new media that she says only small, agile companies are able to do.

"Normally there's an inverse relationship, with the larger the company the less willingness there is to take the risk of failure. Even though there's the money to back them up, the culture of a larger company isn't predisposed to people who don't get it right the first time.

"Whereas smaller companies – where people know each other better and they work together and they take that risk together – they share that risk. The politics is slightly different and, from what I've observed in smaller companies, they have that ability to say 'let's give it a go'."

Such a description is befitting of Us Vs Them, a site which regularly features newsgames on a quick turnaround. When it was launched on Tumblr by Trinity Mirror in May, the prevailing attitude was "if it fails, it will fail quickly", but in September the site received more than a million unique visitors  and the popular yet simple "Where's Damascus? (Don't Ask Us)" was played 266,000 times in its first month.

The Damascus game was produced quickly but involved little more than a point-and-click mechanic using Google maps; the more recent "Iain Duncan Smith's Realistic Unemployment Simulator" was a more complex affair.

According to Martin Belam, Trinity Mirror's project lead on Us Vs Them, the unemployment simulator was being discussed as an idea on the morning of Monday 30 September and was ready to be published the next day, to coincide with Duncan Smith's speech at the Conservative party conference.

"We had a game that was nearly finished to go out on Tuesday which wasn't topical so we pushed that back," said Belam. "That's easier to do in a small team, where we have one editor and you can say 'that's the call we've made'."

Larger organisations have got more "stakeholders to deal with" when it comes to a quick change of direction, he said, so small teams are more able to be flexible with their time and objectives. At Us Vs Them, Belam said the team consists of "six or seven" writers, coders and designers sitting round a desk where they can discuss ideas and move quickly. And he agreed that games can sometimes give the player an insight into a situation that an article might not.

"I think the [unemployment] game brings home how difficult it is going to be to meet the expectations - signing on every day when you might be a rural bus ride away from your job centre and you don't have disposable income to spend on trudging back and forth,” he said, adding that one player had described the unemployment simulator as "depressingly accurate" on Twitter.

"The game somehow emphasises the futility and the box-checking and the drudgery of doing that in a way that I don't think is conveyed by an article."

Engaging the younger generation

People understand games now, they understand how to play them, they fit them into their lives in the same way we used to fit in a daily breakfast newspaperMary Hamilton, the Guardian Australia
As well as giving the user a better understanding of complex issues, newsgames also have the potential to reach an audience who otherwise might not read the news.

"When I look at my brothers, who are a couple of years younger, they aren't really interested in news and reading pages and pages of information," says Lori Prinsloo, a journalist at the South African Sunday Times who was part of the winning team at the recent editor's lab hackathon in Cape Town. Teams were given two days to build an app on the theme of politics and Prinsloo, along with a designer and coder, built a dating site-style app to match players with a political party that best mirrored their beliefs.

"How they grow up is more focussed on technology and how it works and they're very used to it and they use it for everything," she said. "So why not for news? Why not make it fun and inform them at the same time?"

The coder in the group, Carla Goldstein, openly admitted that she knew little about the country's politics, an endemic problem among South Africa's youth according to Prinsloo, so it was important for her that the app was accessible, informative and entertaining.

"Newspapers haven't really evolved much in the last few decades so now that we have all this digital media we should definitely be taking advantage of it to get new avenues and fun games as a way of getting through to people who aren't necessarily interested in the news," Goldstein said. "So I really think that's it's something that everyone should be taking advantage of, not necessarily only newspapers."

The rise of digital media compared to the static nature of print is also an important factor for Rawlings.

"News organisations have to consider that their news is being delivered by a computer now and computers by their nature are interactive devices," he said. "So the idea that you can just stick a load of text on there and that will work is not going to happen."

He said that, while more engaging forms of interaction may not always be an actual game, "gamic" forms of interaction are already present and will eventually become inherent to how an organisation presents its news because the platforms and technology to enable it are implicit to the devices that news is read on.

"And why not?," he asked. "The news organisation that relies on static, non-interactive methods of engaging their audience is going to be left behind by the organisations that embrace this."

For now, both the games and news industries are in periods of experimentation, reeling or rising from the effects of the digital revolution. Hamilton said that, as is the case with many forms of new media, older generations can sometimes see news games as frivolous trinkets rather than a serious platform for expression. As such, much of the work in exploring how newsgames can be effective will be taken by small companies approached by large news organisations to experiment in partnership.

"We're in a place where that medium needs to be taken seriously because these days more people are gamers than aren't when you get below a certain age," she said. "And news organisations need to understand that this is now a medium in which a lot of their user base – or the people they would hope to be their future user base – are literate.

"People understand games now, they understand how to play them, they fit them into their lives in the same way we used to fit in a daily breakfast newspaper. I think once news organisations start to come to understand that there's going to be a rush of people towards this as a potential storytelling tool."

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