Al Jazeera English is launching a mobile game about the Syrian cyberwar.
The company is debuting an interactive mobile app experience, dubbed #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic Armies, which takes the network’s investigative journalism and puts it into the format of a game. In #Hacked, you have five days to find out the identity of Syrian hackers in an online battle that can be as deadly as the real ground war.
The project is based on a People & Power, a documentary by senior Al Jazeera correspondent, Juliana Ruhfus. It is a follow-up to Ruhfus’ award-winning investigation, Pirate Fishing, and it continues Al Jazeera’s quest to present its programming content in innovative ways to reaches new audiences.
In #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic Armies, the player has to collect as much information as possible in a limited amount of time by contacting activists, hackers and coders — all of whom Ruhfus encountered during the making of the film. Players face a number of decisions, including whether or not they should pay hackers for vital information, when they should go undercover online, and whether they will allow interviewees to disguise their identity to keep them safe.
Most crucially, however, the user must investigate without being hacked him or herself. From being tricked into clicking infected links to blackmail attempts, all the hacks in the game have roots in real hacks.
The game gives some insight into the enormous pressure for journalists to find the best medium for a story and engage with audiences in exciting and challenging new ways. Attracting a younger, mobile generation that increasingly shuns traditional news websites presents a unique challenge. They no longer want to be passive consumers — they expect interaction. #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic Armies can turn passive consumers into active users by confronting them with real choices that result in good or bad outcomes, Al Jazeera said.
The story reveals the investigative process by re-creating decisions made by the journalist in the field, while informing and educating the user about complex world issues. “While re-creating the world of an investigative journalist is natural for me, navigating the rules and ethics of journalism in a game format requires an entirely new skill set,” Ruhfus said in a statement.
Ruhfus said that the facts in #Hacked are true and based on a real journalism.
“Every hack in the app is based on a real hack that has taken place,” she said. “Texts from hackers have been taken from court documents. The social engineering we use to deceive you in the simulated hacks, how we’re creating an avatar that’s enticing you to click on something, is exactly what happened during Syria’s cyberwar.
“The gamification and interactive elements of projects like #Hacked give the user the experience of being immersed in a news story. Having a specific task to complete often leads them to engage emotionally and intellectually with the topic, while they gain unique perspective on the news story we are presenting through an interactive experience.”
Using a combination of original documentary footage, game design and links to outside resources, the interactive app teaches players how to protect themselves from hackers, and get real-time updates on the Syrian War. The experience is a web app that doesn’t require downloading and can be played on computers but is designed specifically for mobile phones where the majority of internet content is now consumed.
The technology behind the experience is a cloud-based gaming platform called Conducttr, which provides for multi-channel interactive projects to be collaboratively built quickly and easily.
A preview version of #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic Armies: Syria’s Electronic Armies was selected for the Alternate Realities Exhibition at Sheffield International Documentary Festival in June this year, and nominated for an Alternate Realities Award.
Asked if the story in the game has any political viewpoint, Ruhfus said in an email, “The commitment we have at Al Jazeera is to report on the conflict in Syria in the most comprehensive way possible. Our award-winning news correspondents, such as Zeina Khodr, have been reporting on the ground from the very first day and their knowledge is matched by few. From our documentary strand Witness to our investigative strand People & Power we try and tell the story from all angles and give the best analysis. #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic armies is a prime example of how the channel tries to explore previously untold stories whilst also reaching out to audiences who may not normally follow closely what’s happening in Syria.”
Launched in 2006, Al Jazeera English reaches 270 million homes, and it has more than 70 news bureaus around the world.