Al Jazeera May Look to Gamers to Help with Investigative Journalism

Helping Al Jazeera to solve international crime might one day be as simple as playing a game.

Last month, Al Jazeera began to experiment with how they investigate complex, globally important stories by turning one of them into a playable computer game.

Pirate Fishing, which the international news organization published on Sept. 24, has players both learning about and investigating a multimillion dollar pirate fishing industry which operates off the coast of West Africa.

The game is based on Al Jazeera’s 2012 People and Power series Pirate Fishing, which followed journalist Juliana Ruhfus and producer Orlando von Einsiedel on a forensic investigation into several pirate trawlers operating illegally off the coast of Sierra Leone.

While the current state of the game is more about demystifying the process of investigating a story as a journalist, Ruhfus said she hopes future iterations could involve players in actual reporting.

“There may be scope to build on this with elements that could get the audience involved,” she said. “In the future we could ask users to take photos trawlers in ports around the world to contribute to a massive image databank that would help solve crime at sea.”

In the current version of the game, which was created in partnership with Italy’s Altera Studio, you begin as a junior researcher with the goal of becoming a senior reporter. Correctly filing away evidence, notes and background information in your reporter notebook unlocks badges and increases your reporter reputation.

On the right side of the screen lives the Mission Control panel. This is where you track your progress into the investigation, review your notes, and view collected badges.

Mission Control Panel
Mission Control Panel

The game is divided into four stages. Each stage begins with a check of your email, which is how you receive assignments and directions for how to proceed in the investigation. The first assignment comes from your commissioning editor asking you to join the investigative team in order to find and obtain evidence of the pirate trawlers rumored to be operating in Sierra Leone waters.

Following each assignment is a short YouTube clip containing some footage from the 2012 documentary but there’s also footage from the investigation that never made it to the original broadcast.

This footage involves the failures and false-starts of the 2012 investigation. You see the numerous fruitless trips to the capital city of Freetown or the hours wasted waiting for ministry officials only to have them inform you they are unable to help.

The addition of this footage demonstrates how the facts, data and evidence collected by Ruhfus and her team were not easily come by, and when it was, it had to be verified.

“We simply have to get it right,” said Ruhfus. The game seeks to convey that sense of importance surrounding fact-finding and fact-checking.

There’s a clear course of action that the player is meant to follow, as evidenced by the strong narrative that guides the action of the game.

“We wanted there to be a narrative because I really believe that is what gets users to stay on the site and user retention was a main goal,” she said.

The process of investigative journalism – gathering evidence, distinguishing it between contextual knowledge, and putting the pieces together – all lent themselves naturally to interactivity and gamification, Ruhfus said.

“So it’s this process of building up evidence of a crime that is really great,” she said.

Gamification is an important aspect of the web-based game but Ruhfus says that the concept for gamification didn’t come until halfway through the design process as a means to keep users on the site.

“I do hope that we can give a different experience because this is the real thing,” Ruhfus said. “I don’t just hope that people enjoy being on the site and that they get informed by the project, but I also hope that it will make them feel empowered.

“We wanted to show how environmental crime can be solved and stopped.”