Understanding the nebulous political forces at work behind the Syrian conflict can be a frustrating experience. What is already complex can be made obtuse by the complex mesh of platforms that jostle against each other in the world of 21st century journalism. There are plenty of stories on TV or online, but what perspective are they telling, and how did they get there?
Al Jazeera wants to immerse its audience in the processes of modern investigative journalism with a new project that focuses on the Syrian Electronic Army. #HACKED: Syria’s Electronic Armies puts the player in the role of a journalist tasked with investigating the pro-Assad hacker organisation, which since 2011 has used a range of malware and spamming techniques to track Syrian rebels and deface Western websites.
The newsgame has been built in collaboration with London-based company Conducttr, and is based on a documentary of the same name by senior Al Jazeera correspondent, Juliana Ruhfus. As a journalist, you’ll need to balance the need to get as much information as you can with the risk of falling prey to hacks or being infected with malware.
“Every hack in the app is based on a real hack that has taken place,” Ruhfus explains. “When you read texts from hackers those have been taken from court documents. When you look at the social engineering on how we’re trying to come at you in the simulated hacks, how we’re creating an avatar that’s enticing you to click on something, that’s exactly what happened during Syria’s cyberwar.”
#HACKED gives insight into both a particular case of cyber warfare and the general processes of modern investigative journalism. The hope is that by playing through a scenario, a person develops a greater sense of emotional and intellectual involvement with the subject. Games like Papers, Please or This War of Mine manage this well, with players respectively stepping into the shoes of a border control officer or a civilian in a citywide siege, and having to make a series of moral decisions.
Ruhfus admits that translating the investigative process into a game involves negotiating a new layer of ethics when it comes to presenting her practices in what is, arguably, a piece of interactive entertainment. “Whilst recreating the world of an investigative journalist is natural for me, navigating the ethics of journalism in a game format requires an entirely new skillset,” she says.