A gameful approach to immersive journalism

What would it mean in practice if there were to be more interaction and more intense gamification added toVR journalism? What kind of consequences would it entail in journalistic terms, and what would it be like as an audience experience? It is hard to avoid the notion that interactivity and gamification will definitely make things more complicated. The main challenge that all interactive storytelling faces is finding a balance between a scripted story, designed in advance, and the user’s freedom of choice and first-hand participation.The more freedom is granted to the user, the more difficult it is to deliver a specific message with a fixed perspective. Game designers, however, have come up with several techniques to accomplish this feat. Often the trick involves making the player believe they have more freedom of choice in the game world than they actually possess. Since there is a lack of truly interactive, gamified pieces of VR journalism to date, we will next use newsgames as examples ofjournalistic content where game design principles emphasizing firsthand participation and immediate feedback are employed, giving rise to immersive and engaging experiences.

For example, The Uber Game (Financial Times 2017) sees the player take on the role of an Uber driver. The player has to choose how to approach the job, highlighting choices such as which kind of car to get (Uber drivers have to provide their own cars) and whether to get a business license or not. The game shows that the question of whether one can make it in the “gig economy” is often a matter of chance and that it may involve sacrificing other, valuable things, such as family time, in order to chase the elusive bonuses offered by the company.The picture portrayed by the game is very different from the one advertised by the company, which highlights the drivers’ freedom to work as they see fit. A game system like The Uber Game is well fit to portray systemic phenomena, such as the complex reality of handling a job in the gig economy. To an extent, other journalistic media can also portray experiences of precariousness, but games are perhaps uniquely positioned to reflect on the relation between choice and chance, freedom and uncertainty. Players can try to inhabit the position portrayed by the game themselves, gaining at least some insight into the uncertainty of the situation.

If the goal is to create gameful journalism, there are new issues that must be taken into account.The tools to create these experiences are quite developed, but far from trivial to use. Designing gameful journalism takes a skillset that may not necessarily be obtained by doing traditional journalism. Even if gameful journalism promises to be able to do some things better than some other journalistic approaches, this only applies if the approach is used successfully.This takes resources, skills, and reflection on the ethical dimensions.


If we apply these lessons from how game studies have approached immersion to how immersion may be pursued or utilized in the field of journalism, we can see some suggestions for what to focus on and what to avoid. First, it is necessary to begin with a reminder that there is no one sense of immersion. Rather, the word has been used in different ways in different contexts. They are all more or less compatible, but highlight different aspects of the experience. Here we have drawn, for example, from McMahan (2003), who proposed a distinction between presence, engagement, and immersion, where presence operates as an umbrella term under which a more content-driven immersion and a more user-action-centered engagement are situated. This kind of division is useful as it reminds us that while speaking about immersion it may actually be engagement that technologically oriented developers are after - and that, if this division is not clear, it may lead to misunderstanding the available affordances, as well as their possible effects. It also reminds us that one does not necessarily need high-quality graphics or realistic virtual environments to be immersed in journalistic storytelling.

It should be clear by now that different applications, be they virtual worlds or games, induce different types of immersion (Ermi & Mayra 2005). It is also worth noting that different types of immersion may give rise to different ethical requirements (Mayra 2008, 125). For example, the question of whether or not to include the “shadow of a leggy tripod with a spherical camera head” in the VR recording becomes not only technical but also ethical when one considers the repercussions of“hiding” authorship and the constructed nature of VR news stories (Kool 2016,9). Indeed, for a few years now there have been calls for increased transparency regarding VR journalism. As Tom Kent put it in his essay, “Viewers need to know howVR producers expect their work to be perceived, what’s been done to guarantee authenticity and what part of a production may be, frankly, supposition” (2015 n.p.).

As the question of immersion is closely tied to technological affordances, it is also worthwhile to keep a close eye on developments that take place outside of and parallel to VR.The concept of Augmented or Added Reality, AR, is often used together with VR, and they are considered as close relatives. In some aspects this is true, but it is especially in regards to immersion that their premises should be closely scrutinized. AR applications posit features on top of the physical surroundings. This may take the form of extra information layers on the perceived environment, and the power of AR lies in incorporating the familiar physical environment into the partially crafted experience. Presence, then, would rely on such characteristics of the situation as the embodied experience and the environment’s responsiveness, which is closer to engagement than immersion. AR journalism would serve well in providing a new perspective in familiar surroundings, as many players of Poke mo n Go, for example, have reported to have noticed. This is quite a different road than much of the VR applications have taken, and points towards approaches complementary to VR journalism, focusing on the local and specific sites. It may well be that there are lessons to be learned in how AR will be utilized in journalism, and how applications using AR will affect audience expectations and perceptions.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson that game studies have for journalism is to avoid the immersive fallacy, or at least become aware of its dangers. Focusing on feeling the “reality” of the events, or the feeling of “being there” (de la Pena et al. 2010) is but one way of approaching the question of immersion (or presence). Immersion may be a part of experiencing mediated environments, but it is only a part of that experience and, depending on the context, not necessarily the most important one. Instead, it can be used strategically, either to pull a user into an experience or push them out of it, when it is more useful, for example, that they should be reflecting on their experience. There is no one way to be immersed, so choosing what type of immersion to aim for and when is a design choice when building immersive experiences. In contexts like journalism, reflection may sometimes be more valuable than immersion.


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