An award-winning story on the pirate fishing industry in Sierra Leone has become an interactive web game that exposes the multi-million dollar illegal trade through investigative journalism. Glenda Nevill reports.
“We are all witnessing that media is evolving in unprecedented ways, both in the way it’s being distributed and in the way it is consumed,” says the journalist behind the story and senior present at Al Jazeera, Juliana Ruhfus.
“Younger readers and viewers want to be active participants: they consume what comes in via social media feeds instead of visiting traditional media sites, they debate online and they want to be engaged rather than talked at,” she says. “At the same time journalists are increasingly collaborating with web designers and programmers to come up with really innovative and interactive projects. So it became an exciting challenge to try and push the boundaries with our own project, too. There were no comparable projects out there so it was great that Al Jazeera bought into the concept.”
Ruhfus worked closely with a team from Altera Studio to create the game – from the initial conception to completion. “Everything was shared and we all learned from each other, it would have been impossible to separate the journalistic process from the structure of the project and even the gamification elements,” she says.
Gamifying her investigation presented some challenges. “At the heart of most web docs and transmedia projects lies the idea of giving the user choice over the order in which they watch clips and most projects have resolved this by organising their footage in three ways: on a timeline, on a map or by character,” she says.
“However, this means that they have to abandon the idea of a linear narrative, the very idea that lies at the heart of all storytelling that you take your audience on a journey from an opening to resolution. I feel that the danger of quite a few of the existing web docs/transmedia projects is that you fail to retain your audiences People drop out when they think ‘I got the concept’ because there is no narrative to keep them going.
“Consequently the single biggest challenge for us was to give the user choice whilst also maintaining control over the narrative – a massive contradiction at times,” Ruhfus told The Media Online.
“Then we then looked for additional ways to actively retain viewers and introduced gamification elements, to create engagement through competition, point scoring and more advanced interaction than just choosing between clips. We are asking our audience to collect evidence and to drop it into different sections of their journalistic notebook and to differentiate between criminal evidence to build a case and contextual information, which informs the next steps you take in your investigation. I think in future I would draw much more heavily on gamification, right from the start. It’s not just fun for the user but also for the creator because it comes closest to mirroring the way we work in the field.”
Rufus says “without a doubt” the scariest part of the physical investigation was climbing into the hatch of a pirate trawler to see if the stolen fish was still on board. “The navy who was meant to take us had abandoned us so it was like making a citizen arrest of criminals who are used to going scot free because they bribe their way through the system. The fish is kept frozen so we all thought they could just close the hatch behind us and we’d freeze to death in the belly of this ship,” she says.
“I think this sequence may have played out more dramatically in the original film but what you get in our interactive project is a much clearer sense of how all the evidence that you have collected during the game matches what you find on board and I hope that this creates a different sense of gratification.”
While the game is aimed at younger users, Ruhfus says what’s been interesting is “how many older audiences have been really positive about this project. This is something I did not expect”.
The game highlights environmental issues as well as how investigative journalists go about their business. How would Ruhfus and Al Jazeera leverage the game and use it in the ‘real’ world to tackle issues?
“I think future projects could go much further. Our project highlights that in order to identify pirate trawlers who disguise their names and markings you need a massive databank of photos of ships that you can compare the images of pirate trawlers to,” Ruhfus explains.
“Many ships, in particular the shady ones, change their names all the time and are very hard to track. Initially we played around with the idea of asking our audience to go out into ports to photograph ships and help compile a databank of photos to assist investigators. But apart from the fact that there are potential security issues in doing this we simply lacked the manpower to deal with this,” she says.
Ruhfus says she “strongly” believes young audiences are political and that “they do want to take part in solving issues and I would love to work on another participative project in future that draws on this”.
She would like work on other projects like the Al Jazeera gamification of investigative journalism. “It has been an incredibly steep learning curve, not just in terms of managing content but also to work with designers and programmers and it would be a shame not to use this new knowledge for future projects,” Ruhfus says.
She says she’s seen good news games on offer and also current affairs transmedia projects by other broadcasters and publishers.“Interestingly some of my favourite projects are not based on video but animation and I think this might be due to the fact that creating your own story helps resolve the problem of user choice vs. author control over the narrative that I mentioned earlier,” she says.
Ruhfus says the fact that the game could be educational in terms of showing how investigative journalists work happened by accident. “We just wanted to created something interesting and engaging. And then teacher and university lecturer friends came forward and said ‘wow, this really helps explain how you work as a journalist’. I wouldn’t want it to feel as if it’s been developed as a teaching tool but of course if becomes one that’s fantastic,” she says.
Pirate Fishing was nominated for the Royal Television Society Awards and Victor Kargbo, the fisheries officer and boarding team leader at the ministry of fisheries and marine resources in Sierra Leone, received a Seafood Champions Award from the International Seafood Summit in 2012 for the work showcased in both the game and the documentary.
Part One: Pirate Fishing
Part Two: Pirate Fishing
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