BY MATTHEW PARSONS

Last week, the prestigious German Grimme Award for online journalism went to Fort McMoney, a documentary game directed by filmmaker David Dufresne.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the most interesting part of that last sentence was “documentary game.” I’ve never seen a piece of journalism that works quite like Fort McMoney. And presumably, neither have most people. The game highlights this unfamiliarity from the word go. The opening video clip features a disembodied voice that takes pains to explain what exactly this thing called Fort McMoney is:

“You are embarking on a documentary game, in which everything is real—the places, the events, the characters. The choices you will make will determine your experience, and will affect the other players in the game.”

Basically, Fort McMoney is a digital trip to the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray (technically, it’s an “urban service area,” not a city. But nobody calls it that). Fort Mac, being located in the heart of the Alberta oil sands, is the epicentre of one of Canada’s great national controversies. It’s a really shitty little place, in a lot of ways. There isn’t much to do. It’s a five-hour drive from the nearest proper city. It’s beastly cold in the winter, which lasts nearly half of the year. But, nevertheless, it attracts workers from all over the world.

See, thanks to the oil sands, the average household income in Fort Mac is in excess of $175,000.

Fort McMurray is an interesting and important little city, and it’s as deserving as anywhere of the documentary game treatment.

The player’s stated goal in Fort McMoney is to gather evidence and formulate an opinion on the oil sands, all from the comfort of their browser window. Players vote on key questions with respect to the city and the surrounding industrial sites, and the results affect the fate of the digital city.

It’s been remarked before that the game takes its interface largely from the model set out by Telltale Games in its adaptation of The Walking Dead. You manoeuvre about, clicking on people to ask them questions. You choose what questions to ask, and the characters respond through interview footage taken by the documentary team.

The various Fort McMurray locales that you visit are constructed from photographs and soundscapes taken from these actual places. The objects that you find are real things that exist in the city: pamphlets, flyers, tacky souvenirs. Nothing’s been made up; it’s all taken from reality. But, as ever, the complications lie in how that reality is presented.

Full disclosure: I’ve actually only played about one third of the game. It is divided into three chapters, and I’ve made it a short way into the second. I would have made it farther, but as of right now, chapters two and three have been taken offline until July 13 and 20, respectively. So my assessments are based on an incomplete experience of the game.

I don’t believe this compromises me too badly, given that each conversation, video clip, and found object in the game should offer a relatively complete thought. I’m willing to eat my words if the game’s final chapters mitigate any of the problems I’m about to point out.

Further disclosure: I was born and raised in Fort McMurray. I’m well-acquainted with the best and worst qualities of the town. I am not, however, especially well-acquainted with the subtleties (and unsubtleties) of the debate over the oil sands. Call it willful ignorance, if you like.

In any case, the prospect of a curated digital tour through the town where I grew up, with a specific focus on coming to conclusions about the oil sands, was enticing to me. Maybe I’d finally be be able to sort out the facts from the rhetoric and develop an informed opinion about Fort McMurray and the industry that dominates it.

On that front, I regret to report that after playing through the first chapter-and-a-quarter of Fort McMoney, I’m as baffled as ever. Throughout the game, I find myself conversing with a number of Fort McMurray locals, ranging from the mayor and MLA to an assortment of homeless people. There’s a huge number of voices, many of them quite loud. A lot of them contradict each other.

In other words, playing Fort McMoney feels a lot like being in Fort McMurray. It is nothing more or less than a condensed, digital reproduction of the real-life experiences that failed entirely to inform and shape my opinions on environmental policy.

I feel like this is a rather low bar for a piece of journalism to clear. It appears that in their eagerness to produce a documentary game that offers the audience the opportunity to gather their own evidence and assess it for themselves, Dufresne and company forgot that one of the purposes of journalism is to separate the bad information from the good.

The element of Fort McMoney that I would have expected more from is the disembodied voice that explains the game at the beginning. The voice stays with you throughout, mostly offering instructions. It would have been welcome to hear that voice say, “The number this person just cited conflicts with credible research.” Or even just to hear her ask, “Do you trust this person?”

That’s a worthwhile question, because it seems like every character in the game either has an agenda or is lacking in expertise. There’s nowhere to turn for reasoned critique, with the notable exception of journalist Andrew Nikiforuk. He’s the one character I met during my gameplay who is both an expert in environmental policy and who isn’t compromised by political forces.

Unfortunately, the game bungles his interview very badly. During the two times I met him in the course of the first two episodes, he responded to the game’s pre-selected questions with a number of compelling claims, but he was cut off before he was able to offer supporting evidence or context. Thus, Fort McMoney squanders its one opportunity to offer the player a truly expert take on the issues at play.

I have to compliment Dufresne on tapping into several of the most pressing concerns for people living in Fort Mac: the incredibly dangerous highway leading in and out of town, the high cost of living, the astonishing lack of decent restaurants. But the game fails to shed any light on controversial questions, like whether or not the city’s crime rate is actually above the national average, or if the drug situation is really as bad as they say. The mayor assures us that it’s no worse than any other comparably sized town, but am I expected to take her word for it?

***

Fort McMoney‘s Grimme Award is the latest in a long string of accolades. It has been awarded “Site of the Day” by the Favourite Website Awards, and it won the prize for best web documentary at the International Festival of Environmental Films in Paris. It was a finalist in the 2014 SXSW Interactive Awards, in the “Experimental” category, and it was an official selection at the Montreal International Documentary Festival. This thing is getting to be a big deal.

So does it deserve these awards? Well, in one sense, it ought to be a no-brainer. This documentary game represents a spectacular leap forward in terms of the kind of experiences that large-scale journalism can provide. It challenges players to craft their own experience, and it manages to organize a massive amount of material into a consumable package.

And most importantly, it’s fun. I spent hours of my time on this game (and bear in mind that I’ve only played about a third of it), and I did so more willingly than with any other major piece of journalism I’ve encountered.

But, on the other hand, Fort McMoney‘s failure to contextualize or parse the barrage of information that it lobs at its players seems to me like a regrettable abdication of journalistic responsibility. The game places the onus on the player, not only to sort out what’s right from what’s wrong, but what’s accurate from what’s inaccurate. The game’s characters pull so many dubious stats out of the air that I feel like I need the entire staff of PolitiFact close at hand while I play. In terms of journalism-as-public-service, then, Fort McMoney represents a spectacular leap backward.

I would very much like to see more projects like Fort McMoney get made. Hopefully, the attention that the game is getting will inspire a few intrepid filmmakers, game devs, and reporters to try their hands at interactive journalism. But I also hope that they learn from Fort McMoney‘s shortcomings. It’s all well and good for journalists to put the audience in the driver’s seat. But without rigorous journalistic standards in place, that audience will easily get lost—wandering about aimlessly in the great white wastes of unverified facts and unsubstantiated claims. 

Image via Fort McMoney

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