Why We Decided to Gamify Investigative Journalism at Al Jazeera

Juliana Ruhfus
6 min readOct 1, 2014

We live in an age where media is undergoing the most dramatic transformation since Gutenberg mass printed the bible. Newspapers and broadcasters around the world are trying to adapt to the digital age beset by fear that they are losing the attention of the audiences. So the questions was, could we, at Al Jazeera come up with an original, interactive, investigative story that would transform viewers into players and capture their attention?

Our project started as a brainstorm about how best to tell the viewers what a real investigation is like. On screen, a TV or film audience is most likely to see a linear narrative, carefully assembled over weeks in the edit where we show the steps we took to investigate a crime. What we don’t tend to show are our many failed attempts as journalists and investigators before we get to the end.

Our investigation into illegal fishing in Sierra Leone is an example in point. We set out to make a film for Al Jazeera’s People & Power strand to investigate South Korean trawlers fishing illegally off the coast of Sierra Leone — basically stealing fish and depriving the country of income and food stocks.

I board the illegal fishing Trawler, the Ocean 3 in the waters off Sierra Leone.

The god of television smiled on us. After a few days in the country we managed to film two trawlers fishing illegally in protected areas with disguised identities. We collected video and photographic evidence and then tried to find out who they were. The final film turned out to be a real action packed adventure.

Boarding a trawler we suspect of illegal fishing.

What you don’t see in the TV version are our many failed trips into Freetown port where we took photos of incoming trawlers which we later tried to match with ‘our’ pirate fishing ships. You don’t see the many calls and email correspondence with experts around the world who helped by sending us photos. And you don’t find out about the many choices we had to make about how to proceed with our investigation. In fact in the end, I think we actually made it look quite easy.

It wasn’t. So, when we started working on the web documentary we decided to edit all our footage, successes and failures, into small clips. At the end of each clip we wanted to give the users of the web doc the choice how to proceed with the investigation. We also wanted to pass on the experience of how often you have to try something which ultimately gets you nowhere before you succeed.

We spent weeks trying to work out the structure for the clips. The challenge was how to make the project interactive to give the users choice over how to proceed whilst maintaining control over the narrative so that the order of events made sense.

When our beta version was ready I presented it to a bunch of MA journalism students at London’s City University they were pretty critical. We had given them too much choice, they got lost and couldn’t see the point.

So we went back to the drawing board to figure out what I think is the single biggest challenge for interactive projects: how to retain users.

Again, we watched the growing number of web documentaries out there starting with Arte’s excellent Prison Valley, CBC’s groundbreaking High Rise and Defectors, projects that have all become milestones.

It was when we started reading about gamification that things fell into place. The idea of gamification is to make things playful by encouraging discovery, setting challenges, creating competition and giving rewards — all in order to engage people.

Suddenly it seemed obvious, investigative journalism and the collection of evidence during an investigation were perfect for a gamified point scoring system on a status bar.

As we started showing around the new prototype it became everyone’s favourite element. With hindsight my only regret is not having gamified more. But would Al Jazeera have given us the budget for the project had we suggested to gamify current affairs from the start? It think it might not have sounded ‘serious’ enough.

Now, that the project is completed, I hope that we have achieved something else. We set out to reach younger audiences with serious investigative journalism. But I hope that we have also found a way of showing aspiring journalists and environmental activists how to gather evidence in an investigation and why it is so important.

Real investigations uncover criminal behaviour and point the finger at those who are responsible. These people can be corrupt callous politicians, gangsters and mafiosis, or, as in our case, South Korean trawlers depriving Sierra Leonean fishermen of their livelihood by fishing without the right licences and in protected areas.

Whoever they are, the people who are the target of an investigation are likely to be powerful and they are likely to threaten the investigators not just with violence but more commonly, with legal action via their very expensive lawyers.

When I teach I cannot emphasize enough just how important it is to have proper evidence such as documents, photos and video. The photos that we took of the pirate trawlers had GPS data attached so that we could prove that the trawlers were fishing illegally inside protected area in case they denied it. Similarly, we took photos of the crew on the pirate trawler and when we saw them again on the trawler that we boarded we knew we had scored.

After receiving user feedback about communication in the game, we added the element of a mobile phone to send emails and urgent text updates to the player. This helped differentiate direct communication and is more representative of how we work in the field.

It was on the basis of our evidence that Sierra Leone’s Minister of Fisheries felt forced to call the trawlers into port and it was on the basis of our evidence that the two ships we filmed were fined by the authorities. You need facts to understand the subject, background information to decide what decision to take next and evidence of the crime to build your case. By asking the users of our interactive investigation to drag and drop the information gathered during the clips into the right section of the notebook to score points they are also inadvertently learning how to differentiate between the three.

It’s been a amazing project to take on. When I look at it now what I can see most are the things that we could have done better. And I hope that next time when I propose to my bosses to gamify current affairs they will be converts to the cause!

The original film “Pirate Fishing” was made for Al Jazeera by Grain Media and the interactive project was created in collaboration with Altera Studios in Rome. Both projects would have been impossible without the expertise of the Environmental Justice Foundation who have spent years working in Sierra Leone on illegal fishing issues.

Did we succeed? Visit www.aljazeera.com/piratefishing for our interactive investigation, share it via social media and give us feedback.



Juliana Ruhfus

Journalist, Filmmaker, Investigator. Senior Reporter at Al Jazeera English, People and Power.