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Documentary Games at G4C 2009

The presence of interactivity in documentary has increased tremendously with the evolution of online community building and promotion, but has interactive media evolved to the point where a documentary can be a game? This was explored today at the Games for Change conference with a panel focusing on documentary games.

Panel description:

As game theory and the practice of making games become recognized as valued pedagogical and cultural processes across a broad spectrum of disciplines, we see forthcoming a movement specific to a new genre — documentary gaming — which will position game systems within a framework that questions the practice, ethics, and identity of games. Can documentary best practices help us negotiate the socio-political and cultural significance of a game? Do the same ethical concerns and the validity of the "truth claim" affect games the way they have historically influenced the efficacy of documentary and journalistic media? How may designers, filmmakers and activists collaborate to advance and diversity the space? Panelists: Steve Anderson, Assistant Professor, Director, Media Arts & Practice Ph.D. Program, University of Southern California; Tracy Fullerton, Professor, USC, Interactive Media; Emily Verellen, Senior Program Officer, Fledgling Fund; moderated by Susana Ruiz, Doctoral student, Co-founder, Take Action Games.

When asked to define documentary games, the panelists had slightly different interpretations. Emily Verellen spoke on behalf of the Fledgling Fund when she defined this as a media package that is focused on a project - a film that increases its impact through interaction, in this case gaming. The Fledgling Fund has begun to fund experiments in documentary gaming for impact, but is still 90% focused on funding social issue documentary films. Verellen presented the Fledgling Fund's dimensions of impact measurement, which include quality of media, increase in public awareness, increase in public engagement, a strengthened social movement, and social change (measured through concrete facts, such as a change in policy, drop in crime, etc.) The interactivity involved in complementary games would help to boost the average social issue documentary from just raising public awareness to raising public engagement, thus heightening it's impact generally.

Steve Anderson of USC had a slightly different take on documentary games. He presented several examples of "computational documentaries", which provide the primary source material for a documentary in a database format, and then puts the viewer in the position of arranging the coordinates of the footage into a film (with thousands of time line possibilities.) An example of this is the Labyrinth Project, "juxtaposes fictional and historical narratives in provocative ways."

Late addition Peggy Weil (in the place of Judith Helfand), also of USC, spoke of her work with Nonny de la Pena on the Gone Gitmo, which is the Second Life experience of Guantanamo Bay. This is an interesting combination of investigative media, in that it is exposing a place that is unapproachable, but it is also an experience to navigate like a game. Weil spoke about the presence of machinima online as bridging the gap between media documentation of "reality" and virtual lives, because it is media documentation of virtual life.

Tracy Fullerton of USC's Game Innovation Lab spoke about the stigma of reenactment in games as a representation of "reality." This is an ethical question in documentary filmmaking as well, but with games the question expands from "reenactment" to "simulation." She described her project that simulates the experience of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. The game recreates the world so intricately described in the book, and is a game that focuses on the environmental experience that Thoreau went through, and is also a game with little game play incentive.

The evolution of documentary games, either as a complement to a film or as a media experience in itself, has quite a lot of development and exploration to go through before it can be easily defined and used by media makers. It's possibilities are expansive and exciting, and at the Center we will be very interested in how it progresses.