Video Games: The Future of Documentaries

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Caio Sampaio is a video game journalist and master’s student in the University of Porto, Portugal. His MA thesis studies the potential of video games as a platform to tell journalistic stories in an engaging manner. He graduated from college in Brazil and lived in America for High School.  bio-blogFollow Caio on Twitter

Technology has changed the world. Every year, devices become more powerful and they will continue to do so, according to Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis (10). This reality has changed the practice of many professions (Frey and Osborne 2) and journalism is not an exception (Bogost et al. 8). The digital era has given journalists more options to reach their goal of telling real-life stories, including multimedia articles, interactive content, and hyperlink texts (Pena 183). Although these developments are mostly positive, they also create hardships.

Technology has given journalists a larger toolkit, but it has also made their profession more difficult (Deuze 10). According to Walter Longo, the media has become ephemeral. People have formed the habit of reading or watching small portions of content before moving on to the next (156). This makes it challenging for journalists to retain readers’ attentions across long narratives, such as argumentative essays (Weatherhead). The situation also affects documentary makers, because this kind of journalism requires viewers to pay attention for extended periods of time (Aldredge).

This is due to what Henry Jenkins calls “Media Convergence,” which he defines as the sharing and consumption of different media via only one platform (29). The smartphone is a prominent example of this: when connected to the internet, it gives access to a universe of information. For instance, Onminicore Agency reported that Facebook receives one million links every 20 minutes (Aslam). This abundance has changed the way people consume news (Longo 156). This is a problem for documentaries, as they aim to teach, and learning requires focus (Rose).

An increase in the number of social media users shows the growing popularity of this format of content-sharing

An increase in the number of social media users shows the growing popularity of this format of content-sharing

In order to tackle this issue and foster engagement, journalists have improved their storytelling techniques. The results are clear: documentaries are some of the most watched content on Netflix (Pierce). Documentaries are not the only type of journalism that has adapted to the digital era. Online essays have also gained traction by using multimedia content with photos, videos, and graphics, as exemplified by the multimedia article Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 (Branch). These successes may paint a positive picture for the future, but while journalists have prospered by turning real-life stories into experiences, a problem may arise in the forthcoming decades.

As Jane McGonigal states, most children born from 1990 onwards grew up surrounded by technology (127). Eventually, these people will be the majority, so if future journalists aim to make documentaries, they will need to share stories in a way that keeps the interest of an audience accustomed to intense and constant stimulation. In this context, Ian Bogost et al. argue that journalists should use video games to create documentaries. They argue that the interactive nature of the medium will retain the attention of future audiences better than non-fiction films (10). This essay explores Bogost et al.’s argument and the literature on communications, game design, and the future of journalism, to understand how and why video games may become a crucial asset for documentary makers.

‘Storyliving’ vs. Storytelling

The concept of storyliving, as distinct from storytelling, is critical for understanding how journalism will adapt to the demands of future audiences. To comprehend this topic, it is important to grasp the difference between these two terms: the latter is an ancient art that has been part of the human experience since people learned to communicate tens of thousands of years ago (Gottschall xiv). The former is an entirely new development: coined by Google in 2017, it means experiencing a narrative through Virtual Reality (VR). Users live the story, hence “storyliving” (27). While researchers created this concept for VR, it is possible to apply it to gaming in general (Valdes), which brings us to the next topic.

Video Games Drive Engagement

Gaming takes storyliving further. In addition to putting players in the story, games give them agency over what they want to do while walking in the shoes of the protagonists to solve the dramatic question of the narrative (Bryant and Giglio 76). This interactivity allows game designers to use three methods to stimulate players and retain their attention: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. This trifecta of elements lies at the core of “Self-Determination Theory” (Schell 149), which describes how extrinsically motivating tasks differ from intrinsically motivating ones (Deci and Ryan 16). Each of the three concepts helps explain how and why games are especially engaging compared to other media:

Competence: During the activity, people must develop a skill (Pink 107). Good examples of game design introduce players to the basics of the gameplay in the first minutes. Throughout the experience, tasks get more difficult, forcing players to constantly improve their abilities to overcome the challenges imposed (Schell 207).

Autonomy: People must have options on how to complete the activity (Pink 82). A game is a set of interesting choices and always gives a level of autonomy to players (Meier). According to Scott Rogers, some games give various tactical opportunities (293), while others allow players to tailor the narrative (Bryant and Giglio 178).

Relatedness: An activity must allow people to connect with others. Some games do this via multiplayer modes (Yee 117), but solo experiences also offer players the pleasure of interacting with fictional characters within the game world (Madigan 99). There are many examples of this, such as the bond between the player and the princess Yorda in Ico (below) (Herold 3). Another instance of single player experiences driving relatedness is when people connect worldwide through the internet, to share opinions about and experiences of the game, building a community or a fandom.

Caption: In Ico, players need to guide Yorda to escape from a castle. The bond created throughout the game exemplifies the “relatedness” element of the Self-Determination trifecta

In Ico, players need to guide Yorda to escape from a castle. The bond created throughout the game exemplifies the “relatedness” element of the Self-Determination trifecta

In addition, there are other ways that video games can drive engagement. In 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared his theory of “flow.” Known colloquially as “being in the zone,” he detailed it in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences. According to the author, it is the highest state of engagement people can reach, causing them to become fully immersed in an activity. In his work, Csikszentmihalyi describes three conditions that lead to flow: clear set of goals, immediate feedback, and balance between challenge and skill (72).

Clear set of goals:  Almost every game has them. Apart from offering a direction to the action, they can serve other purposes. A game can break them into smaller steps, to give a sense of progression as players advance in the game, bolstering engagement (Werbach and Hunter 44).

