Al Jazeera’s latest newsgame takes players inside the cyber conflict in Syria

by Mădălina Ciobanu

#HACKED: Syria’s Electronic Armies is an interactive web app produced by Al Jazeera English that aims to take you inside the cyber conflict in Syria.

The project allows you to experience the risks and implications of cyber warfare in a game format.

#HACKED is based on a film with the same name produced in 2015 by senior Al Jazeera correspondent Juliana Ruhfus for People and Power, the broadcaster’s weekly investigative documentary programme.

The game is designed for players using mobile devices, but it can also be accessed on desktop.

The aim is for players to collect as much information as possible about the cyber war in Syria in the five virtual days they have at their disposal, by finding and interviewing sources, reviewing documents and making decisions such as whether or not to pay hackers in exchange for help.

As they advance through the four lines of investigation, players face risks that are based on real issues one might come across during an investigation, such as being hacked or having their data infected with viruses. They can use the game menu to scan their device for malware, revisit information previously acquired and track their progress.

Players can also choose to submit their findings at any time to receive personalised feedback from the Al Jazeera team, and while they can play anonymously, they can also create an account at the start of game that will allow them to dip in and out of the story and save their progress.

Screenshot from #HACKED: Syria’s Electronic Armies

Ruhfus worked alongside an Al Jazeera team and collaborators from Conducttr, a cloud-based gaming platform, to develop #HACKED, which took about four months to complete, including commissioning, production and user testing.

The game incorporates multimedia materials such as maps, voice notes, and video interviews with sources from Ruhfus’s original documentary research.

All message exchanges between the player and the characters are based on real interactions and everybody involved in the film has also provided extra content for the #HACKED game, Ruhfus told Journalism.co.uk.

“My primary goal will always be to create the strongest possible story, to get people interested in the issue, same as when I’m making films.

“If then people learn as a result of that about other things like internet security or journalism, all the better. I think that’s what a truly immersive and interactive experience can do, you learn more from it than you would if you were reading or watching a film.”

This is Ruhfus’s second experiment with news gamification, as she previously worked on Al Jazeera’s award-winning interactive project, Pirate Fishing — some of the lessons learned from that were brought into the production process for #HACKED.

While most of Pirate Fishing was built from scratch, she pointed out that the “only way to keep doing interactives regularly is to make them affordable and turn them around quicker”.

“The gamification [in Pirate Fishing] we got to very late, so ever since I’ve wanted to do something where the user’s choice plays a much bigger role.

“We call a lot of things interactive that are interactive because you move or click something, but often there’s no consequence to your action and I wanted to do a project where there is a consequence — you get insight into the journalistic process or you get security-aware.”

For #HACKED, Ruhfus discussed the concept and tested the experience with game design students, working through what type of information to include in the notifications and other elements that could have made the project feel “too gamey”.

But developing a game around a topic such as cyber conflict also comes with ethical challenges and concerns, she pointed out. This is why it was crucial that everyone involved in the investigation was happy with how the material provided was being used, and that players were reminded at every step that what they were making decisions and learning about a real, important topic.

“I ended up having to learn quite a bit about in-game and out-of-game thinking and use elements such as notifications to keep it real and hopefully to good effect.

“We tried to keep linking to resources such as social media profiles and news stories to keep reminding the user that while this may be in a game format, at the end of day it is still journalism.”

Screenshot from #HACKED: Syria’s Electronic Armies

A preview version of the game was exhibited at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in June, where Ruhfus had a chance to see how audiences actually interacted with the game.

For students and younger attendees “it was a no-brainer”, some even spending between 30 and 40 minutes playing and advancing through the storyline, but the game became less intuitive for older members of the audience, who were concerned with making mistakes in public, she explained.

Speaking at the GEN Summit in June, Latoya Peterson, deputy editor for digital innovation for ESPN’s The Undefeated, highlighted that newsgames do not have to be complicated or feature a lot of multimedia material to work, and it is important for publishers to understand the process of developing a game and its aim: having an impact on the player’s life.

“You have to assess each story, you wouldn’t want to talk about something like human trafficking and have people score points on that,” Ruhfus said.

“My whole mission is to take the same topics and materials that we use for making films and leverage that to tell stories in a different way. But the story chooses the format, and that’s something I feel even with films.”

This story was first published on Journalism.co.uk. Juliana Ruhfus will give a talk on newsgames at the next newsrewired digital journalism conference in London on 8 February. Find out more about the event here.