Gamifying the Syrian cyberwar: 6 important lessons I learned

As a journalist and filmmaker I am getting ever more excited about the challenge of having to find new formats to tell my stories now younger news consumers shun traditional news websites and a majority of internet content is consumed on the go. My last experiment was with game development.

Today Al Jazeera released its second “interactive investigation”. Its name is “#HACKED: Syria’s Electronic Armies”, which is based on a documentary I made a year ago, called “Syria’s Electronic Armies”. It tells the little known story of how the Arab spring turned dark, how the internet ceased to be a tool of liberation, and became a tool of surveillance and oppression. We interviewed Syrian activists who had been tortured for their passwords and heard how President Assad’s security services used IP addresses to track fellow activists and to chart networks. All of this information and parts of the interviews were used by us to create #HACKED.

Rami Jarrah, Syrian media activists tells us he was tortured to reveal his password

Via this mobile web app, you message and interact with hackers, activists and cyber security analysts we talked to for the Syrian cyberwar we released a year ago. Goal is to collect the maximum amount of information in a limited amount of time — but handle with care, you must avoid getting “hacked” and protect your sources. Getting “hacked” and taking the wrong journalistic decisions can make you miss your deadline. All our simulated “hacks” are based on real hack attacks that took place during the Syrian conflict.

Trailer for #HACKED — Syria’s Electronic Armies

As I mentioned, it’s not the first “interactive investigation” I have done. Eighteen months ago I wrote a piece for Medium after we launched “Pirate Fishing” a web documentary which told the story of how we had spotted South Korean trawlers fishing illegally, tracked down their disguised identities, and caused the Sierra Leonean government to arrest and fine them.

The project received attention and won awards not least because we had “gamified journalism” by incorporating a virtual notebook where the user had to drag and drop evidence which he/she collected by watching video clips from the film. Al Jazeera, too, was happy because 83 percent of Pirate Fishing visitors had never before been on one of our Al Jazeera websites.

But I felt that the impact of interactive journalism could go much further. In order to go from superficial interaction to real immersion as creators, we must figure out what we as creators and storytellers should give our users in return for their click. So I embarked on a journey to discover what more could be done.

Click here to play # Hacked — Syria’s Electronic Armies

What lessons did we learn while creating #HACKED?

1. Be in constant dialogue with your target audience

It was important to be in conversation with our target audience right from the very start and to get feedback even to the initial concept. So, I arranged for students from the Games Design course at the National School for Film and Television and MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University to be our focus groups. For the final user testing we needed people who didn’t know the app and got a great group of MA Students from the MA course in International Journalism at City University. I also borrowed a lot of my friend’s kids and watched them go through it.

2. Make sure technology and format reflect the story

I also broke with cinematic thinking by wanting this project to be “mobile first” in order to meet our audience where they go online. After building “Pirate Fishing” from scratch I was interested in using an existing platform to move away from big, flagship web docs towards creating smaller, more agile projects that could be adapted and replicated quickly and cheaply if successful.

As journalists and creators, the onus is on us to find the best medium for our story.

The original concept for “#HACKED — Syria’s Electronic Armies” came out of a conversation with Rob Pratten, co-founder of Conducttr, a cloud based messaging platform that uses characters to tell a story. It was Rob who had the idea for the basic game concept of “investigate without getting hacked” — my addition to it was to make sure that all the hacks were based on real hacks that took place in Syria during the cyberwar.

4. Find the right collaborators and listen to their advice

Once Conducttr and the students were on board I started looking around for authentic advisors who knew the world of cyberwar. I was incredibly lucky that ethical hacker Ali Haidar, a veteran of the Arab spring who had rescued many activists, agreed to be the bouncing board for a never-ending stream of “info-sec” related questions. As someone who’s spending his life tracing and re-verse engineering hacks to find the ‘perpetrators’ I turned to Ali to get advice to script the dialogue with black hat hacker in the app.

Jean Pierre Lesueur, creator of the Dark Comet RAT that was used to track Syrian activists demonstrates how easily he can hack my computer

Activists, tired of traditional media also liked the idea of this project and now feature in the mobile version. I am really happy to that is Peter Fein, member of the hacktivist collectiveTelecomix, decided to feature in the app. Telecomix had obtained Syrian government server logs in 2011 and by analysing the logs, they discovered that US company Blue Coat System had supplied technology that helped the Syrian regime to track activists. These revelations eventually influenced a European embargo on the export of surveillance equipment to Syria. Peter, a self-declared cyber hippie, also loves to trade cat pictures online so we didn’t just feature his story but also the feline images he supplied us with.

5. Stick to good ol’ journalism even with the game elements

As mentioned above, our ‘play hacks’ are based on a real hack that took place during the Syrian cyberwar. When you see images of defaced websites they are screenshots of real events. An attached letter about chemical warfare and infected with malware was really sent. In In US court files, I found transcripts that detailed how Syrian Electronic Army members had allegedly extorted money from small businesses by threatening to hack them. I copied the texts of their emails, including spelling mistakes and bad English to simulate a real blackmail hack.

Attendees of Sheffield International Film Festival play a beta version of the app

Turning journalistic knowledge that I acquired during the making of the film into message-based exchanges was probably the most gratifying part of the production. Confronting users with journalistic and security-related decisions in order to create a game environment felt absolutely instinctive. How often do we journalists get something wrong and lose time putting it right, which is just the way we chose to penalise the users of our app?

6. If you experiment with a new journalism format you will also have to create new rules

It might sound simple with hindsight, but this was the real challenge of putting journalism into a game format: in order to make it work we had to establish new, credible conventions to make the content trustworthy.

There was a moment where the game elements took over and truth started sounding stranger than fiction. To resolve this, I needed to learn and apply game thinking.

I embarked on a review of all content of the app and as a result, all the traditional journalism is now contained in the message exchanges between the user and the interviewees. This constitutes the “in-game” experience.

But we also needed an “out of game” space, where the user journey is clarified, and where rules are explained. This was information that we put into drop-down notifications and they became the voice of authority resolved the crisis. The drop down notifications also issue reminders that the content is real and suddenly “real” turned into the most exciting part of the app.

So that was my most important lesson this time around: the importance of rules. The rules of traditional journalism are taught in universities and and are largely taken for granted by both news creators and consumers who have absorbed them. The challenge of creating journalism in a new format was creating content as well as a set of new rules.

We live in an era that is witnessing a massive growth of different journalism formats ranging from print, to podcasts to video and now VR and even AR. As journalists and creators, the onus is on us to find the best medium for our story. And we have to be creative and collaborative to reach our audiences.

Did we succeed? Visit for the app, share it via social media and tag #SyHacked to give us feedback.

By Juliana Ruhfus