If you haven’t picked up a game controller since the days of Space Invaders or Pac-Man, you may be surprised to learn that modern-day video games are becoming known as vehicles for storytelling. This is not to say that there aren’t a fair number of games that let you mindlessly shoot, drive or jump your way to the finish. But in recent years, games like Bioshock Infinite and The Walking Dead have received critical acclaim and popularity in the gaming community as much for the characters’ stories as the settings in which they find themselves.
A few pioneering photojournalists have begun to realize that video games can be used to tell the stories of the people and places they cover. The games can also be a great vehicle for reaching younger generations by educating and entertaining them on the tablets and smartphones they already use. The desire to reach the elusive 15-to-30-year-old demographic is one of the reasons photographer Marcus Bleasdale is working to create a video game about the impact of mining conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an issue he’s been covering since 2001.
Bleasdale recalls coming to the realization a couple of years ago that his niece and nephew, who were teenagers at the time, would likely never see the work he shot on assignment. “They never actually buy the magazines that I get published in or the newspapers I get published in, and they never appreciate what goes on in these places,” explains Bleasdale, who is represented by VII. “They’re focused on their world, which is fine, and they consume what goes on around them through platforms that they are comfortable with, which are now tablets and smartphones … If we [want] to educate them and get them to understand places like DRC, we have to take the issues that we are concerned about to them on the platforms they want to engage in.”
The photographer teamed up with Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO of game developer nDreams, to create the video game Blood Minerals Congo, which is currently in development. O’Luanaigh says, “Marcus’s photos have been our inspiration throughout the design process. His images, videos, and recollections will act as our reference for the various places, people and situations” that players will find themselves in. Bleasdale’s experiences from spending over a decade covering the DRC are being used to inform the game’s characters, which will likely be an aid worker or doctor; a photojournalist; and a child soldier. O’Luanaigh and Bleasdale are also hoping to reach out to other experts working in DRC, such as organizations like Médecins San Frontières and Save the Children, as well as rehabilitated child soldiers, in order to get real-world stories to incorporate into the characters’ narratives.
Bleasdale explains that the mining of minerals like coltan, tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold has existed in DRC for decades. However, the rising demand for devices that are built with these minerals, such as computers, phones and cameras, has prompted militias to control the mines. Many activists and nonprofit groups are encouraging electronics manufacturers to ethically source these minerals. “I thought that was kind of an interesting concept: To educate the youth, who would be engaged in this game, that the very tablets and smartphones that they’re playing on have products that come from DRC inside them,” Bleasdale explains, “and that creates conflict, and that creates child soldiers, and that creates sexual violence, and so on and so forth.”
Butch & Sundance, a media collective based in Amsterdam, was also interested in reaching a new audience when it released its On the Ground Reporter series. “We saw so many ways to tell a complex story better that we grew a bit frustrated because as journalists we were forced to simplify complex and rich stories into 700 words,” explains co-founder Ludo Hekman. “We then only reached the elite who reads magazines and newspapers—that was unfulfilling, too.”
The Web-based On the Ground Reporter games are told from the viewpoint of a journalist covering a conflict area; Uganda, Sudan and Afghanistan have already been used as locations in the series. The games exist in a purely photographic world: the images and videos shot on location are used to show the people and places the player interacts with. The games’ stories are based on research or “the journalistic stories of others,” Hekman explains, citing as an example On the Ground Reporter: Uganda, which was based “partly on the stories of Josh Kron of The New York Times.”
For the teams behind On the Ground Reporter and Blood Minerals Congo, the goal has been to get the games into the marketplace where they will be played and, hopefully, spark discussion. “It’s like photography: It’s pointless taking the picture if you’re not going to do anything with it,” Bleasdale says. “So it’s pointless making the game if you’re not going to engage people with it and educate them.” Striking this balance of fun and informative is important as Blood Minerals Congo continues in its development. O’Luanaigh notes, “Too many ‘serious games’ have forgotten the fundamental importance of being entertaining. Without that, it’s impossible to reach enough people.”
Distribution of On the Ground Reporter games has benefited from a mix of media coverage and partnerships. Butch & Sundance has been nominated for numerous awards, including Prix Europa, Dutch Game Awards and Cinekid, and they’ve partnered with an educational publisher that “presents the games as part of a learning package,” Hekman says. (Finding an educational partner to help with distribution is a goal for Bleasdale as well, who says if “we can create a discussion and a curriculum that centers around [the game], that would be brilliant.”)
Butch & Sundance is working on a new video game, called Female Superheroes, that will incorporate 360-degree photography, audio, video and comic book-style drawings to tell the stories of young women living in conflict zones. Unlike the early On the Ground Reporter games, which were built using Flash, the game will be built using HTML5 so it can be played on mobile devices.
Coincidentally, Bleasdale has also experimented with comic book-style drawings, having collaborated with artist Paul O’Connell a few years ago to create a graphic novel based on his DRC work. He says this partnership is “one of the things that sparked” the idea for Blood Minerals Congo. “I saw these images, which were comic-esque, but they were my photographs and I was blown away by the impact that that could have on a different demographic.”
But the interactivity of a video game is more exciting as it allows the player to go through the game as each character, and therefore see the DRC from many different perspectives. “I just think it fits Congo so well because you can’t tell the story of Congo—it’s so complex and so nuanced—through the eyes of one person,” Bleasdale says.