Immediate feedback: People must receive a clear and instant response to know how they are performing (Csikszentmihalyi 72). Games do this by showing a clear reaction to every player action players.

Balance between challenge and skills: The activity must challenge people to continue improving their abilities, but it must be easy enough for them to think they can be successful (72). According to Jesse Schell, this is a crucial principle of game design, as it stimulates players to continue improving and to stay in the game (207).

Combining Self-Determination and Flow theories gives an insight on the psychology that makes games engaging and why they will be an important asset in the toolkit of journalists, if they wish to meet the demands of future audiences. These psychological triggers allow games to keep the attention of players. Considering that communicators need to have the focus of their audiences to inform effectively (Rose), this engagement is crucial for journalists to fulfill the goal of a documentary: to teach.

Interactivity Encourages Learning

The elements described above can make for a more engaging learning experience, as Re-Mission (below) demonstrates. It is an educational game created to fix a problem: children with cancer often avoid taking their medications due to the strong side effects that can occur. To solve this issue, the nonprofit organization HopeLab partnered with Real Time Associates to develop a game that teaches about treatment for the disease. Developers hoped that patients would cooperate more if they had a better understanding of why their drugs are crucial for their recovery, despite the strong side effects (Burak and Parker 144).

Caption: Re-Mission uses shooter mechanics to drive the action

Re-Mission uses shooter mechanics to drive the action

The people involved in the project announced that it had successfully encouraged children to cooperate. Their knowledge of cancer also improved, but the developers questioned whether the game helped or if they could have achieved the same results with a passive experience. To find an answer, researchers tested two groups: one that played Re-Mission and another that watched gameplay sessions. In terms of knowledge about cancer, the former outperformed the latter, suggesting that gaming can help people learn more effectively (Burak and Parker 144).

The psychological triggers mentioned above make games stimulate more areas of the brain and with greater intensity. This means that when players absorb information while playing, the experience reaches more parts of the cephalic matter, including the hippocampus. This region is responsible for emotion and memory, turning facts gleaned from the experience into long-term memories. The researchers say that watching a gameplay session also stimulates the hippocampus, but not with the same intensity, meaning that viewers are likely to learn less than players (Burak and Parker 145).

Child undergoing cancer treatment plays Re-Mission

Child undergoing cancer treatment plays Re-Mission

Despite the evidence suggesting that video games are an effective learning tool – one that documentary makers should consider as a serious medium to tell their stories and inform – gaming can do more. It is important to understand that a quality documentary not only teaches, but also invites audiences to question their worldview, based on what they watched (Dunlop). The interactive nature of video games can also make players think critically about reality and question the society around them (Bogost 28), as the next section explains.

Procedural Rhetoric

According to Ian Bogost, video games started a new form of argumentation, which he calls “procedural rhetoric.” The author defines it as the use of interactive systems to persuade people towards a point of view (28). As an example, he cites The McDonald’s Video Game (below), where players engage in some of the more nefarious practices endemic to fast food restaurants, including lobbying, government bribing, and cattle fattening. The goal is to make players reach negative conclusions about McDonald’s and its worldwide modus operandi (Bogost 29).

From its mechanics to its visuals, the game uses every opportunity to make negative remarks on McDonald’s

From its mechanics to its visuals, the game uses every opportunity to make negative remarks on McDonald’s

The developer accomplishes this by ensuring that the progress of players comes with morally questionable decisions. For instance, to expand a restaurant, players may need to buy new crops, but the only ones available are private properties. Players can bribe the government so it allows McDonald’s to take over the lands of citizens. This game presents procedural rhetoric as a tool that makes people come to conclusions by themselves, based on their actions. The result is an experience that is more personal than watching the reasoning of other individuals (29).

Games Promote Empathy

This final topic of discussion is the result of the ones presented above. When we combine an interactive experience with procedural rhetoric, it is possible to create narratives that can increase the empathy of an audience. This is the conclusion Paul Darvarsi reached in his research commissioned by UNESCO (19). Likewise, Jonathan Belman and Mary Flanagan argue that there is an increasing interest in developing this type of game and they use Hush as an example (9). Hush puts players in control of a mother who tries to protect her baby during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (9). Players control a woman who hides inside a dark house and holds her child, while enemy soldiers lurk outside. To stay hidden, players must “sing” a lullaby to calm the baby, using their keyboards to type a series of keys that appear on-screen. Failure will cause the newborn to get agitated and start to cry, alerting the foes nearby, who will find and kill the mother.

According to Belman and Flanagan, while playing Hush, players reported an increasing sense of dread and tension at each missed key. The researchers found that putting people in the shoes of the protagonist is an effective technique to raise empathy (10). With a tense ambiance and difficult gameplay, Hush gives players intense feelings that can be similar to those felt by the survivors, albeit with no actual danger.

Conclusion – An Interactive Future

Despite the evidence shown above, some authors do not see value in video games and even go as far as saying they are tools that teach players to kill (Grossman 21). However, the evidence provided herein shows that games are a powerful media for teaching and storytelling. It is crucial to keep in mind that the world is changing and so are audiences’ demands. People now prefer interactive content (McCoy) and this type of media will continue to become more popular. Journalists need to adapt.

Video game developers have taken a first step towards this goal. In 2016, Ink Studios released 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a game that tells the story of the Iranian revolution. Its narrative follows the Telltale Games formula of giving players the possibility of making choices that tailor the narrative. As a consequence, this title received praise from critics and was nominated for many awards, winning the 16 Bits Awards in the Best PC/Console game of 2016 category (Adams). Considering the success of this game and the trends mentioned in this essay, an investment in narrative-driven video games that share real-life stories therefore seems a wise initiative to build the future of documentaries.


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