3 reasons why journalists are wary of gamification: an interview with Al Jazeera’s Juliana Ruhfus


Al Jazeera’s gamified project’s symbol


Click on the player above to listen to full audio of Alex’s interview

Al Jazeera’s Juliana Ruhfus was one of a team of reporters involved in creating an award-winning news game. In a two-part guest post for OJB, Alex Iacovangelo interviews Juliana (full audio above) in the context of wider issues with gamification that have prevented it being more widely used in journalism.

Why is gamification, one of the greatest forms of interaction available, so slow to be adopted by journalists at a time when engaging audiences is more important than ever?

One of the most recent examples of gamification in journalism is Al Jazeera‘s award-winning investigative news piece on illegal fishing in Africa, which they turned into a standalone educational game.

The story on illegal fishing focused on an injustice that needed to be exposed. But attracting and enlightening thousands of readers to injustices exposed in investigative pieces is a difficult challenge – especially when they are taking place so far from the audience’s home.

Juliana Ruhfus, Al Jazeera’s senior reporter, told us that:

“Quite a few people have reacted positively and I think the process of investigative journalism lends itself particularly well to be gamified because you have the process of evidence gathering, of collecting clues and discovery.

“The vast majority of people who’ve been on the interactive project that we’ve created are first time visitors to Al Jazeera, so it certainly seems that one thing we’ve managed to do is reach different audiences.”

Clear evidence of success

Gamification has often produced clear evidence of success in attracting new readers that otherwise would have ignored the story or perhaps not even have visited the website in the first place.

There is also the simple fact that it brings interaction with stories to new heights while also enlightening the audience – so why is gamification such a rare occurrence in the world of journalism?

There are actually a list of potential reasons why gamification isn’t becoming a larger part of journalism, the first and perhaps most obvious being:

1. Resources for gamification

Creating a game is something many may want to do, but cannot due to the simple fact that it requires dedication and time.

Gamification hasn’t been experimented with enough in journalism to have a short-cut or guide to best managing these resources.

2. Games, journalism, taste and decency

A journalist is expected to be objective and adhere to standards of taste and decency. Gamification represents a challenge to both, if done without careful consideration. As Juliana puts it:

“No journalist would take a sex trafficking story and gamify that, because that would be a bit tasteless.”

Turning a tragedy or conflict story into a game leaves news organisations open to accusations of tastelessness or trivialisation. Even game publishers think twice about similar issues: in 2009 Konami pulled the plug on “Six Days in Fallujah” following a backlash from veterans and other groups.

But earlier this year former foreign reporter Mitch Swenson published the game 1000 Days In Syria, an attempt to explain the conflict based on his own experiences. He told The Guardian:

“I was able to incorporate some of the details from my notebooks into the historical nonfiction aspect of the game that were not pertinent to reporting. In that way I could tell more of a full-bodied experience of what’s going on there.”

1000 days Of Syria

And in 2011 the game Warco ‘gamified’ the story of what it is like to report from wars in general – and is used to train journalists.

3. Can you be objective when you are playing a role?

Juliana says that a talented journalist can balance out a conflict story in game form but also says:

“It is important to think very cleverly and carefully when designing an interactive project which gamifies these elements.”

A decent journalist needs to try to present different sides of a story, and with audiences investing themselves in games more than they might, say, an article, even the smallest amount of extra background, interaction or involvement with a particular side in a story could cause a viewer to subconsciously favour that.

This is something that can clearly put objectivity at risk. It means that gamification projects may need far more fine-tuning before publication than would normally be the case, particularly as well-established procedures for print, online and broadcast publication may not necessarily be in place for game publication.

Juliana feels that gamification of conflict stories may be a risk, but it also represents an opportunity to guide a player who may have assumed one side was right to the conclusion that:

“There are no simple answers and you can’t simply divide people into winners and losers.”

This is something that many articles cannot say within a tight word-limit or structure.

In part 2 Alex explores five other obstacles to gamification including perceptions of the medium, standards, and time.

9 thoughts on “3 reasons why journalists are wary of gamification: an interview with Al Jazeera’s Juliana Ruhfus

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