News Organisations Are Making Video Games About Journalism Because Young People

Would you play a video game that doubled as investigative journalism?

It’s the kind of email I’d waited a professional lifetime for. “Can you fly to Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone and help our reporter and her team in their investigation into the multimillion-dollar illegal fishing trade?” the commissioning editor asked.

Pretty soon I found myself whizzing across the ocean off Africa’s west coast and chasing down pirate trawlers alongside Al Jazeera senior reporter Juliana Ruhfus — well, virtually, at least. I’m actually playing Al Jazeera’s new interactive web game Pirate Fishing, which, based on a real-life report by Ruhfus, allows gamers to pose as a journo reporting on illegal fishing in Sierra Leone.

Such so-called newsgames aren’t new, but media organisations seem increasingly willing to give them a go, despite their high production costs and questionable success, in what could either be a sad indicator of the state of journalism and education these days (we can only learn from freaking computer games now?) or a clever way to get younger eyes on quality journalism.

Because They Care About The Young Folks

For Ruhfus and her team, the latter was certainly a driving force. She’d noticed younger audiences tend to be more “active consumers” of news. Plus, us young folks like to share and find our stuff on social media, rather than heading directly to branded news sites — which means those old-hat brands are hunting for new ways to reach us.

“Investigations lend themselves to interactivity because they are a sort of ‘crime story’ and involve a process of evidence gathering that you wouldn’t have in other forms of documentaries,” Ruhfus says of the decision to “gamify” her story.

“I also think you can only be a good investigative journalist if you are creative, playful and maybe even a bit competitive. You can’t ever give up, you have to look at a situation like a riddle that you have to crack. And I think gamification emulates that much better than a film.”

The thing about the Al Jazeera game, produced by Altera Studio and Grain Media, is it’s almost too easy. You watch a bunch of video clips and then have to file the info in the right section of your notebook to gain investigative points. I loved that you get a behind-the-scenes look at the reporting process — who Rufhus talks to, where she goes, how she compiles her evidence — but that could just be professional nosey-ness.


And maybe that’s where Pirate Fishing falls down compared to, for example, Wired magazine’s Cutthroat Capitalism, in which you get to be the bad guy, a Somali pirate.

“Games are more compelling when they’re a little naughty,” says University of Colorado professor Kevin Moloney, who specialises in transmedia storytelling. “Nobody ever really plays Pollyanna socially concerned games much because it’s not that exciting to perpetually be the good guy and save the world. We want Batman because he’s a complex, dark and mysterious character. Games work on those emotions.”

Turn It On Its Head: How Newsgames Can Help Us Understand The World

Oddly, a 2010 New York Times game on balancing the US budget was pretty popular, because apparently we all think we’ve got the chops to throw together a better spending agenda than our politicians (which might actually be true in Australia).

“A game is an excellent way to describe a system because you get to get your fingers into the system and manipulate it, which helps you understand it really deeply,” Moloney says of the game’s success.

Newsgames don’t even have to be that high-tech to sweetly make their point. Take this excellent yet super-simple Mother Jones Are You a Slut click-through flowchart. Male entitlement’s a wonderful thing, huh? (Their Can I Get Pregnant? flowchart is equally funny-awful.)


Such games have copped a bit of a rap for trivialising real-life situations, like the war simulation Endgame: Syria game, which was rejected for inclusion on the iPhone App Store.

But that seems to discount the worth of games like Papers Please, in which you play an immigration official in a refugee crisis deciding who to let out and who could be a terrorist. Or Refugees, where you play special correspondent for Franco-German TV network Arte reporting from four refugee camps. Or the oddly cute yet simultaneously eye-opening Sweatshop game (despite its seriously irritating background music).

“Because games seem like play, they seem like they should be trivial,” says Moloney. “But once you’re absorbed in one it becomes a pretty significant bit of your life. I think having a game be a little naughty and let you play that bad guy serves an interesting psychological role.”

But Does Anyone Actually Play These Things?

Some news organisations, however, seem to have a hard time deciding who their games are aimed at. Casual gamers don’t want anything too complicated or time consuming, while hardcore gamers are put off by simplicity, says John Osborn, a US journalist who has compiled a pretty exhaustive directory of newsgames out there.

Most games end up somewhere in between and, after a big production drain on overstretched media resources, can miss their mark. Slow turnaround means games based around breaking newsgames are still largely unachievable and no one’s really convincingly jumped on the mobile bandwagon, either.

Rufhus says Pirate Fishing has been well received, but wonders “if people just re-tweet links without really engaging”. Her game may have scored a longer shelf life, though, thanks to interest from journalism lecturers and universities keen to teach real-life fact finding and evidence gathering.

The problem with current newsgames may be that they’re made by, well, newsmakers. Says Moloney: “Journalists themselves shouldn’t design games. As journalists, we get a bit controlling about our content and that’s where you get the Al Jazeera circumstance, where the game becomes less interesting because they’re directing you so quickly to a specific story.”

Ultimately, the idea of “journalism at play” still hasn’t really taken off, though everyone agrees newsgames are a chance to push the boundaries of reader engagement. As former New York Times multimedia director Andrew DeVigal told Wired magazine last year: “There’s a Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance writer living in Spain. She has written for publications including New Internationalist, frankie, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow, and in a former life she covered the colourful world of Queensland politics for The Courier-Mail. Koren blogs at The Little Green House and tweets at @KorenHelbig.