Meet the future of news
The Creative Economy showcase is set to hear about a collaborative project that’s helping audiences engage with contemporary news through murders committed 125 years ago
You are a trainee news reporter investigating a breaking story which will change the world. The crimes of the man you are following will fascinate the world for well over a century to come. They'll influence media and the way it is consumed now and in the future.
They will never be solved.
Should your investigations bear fruit, however, you will win the ultimate prize: your sketches of the gory events will take pride of place on the cover of The Illustrated Police News, a weekly publication which is cultivating a dubious reputation for sensationalist reporting in this pre-tabloid era.
The fact that you're doing all this in a videogame created 125 years after the infamous spate of grisly murders in and around the Whitechapel district of London came to an end is purely incidental: the story of Jack the Ripper has fascinated and repelled audiences in equal measure since the events of 1888.
“I've always been fascinated by the subject,” says Dr Tomas Rawlings, “It's the archetypal mystery. They never found who did it. And as with a lot of the things that happened back then you'd like to say happened and that they're history, but quite often it seems as though we've learned nothing from it. That, really, was the starting point for this project.”
Rawlings is the Design & Production Director for Auroch Digital, a Bristol-based games developer best known for its GameTheNews series of games. GameTheNews explores ways to help audiences understand contemporary news stories through videogames. The most successful title in Auroch's newsgaming series is the highly acclaimed Endgame: Syria, but the firm has also tackled subjects such as the War on Drugs in Central America and the meat quality scandal in British abbatoirs last year.
Now, Rawlings is also one of a team of collaborators on a project designed to mark the 125th anniversary of the Ripper murders, and tell the story as it's never been told before. JtR125 is being funded by REACT, one of four Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy funded by the AHRC, as part of a broader programme investigating storytelling in the digital age called 'Future Documentary'.
“We're calling it a 'playable documentary'”, says Rawlings, “A game is, by and large, something set in a fictional universe in which fictional stuff happens. What's different between this and previous Jack the Ripper games is that we're going to be bounded by fact and deal with truth and interpretation through documentary.”
Although JtR125 is strictly a research project which hopes to find ways of introducing game elements to media coverage of serious issues, the team is keen to make it a product which could be commercially viable in its own right. Rawlings himself has just returned from the US where he met with Valve Software, the firm behind Steam, the popular gaming distribution and networking system which recently passed the milestone of 7 million concurrent users.
“I wanted to do something that we knew unashamedly people would be interested in,” says Rawlings, “We did a Ripper tour of London as part of the research, and there were 200 people on it, on just an ordinary night.”
The Ripper story itself is one which often crops up during times of shifting media sensibilities. The events themselves marked a watershed in reporting styles, and contemporary coverage has been cited by no less a luminary than ex-Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie as “the birth of the tabloid press”. The story also influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the genesis of the modern crime novel; it was one of the first films directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Alan Moore's meticulously researched graphic novel, From Hell – which Rawlings says one of the prime inspirations for the project – almost single-handedly established the comic book as a serious literary medium.
One area that the team is looking at closely is the question of what makes a documentary game different from a traditional videogame. Since the dawn of the videogame era, there have always been games packed with factual detail that has had an educational value. The strategy games in Sid Meier’s Civilisation series come with an encyclopedia in the menu system, and serves as many young gamers' introduction to ancient civilisations and the progress of human societies. The Total War games likewise require the player to understand military and political issues of the eras in which they are set, and have been adapted for educational purposes, TV sequences and museum installations.
Dr Patrick Crogan is an academic at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, based at the University of the West of England. He's one of Rawling's main collaborators on the JtR125 project.
“The way the documentary and archival material is treated in commercial games like wargames and flightsims is much more about the hobbyist or collectors type of knowledge,” says Crogan, “It doesn’t do much of what documentary ambitions try to do, which is to produce a discourse and argument about the way we understand the past. So we want to get into some detail about what it meant to be a woman or a prostitute in late nineteenth century London, for example, which was one of the toughest places to be alive at the time, a ghetto of industrialisation.”
The third main collaborator on JtR125 is Professor Janet Jones. A documentary maker, journalist and lecturer, Jones has worked for the BBC's flagship news programs Panorama and Newsnight. She regularly consults with major broadcasters on the subject of news games, and says that many are investing heavily in the area.
“I genuinely believe that the way news is delivered is going to change,” Jones says, “In five years time, in a news room, they expect to have a gaming desk, and games design will fit in with every production job in broadcasting and across the map. What games deliver over the standard, linear, broadcast version of story telling is that sense of immersion. That sense of opening up new experiences and new perspectives.”
Jones says that as viewers become more savvy with the mechanics of games, not only will they expect games to be as natural a part of the news 'broadcast', but they'll be used to add dimensions to the story not possible via traditional means.
“One of the criticisms we always got on Newsnight,” Jones says, “Was that we never provided enough of the background material, because there just isn't time in the traditional magazine show slot.”
Rawlings says that news organisations will have to adapt to survive.
“If you treat phones and tablets as a simple flat screen,” he says, “You're going to be outcompeted by people who don't. News media are competing with Candy Crush for attention. The challenge facing news is to be as interesting as games.”
One of the key parts of the Jtr125 research programme will be to investigate the ethics of newsgaming, says Jones, and the team will be inviting a review committee from the BBC to assess the quality of the documentary aspect of the game in a couple of months’ time, and to judge how the team have balanced aspects of gaming with the serious storytelling involved.
As well as that, they've taken part in a series of workshops, called 'Sandbox' sessions, organised by REACT in which groups of teams working on similar research can share knowledge and feedback some early findings.
“The sandboxes have been a great resource,” says Rawlings, “When we started, someone commented that we should make the most of this because it's an opportunity that won't come around again. It's completely different to the commercial process, which is about making quick decisions to hit deadlines. Here we have to take our time, try different approaches and experiment.”
They've also drafted in experts to provide voiceover commentary and background material to parts of the game that deal with London beyond the Ripper story. One little known tale that will be told, says Jones, is that of a newspaper editor who 'bought' children and sold them into the sex industry in order to get the inside scoop. One of the key challenges is to balance this kind of straight informative sequence with the aspects that make a game engrossing.
“It's the area of the most lively and interesting debate between the team,” says Crogan, “The ultimate experience of the game isn't about the 'whodunnit' and the enduring mystery, but we can't ignore that as it's what's make the story enduring.”