While 2019 is every bit as marked by corruption, information suppression and corporate intimidation as any other period in history, quality investigative journalism appears to be at greater risk than it ever has been.
‘Fake News’ tropes and high-profile failures to hold the powerful to account — or engage in basic fact-checking — have eroded public trust in journalism as a whole. Traditional sources of revenue have all but dried up, leading major publications to squeeze their journalists into an unceasing and self-defeating competition for clicks, likes and shares. If it’s hard to find the time and space to dig beyond a press release in the mainstream press, it’s not much better on the fringes, where the economic calculations are even more stark and the personal risks even more chilling.
Point, an investigative journalism startup based on YouTube, thinks it has come across a new model that could reconnect the public to investigative reporting and provide a vital new income stream: Misinformer, a paid, text-based journalistic adventure.
The game is presented as a detective-style mobile game in which players become a citizen journalist who has to crack a major misinformation-based conspiracy before an election.
The protagonist is a moderator on a state-run social network who looks after a group about gardening that gets flooded by images of “red-eyed, horned politicians” and “wild headlines about devil-worshipping celebrities”.
They then have to race to work out what’s real and publish the story.
“The game’s UI [user interface] is that of a modern smartphone and the story unfolds in secure instant messages and fictional social media platforms — with a range of investigative tools appearing as apps to help debunk, investigate, track and sting your way to cracking the conspiracy,” writes Jay McGregor, Point’s Editor, on a Kickstarter page.
“The game is all about instinct and decisions. You can choose how to do it — by the book, acting on your own initiative…or you can cut corners, hoping to get there a bit faster but potentially risking the consequences.”
Jay this is supercool https://t.co/qP0J2dorV2
— Jimmy Wales (@jimmy_wales) July 24, 2019
Point and McGregor have clout: the YouTube channel has broken stories on extensive paid influence at the 11th-biggest site in the US, Reddit, and partnered on stories with established media including Forbes and Engadget. McGregor is a successful freelance journalist, having been published in papers including The Guardian, the Independent and Tech Radar.
What’s different — and so exciting — about the Misinformer project is that the game will continually be updated with new stories based on the Point’s real journalism. This is the crux of the model: investigations will be published on Point’s YouTube channel, then fictionalised by a script-writer into Misinformer games for the public to purchase.
As a byproduct of playing the game, Point hopes users will learn real-world journalistic techniques including how to spot fake images, and how information requests to the Government and state entities work.
“You will always get to play the news. Point’s news,” McGregor writes on the Kickstarter page, adding that if people buy the story updates they will “keep us — and the other journalists we work with — funded.”
While large organisations have experimented with games, including Bloomberg’s ‘Pick Your Own Brexit’ game, or the New York Times’ game about voter suppression, McGregor tells the Drum that it is “the first organisation adapting its investigations into video games.”
The focus on regular payments from engaged readers — or gamers — also makes good business sense: the few investigative outfits that have thrived in recent years, including French news organisation Mediapart, Spain’s Civio and the hyperlocal Bristol Cable have turned away from advertisers and built up trust with a regular bank of monthly subscribers that value the existence of an independent source of news.
Misinformer’s crowdfunding page remains active, chasing an £18,500 ($22,500) goal by offering rewards including free story updates or the chance to be the protagonist in one of the stories.
“People who buy Misinformer will help fund the journalism that exposes Big Tobacco and stands up to predatory online scammers,” McGregor adds in the Kickstarter.
Misinformer comes shortly after the release of new research from Nature that found gaming could be used to tackle fake news.
Other games have been developed that aim to help people spot such misinformation such as Ollie Rundgren’s Antidote and Bad News, a game developed by a researcher and a psychologist at Cambridge University.