Screengrab from aljazeera.com/piratefishing
Al Jazeera has today launched its first newsgame – an interactive in which the user takes the role of a journalist assigned to investigate the multi-million dollar illegal fishing trade in Sierra Leone.
Developed by Italy's Altera Studio team, the project aims to shed light on environmental crimes and the practice of investigative journalism, as well as appeal to younger audiences.
"Looking at statistics and the state of the media reports, especially in younger generations, there's a huge appetite to participate in media and not just to be a passive reader," explained Al Jazeera journalist Juliana Ruhfus.
The game is based on a two-part original documentary, Pirate Fishing, which Ruhfus produced in 2012 for Al Jazeera's weekly current affairs and investigative series People & Power.
Gamers collect information and evidence by watching videos clips from the documentary, some of which are compulsory in order to "drive the narrative forward" while others are optional, in the style of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books.
The aim, said Ruhfus, was "keeping control over the narrative but at the same time letting people have choices" in the hope that this participatory element would keep users engaged.
"What we also wanted to do is show how many things you have to do as an investigative journalist that sometimes lead to nothing," she added.
In addition to the video clips, the user can experience "virtual environments" of specific locations, such as the Maritime Surveillance Centre in Sierra Leone, where they can talk to different people about the steps they take to monitor illegal fishing.
As the user navigates through the game they receive badges for completing certain stages, which are shareable on social media, and by the end of the game the player can be promoted to a 'senior investigative journalist' if successful.
As shown by the two years it has taken Ruhfus and her team to complete the project, there were inevitably some challenges in making the newsgame.
One of the most difficult things – and the main reason why the project took so long to develop – was designing the project in a way which would balance narrative control with user choice, said Ruhfus, although this may have been easier if the project had been conceived as a documentary and interactive game from the start.
As it happened, the idea for the game only came about when Ruhfus and members of Altera Studio were brainstorming transmedia projects – telling stories across multiple platforms – on their way home from an investigative conference.
"The film was there first and then we spoke about turning it into an interactive project, which I'm sure if that happens in future would be different," said Ruhfus, who described the last two years as "very much a learning process".
Newsgames on this kind of scale are still relatively rare among news outlets, due to the potential cost involved, but the medium is not short of advocates and hacker communities continue to explore the area outside the mainstream.
Though Al Jazeera footed the bill for the Pirate Fishing project, Ruhfus noted that game producers need to be "quite strict" about the amount of different choices offered to users to avoid costs spiralling out of control.
Ruhfus also pointed out that some stories are more suited to newsgames than others, noting that investigations in particular and the collection of evidence "really lends itself to gamification".
On a similar note, it is also important to pick "the right story" to turn into an interactive newsgame such as this.
"We were very lucky with our pirate fishing story in that firstly we managed to film a crime, which doesn't happen very often, and then we managed to solve the crime," explained Ruhfus.
"I can see [gamification] as a trend but I think [journalists] will have to think very carefully where they invest and what flagship projects they pick for that."
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