By Paula Montañà – Five years ago, the capital of Haiti was devastated by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0. The tragedy was immense and resulted in a large humanitarian crisis: the whole city had to be reconstructed. Where to start? How to invest the millions of dollars received? What are the priorities?
The newsgame Rebuilding Haiti, published in the French online magazine Rue89 last year and awarded with the Online Journalism Awards for Explanatory Reporting and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) Photo Contest for Best Web Documentary, gives readers the opportunity to place themselves in the shoes of people involved: the Minister of Agriculture, the mayor of Port-au-Prince or the head of an international NGO, who all face too many urgent dilemmas at the same time.
In an interview with the European Journalism Centre, Florent Maurin, journalist and game designer of Rebuilding Haiti, explains why combining long-form journalism with game mechanics can bring another dimension to storytelling.
How did the idea come about to put Haiti back on the news agenda?
"Jean Abbiateci, the other person involved with the project, had been there before and was very interested in the entire situation. He was aware that most people would not be interested in a normal article about Haiti: when the earthquake struck, a lot of articles appeared in the media and a certain fatigue kicked in. People just had the feeling they knew everything they needed to know already. So Jean came to me and said that he wanted to make something different, something that would challenge people’s predominant thoughts about Haiti.
We wanted to make people understand one thing, which is quite simple but difficult to process: when you try to rebuild a country, you take decisions that seem good in short term. More often than not, these decisions have dreadful consequences in the long term. This is exactly the idea upon which we built the game design of Rebuilding Haiti and the exact thought we wanted people to have when playing it. Haiti received tens of millions of dollars after the earthquake and should not have had any problem to rebuild the country, but the truth is far more complex than that. We designed the rules of the game around that message we wanted to convey."
How did you approach the design of Rebuilding Haiti?
"Jean, photographer Pierre Morel and I discussed the subject and we tried to break down the story into smaller pieces. For instance, we thought it would be interesting to focus first and foremost on housing and then on agriculture and education. Using a game format was a good idea, because our game is like a trap: we want users to take bad decisions and lose the game in order to make them think, take a step back and reflect about the real situation in Haiti. The saying “I lose, therefore I think” sums it up perfectly."
How can games be a tool for journalists to convey information?
"For me, games are just like video, sound or written text. The big difference between writing an article or developing a newsgame is that when you use text, for instance, you build a linear discourse, with a beginning and an end. You decide in which order you will organise your arguments so the audience has no choice but to receive your discourse in the way you decided. When you create a game, you are designing an artificial system that mimics reality. The user can interact with the system and ask questions. Where a text is a linear discourse, the game is a non-linear discussion. This interactivity is interesting but difficult to manage at the same time. You have to be modest, because you will never know how the audience will actually react and use it."
Are newsgames too time and money consuming for journalists?
"Yes, this is clearly a big issue. Newsgames are expensive and it takes time to develop them. Yet, when you look at Rebuilding Haiti, the entire budget was €24,000—a massive sum, but affordable for some media companies. Especially considering the fact that you can reuse the structure and code of the gameplay for other newsgames, which makes production cheaper. I am not sure whether the economic cost is the only thing that impedes newsrooms from creating newsgames. I think it is also a question of culture, of knowing what game design is and of being willing to try new things and innovate.
Newsrooms have to evolve by themselves and I truly hope they will. Some years ago, we wrote articles for the web as we would write articles for newspapers. We would create videos and sound as if designed for radio or television. It took us ten or fifteen years to understand that the real advantage of the Internet was not multimedia, but interactivity.
I think that online journalism is going to be more and more interactive. And if you want to design a fairly interesting interactive object, it might be a good idea to look at how video games developed. Their makers have been struggling with involving users for over fourty years. They now have years of experience in user interaction, so it would be logical to learn from them, wouldn’t it?"
Are newsgames well accepted in newsrooms at the moment?
"Two or three years ago, I would have told you that newsgames are not really welcomed in newsrooms. But things are changing at a fast pace, probably because those who were born and raised with video games in the 1980s are now taking up higher responsibilities in media companies.
For instance, the new editor in chief of LeMonde.fr is relatively young. He is from my generation, meaning I can talk about the power of videogames as information tools with him, without him looking at me as if I was crazy. Le Monde now has a special section, Le Monde Les Décodeurs, which is maintained by a small team fully devoted to creating interactive projects. They started making games because they think they are a good way to address complex issues with many interrelated actors and data. For example, they created a really interesting game about the French president, François Hollande, which was simple but straightforward. It helped people to understand how complicated it is to maintain a majority in the National Assembly."
Do newsgames have to be fun in order to engage the audience?
"I do not think that newsgames necessarily have to be fun. I have played lots of games that were not fun at all, but they still provided for powerful interactive experiences. To be honest, I do think that Rebuilding Haiti has fun aspects to it, but ‘fun’ did not drive me when I designed it. I just wanted my game to ask a series of questions, not in an entertaining way but from an informational point of view. I use games as a means to help people understand reality.
For instance, the video game Assassin’s Creed has a historical and realistic side, but when it was designed and the makers had to choose between realism or fun, they definitely chose for fun. If you asked me the same question about news games, I would answer realism."
What was the target audience of Rebuilding Haiti?
"We wanted to address people who already knew a little bit about Haiti, the people who thought that Haiti was saved and that the problems were fixed thanks to the millions sent by other countries. We were not necessarily aiming at a young audience used to playing videogames. I, myself, always try to create games everyone can understand. You can play Rebuilding Haiti if you can click and read. You do, however, need to have a certain kind of mindset to accept that games can stretch beyond their usual definition. They can be very powerful media tools."
How do you evaluate the impact and result of your project?
"We received a lot of positive reactions and I think that we reached the goal we had: raising more awareness surrounding the complexity of the situation and the difficulty of taking the right long term decisions on the ground. I would, however, say that Rebuilding Haiti does not explain the complexity of the decision making in-depth enough. Or that some of the scenarios we imagined in the fictional part could have been more realistic. But we had to balance what we wanted to do, what we were able to do, what we could fund and what would be acceptable for users."
What makes Rebuilding Haiti special or different from other games?
"It is different because it is a mix between a long-form article and a newsgame. It is not a newsgame in itself, but it is not a multimedia article either. This mix between traditional long-form journalism and visual newsgames makes our project special, because it is something you do not find in classic media any more. The Guardian has almost the same structure and uses the same mechanics as Rebuilding Haiti in its project The Refugee Challenge. It is great to see that other media are experiencing with this type of production too."
Interview by Paula Montañà
Paula Montañà is a project coordinator at the European Journalism Centre and a Media Culture graduate student at the Maastricht University. She holds a Bachelor degree in Journalism from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and has published articles in the Spanish newspaper El País as well as in other smaller printed and online publications.