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Playing with global development: how can innovative formats explain complex topics?

By Paula Montañà – In 2014, Italian journalist Emanuele Bompan published an interactive mapping system in newspaper La Stampa, showing how Italian development aid is spent. This year, he took his objective of triggering citizens’ interest in a complex topic like development cooperation one step further and created Follow the Money 2. Using gaming techniques, he asked the reader: “If you were in power, how would you use the funds for development?”

Growing participation of the reader in the production and consumption of news is the hallmark of today’s media. The audience is becoming more demanding and it is not passive any more. Pushing the boundaries of traditional reporting with fresh and creative approaches can bring global development issues closer to a broader public. Newsgames are one of the most innovative forms we are currently witnessing. In a nutshell, newsgames are the result of mixing video game or gaming features with journalistic techniques to convey information in interactive and entertaining ways.

Our grantee Emanuele Bompan, who initiated the Follow the Money and Follow the Money 2 projects, predicts a thriving future for this type of product. The European Journalism Centre interviewed him and asked in what way newsgames can engage the audience in the complexity of global development topics.

Last year, the interactive data-driven project Follow the Money, for which you mapped how Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds are put at work around the world, was a success. What was the goal of Follow the Money 2?

"It all started with the first part of Follow the Money. Usually, ordinary people have no idea on how the money is spent in the public realm, so in that first project our aim was to create a system to visualise this kind of information in a very simple and interactive way. We were very happy with the outcome of the project and we wanted to continue it somehow. We asked ourselves: “what if we transformed Follow the Money into something different? What if we turned the project upside down?”

As a result, Follow the Money 2 empowers the citizen to tell the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs how to use the money. Users can share their perspectives and express their opinions on how would they like to distribute development money."

In Follow the Money you used an interactive data visualisation format. Why did you decide to create a newsgame?

"We wanted a feature that would involve and enable the citizen to produce knowledge and I think the game turned out to be perfectly suitable for carrying out this idea. With a game you can convey very complex content, like the main problems of each country or the main topics in development cooperation, in an easy and short way. The readers can take part and they also have a reward section. At the end of the game, the user will be assigned the status of either a real activist or a foreign affairs minister based on the decisions he took. We call this the profiling system. Our idea was to create something funny, something ‘flashy’ that somehow summarised the user’s decisions and helped spreading the word in social media.

Although newsgames can be expensive to produce, they are very useful to explain certain types of topics. Stories that are not breaking news, but which are complex and have a broad historical time span. They provide background information. Good topics for newsgames could be science, international cooperation, geopolitics or even economic scenarios."

How can gamification mechanics be useful for journalists to have a greater impact on the audience?

"Today we are seeing a mentality shift toward gaming. Gaming is becoming widespread in terms of demographics, so I believe that in this sense newsgames are a great solution. They are easy to play and down to earth. It is a realm that must be taken into account. The European Journalism Centre is clever in funding and developing these kind of projects through the IDR grant. Topics like environmental issues or international cooperation are not really a priority for news organisations, but with innovative formats like serious games these issues can become more attractive.

Nowadays, there is so much online content that you have to struggle and make it appealing, sexy, and playable. Games are also perfect to share on social networks, so I definitely think that there will be very clever ways to put gaming into news in the future."

Producing a newsgame might imply new working routines and also new challenges for a journalist. How was this reflected in the creation of Follow the Money 2?

"Most of our discussions during the production process dealt with finding out the right timing, the ‘fun factor’ of the game, the quality and the information that the game would contain. First, I drafted the game on a visual script and then a designer and a programmer presented alternative ideas to adapt my idea. For example, at the beginning we were thinking of putting all the countries on the screen but that was too complex, so finally we decided to stick to twenty priority countries for the Italian cooperation. The duration of the game is also essential: the more features you add the more complex it gets, which means it is easier to lose the reader in the process.

Fulfilling the multiplatform requirements was another challenge, because we discovered that it did not work properly on tablets and smartphones with just five days before the release date. We had to change the visualisation system and readapt everything."

A single journalist by himself would not have been able to create a product like this. How was your team composed?

"As a creator and project manager I drafted the first idea. I got a journalist designer on board that helped me to translate my thoughts to the programmers and I also worked with a graphic designer, a member of the information design hub Limpido. The team was quite big. Maybe we could have done it with a smaller crew, but I really wanted to have good visuals and a good design, two vital aspects for a game to succeed."

Do you think that Follow the Money 2 achieved its goal?

"The game received quite a lot of clicks; around 15.000 people played the game. The good thing is that even if the users do not play the whole game or are not interested in the topic, at least they will get some basic information. Just by accessing Follow the Money 2, you will understand how many millions the Italian ministry is spending on cooperation—€280 million—and what the priority areas for development are. The information is simple yet important. Especially nowadays in Italy, where we have a huge debate about immigration."

What is the next step in the project?

"I will meet the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and show him the results of the game. Even if this does not have a direct impact on how Italy will spend all this money, at least all the users who played the game will not think that they wasted those 8–10 minutes. Their opinion will be heard by someone. Besides, the Italian Cooperation contacted us and requested to use our software for school education. In the first part of Follow the Money, we gave the readers the opportunity to know more about how the cooperation money is used. Now they can also participate and take decisions."

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.

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