I recently attended a journalism workshop at my university organised by News Associates, a UK-based school offering fast-track courses into an NCTJ diploma – essentially a universal badge of basic reporting ability recognized nationwide. About twenty undergraduates huddled around two tables in the small conference room, all surprisingly shy, fidgeting with pen and paper and making awkward small talk. The event kicked off with one of the educators informing us that, instead of the planned exercises, they had decided to give us a two-hour talk of what it was like to work in the modern newsroom.

It mostly focused on the ethics of printing controversial images and how the craze to be first often leads to huge mistakes being made by even the most experienced of reporters. While being pretty disjointed, jumping from media law to Twitter bots to Syrian refugee photographs in the span of ten minutes, it did illuminate how interactive design is slowly creeping into this profession.

When one student asked about what the veteran reporter considered to be the most important skills to develop for wannabe journalists, I expected him to launch into a smug smile and recite one of those Pinterest-ey write-until-it-becomes-as-natural-as-breathing quotes. Instead, he started listing things like coding, 3D-modelling and sound design as the only ways to keep ahead of competition if you even dare dream of a living-wage job in journalism. He didn’t apologize for mixing up the dates and giving us the ‘So You Want to Be an Indie Game Developer’ talk, instead, he went on a twenty-minute praise of Snow Fall.

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Snow Fall is a long-form piece by New York Times reporter John Branch, published exclusively on the internet at the end of 2012 (an ebook version has since come out). It’s a gripping account of a tragedy that occurred in Stevens Pass, WA, when an avalanche took the lives of three highly experienced skiers earlier that year. The piece is extensively researched and well-written, illuminating the perils of groupthink and over-confidence when playing with the forces of nature. If you somehow missed it, I highly recommend checking it out, it reads like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, but clocks in at around 17,000 words.

It was lauded from the moment it hit the NYT website and went on to earn its author the 2013 Pulitzer prize for feature writing, but most of its acclaim was not due to the writing itself, it came because of how the piece was presented. Using videos, looping GIFs and background images to complement writing online, of course, had been around since the late 90s, but before Snow Fall no one had figured out a way to fuse all those multimedia elements together such that they would complement, not distract from the reading experience. In an interview with Poynter, NYT Graphics Director Steve Duanes said that the goal of the team assembled to produce Snow Fall was to ”find ways to allow readers to read into, and then through multimedia, and then out of multimedia. So it didn’t feel like you were taking a detour, but the multimedia was part of the one narrative flow.”

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Even though the initial reaction was one of zealous belief that this signaled the future of journalism, it soon calmed down as people got to grips with reality. Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, posted a response highlighting the fact that Snow Fall was the product of a highly-funded R&D lab nestled in the heart of a prestigious publication, which could afford to employ more than 15 people to work on it part-time for around six months, a luxury available only to a select few other institutions. Jason Del Rey of AdAge criticised the clunky way advertisements hindered the otherwise seamless design of the page and Bobbie Johnson, the co-founder of Medium, came out with a statement against the ‘feature creep’ of multimedia in journalism, saying that “When you add multimedia elements, they have to work for the reader. They have to be in the service of the reading experience. They have to make the story better. Instead, they’re already starting to become the entire point of the experience.”

Nevertheless, innovation in interactive journalism didn’t stop with Snow Fall. The next year saw interesting experimentation by publications such as Pitchfork (Machines For Life), The Guardian (Firestorm, NSA Files: Decoded) and ESPN (Out In The Great Alone). Scroll Kit, a startup aiming to create a platform facilitating this kind of journalism, which was later acquired by the parent company of WordPress, got into legal trouble with the New York Times for uploading a video in which they recreated Snow Fall in an hour.

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Although the hype around interactive journalism seems to have died down, that doesn’t mean people have stopped innovating and using interactivity to complement their writing – for a more recent example of this you can check out Steven Bedard’s account on deep-sea diving in Vanuatu. It’s obvious that there is a future for this kind of journalism and self-publishing platforms like Atavist have already given lone freelancers easy access to tools that shaped Snow Fall.

Just to be clear, I’m not insinuating that Snow Fall was the sole cause for the explosion in interactive journalism, but its success definitely drew attention to the underutilized potential of modern web browsers. The New York Times even appointed a ‘Snowfaller in Chief’ in the wake of its storm of hype.

Creating immersive experiences for readers who are increasingly consuming stories on powerful tablets means finding ways to use all the functions afforded by these devices and treating the reader not just as a passive consumer, but as an active participant in the shaping of these stories. The writer needs to think of how the reader will navigate the page and anticipate their reaction to every piece of interactive content. I know it’s somewhat of a stretch, but I don’t think it would be crazy to see these examples of interactive journalism as prototypical games.

Now I’m not one to fuss over precise definitions, but I think there’s value to be gained by viewing these articles from the perspective of games (I’m grateful that, as a community, we’re past the point of arguing about how much interactivity there needs to be in a game for it to still count as a game). The reader traverses the game world of these articles through reading and scrolling down. On the way to the bottom they might stop to watch videos, look at infographics, or read tangential prompts. Those ‘side quests’ have to be peppered throughout in such a way that they augment player immersion, but don’t distract from the main story. I’m not sure if the discussion between journalists and game developers on how to better approach reader-immersion is happening (it’s not well documented if it is), but I think it should be.

I believe that seeing interactive journalism as games would also encourage further experimentation. Opening up this medium to real stories has been a long time coming. We have a slew of video games that do a great job of informing the player about issues in the real world, whether it be war (This War of Mine), mental illness (Depression Quest), or migration (Papers, Please), but aside from That Dragon, Cancer, I can’t think of many big games that aren’t works of fiction and I wonder why a ‘documentary game’ genre hasn’t yet emerged.

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Comics have already shown that a medium, which used to be seen as a space reserved for childish stories, can accommodate powerful accounts of the real world through such works as Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Despite the doomsday calls about readers being unable to focus on anything longer than a tweet, long-form journalism is still thriving and I wonder if, in the future, Snow Fall won’t be seen as the first sign of the emergence of non-fictional video games. Who knows, maybe the next time everyone gets excited about the Pulitzer Prize, it’ll be because a video game is among the nominees.

Oh and for more examples of great interactive storytelling, check out Interactive Narratives!

About The Author

A lonely coffee guzzler looking for low-poly games to snuggle with. Hobbies include: lurking in the shadows of every single fandom out there and sending Sean Murray "Hope You're Well" greeting cards.

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  • You bring up a good point: “Why isn’t there a documentary-like genre?”. Especially for how well-received Snowfall was, you would think more people would be trying to replicate their success. While it was a short-lived trend, I would love to see it come back.

  • Cobac Razvan

    ”coding, 3D-modelling and sound design”
    I see…so….no, sorry, just can’t see any relation between journalism and game making…
    Just…wtf did I just read