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Game Change: Documentary's Interactive Future

By Scott Bayer

Women celebrate in Somaliland. From <em>Half the Sky</em> (Dir.: Maro Chermayeff)

Games for Change, a New York-based nonprofit whose mission is to create and distribute games that foster social change and embrace an educational and humanitarian purpose, held its ninth annual conference last June; the conference attracts a sizable cross-section of stakeholders from the media arts community, including Alyce Myatt, director of the Media Arts program at the NEA.

Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Arts' Media Arts program caused a bit of a tussle in the doc community when the agency shifted a significant amount of funding from such flagship PBS series as POV, Independent Lens, American Masters and American Experience to Web- and game-based projects.

"It is the NEA's mission to ensure that all Americans have the ability to experience great art, regardless of the distribution platform," Myatt asserted via e-mail. "While TV and radio remain the dominant way many people consume art, more and more audiences use the Internet and mobile devices to access the arts, including streaming content [that is] also broadcast on radio and TV. The public is also experiencing art in immersive ways and in a non-linear fashion. The NEA broadened its Media Arts category in 2012 to include projects involving interactive websites, mobile phone and tablet apps, games, and multi-media and transmedia storytelling—while still providing funding for traditional broadcast. By opening up the category to the full range of media platforms available, the applicant pool rose from 150 for 2011 to 338 for 2012. At the same time, NEA grant money decreased from $4 million for 2011 to $3.6 million for 2012."

The Half the Sky project, which airs October 1 and 2 on PBS' Independent Lens, epitomizes the multi-platform transmedia endeavors that the NEA supports. Based on the best-selling book by journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky was shot in six locations in the developing world, as well as in the US. The film, directed and executive produced by Maro Chermayeff and produced by Joshua Bennett and Mira Chang, follows Kristof and such artists as America Ferrera, Nicole Kidman and Diane Lane as they meet women battling sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence and maternal mortality through their work in economic and personal empowerment, improved health care and girls' education.

The project also includes a series of education and advocacy-focused videos filmed in India, Somaliland, Kenya and Liberia, as well as mobile phone games and a Facebook game. "We were able to provide support for a small part of Half the Sky—a true ‘multi-media' project that illustrates media as art," Myatt explains.

Games for Change played an important role in developing the mobile phone apps for Half the Sky. According to Emily Treat, senior game producer, "Games for Change, in conjunction with Mudlark, a UK-based mobile app and games firm, created three mobile feature phone games including Worm Attack!, which teaches children the dangers of intestinal worms and offers de-worming solutions; 9 Minutes, which promotes maternal health for pregnant women; and Family Choices, which emphasizes the importance of education for girls. We have just finished testing our three games in Kenya." 

Games for Change is also working with Web developer Frima Studio to create a Facebook game for launch in November. The aim of this game will be to instigate real-world actions and micro-donations and build the capacity of the Half the Sky network of NGO partners.

Another game project that evolved from documentary roots is director/writer Michael Gibson's Inside the Haiti Earthquake, for which he and his team turned 300 hours of footage into a unique interactive story structure. "People use so many different devices to receive content now that it is imperative to design to more than one," Gibson maintains. "To find your audience, you have to go where they are. If you are making a doc that you want people to watch on the big screen, you need to make related content for the iPhone to drive them to the theater. You also need to create stuff your audience can share over social media. My guess is that transmedia projects will become the norm. That said, I don't think transmedia is a category. We made a doc mini-series that stands on its own and we made a simulation that stands on its own. We also made a website and social media stuff and mini-films to support those two main projects."

Screen shot from the transmedia project <em>Inside the Haiti Earthquake</em>

"Transmedia is just the latest in a long line of [digital developments]: new media, interactivity, cross-platform," notes Mudlark's Charles Hunter, "I am not convinced that the label matters. It's not so much the media as the message. People already expect a Web page to go with the TV program they just watched, and aren't surprised to find a film spin-off from the PS3 game they play. More and more frequently, it will feel natural and unsurprising. Documentary film and documentarians can best play in the worlds of mobile, social impact games and the ‘second screen' by getting to know the people and companies they might like to work with as they conceive their projects—not just when they are commissioned or backed with the proviso to include some transmedia element."

Navid Khonsari, creator of the 1979 The Times game, which is based on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, produced the documentaries Pindemonium and Pulling John and has worked on the highly successful Grand Theft Auto games. "Transmedia is one of the most abused words in media these days," he notes. "In the '80s and '90s they referred to it as merchandising. Look at any Disney movie from those decades and you see clothing, dolls, video games and TV show spin-offs. Now, with new forms of outlets such as mobile, tablet and digital publishing, they needed to create a word encompassing all of it; hence, transmedia. To create an original IP [intellectual property], you need to recognize that you must go beyond just making a game or film; you need to create something that the audience can interact with via a number of different outlets. This is our goal with 1979; we are not just making a game, but also eight graphic novels; games for the mobile market, as we are tablet-focused; TV programs; films; and even animated documentaries."


H. Scott Bayer is a filmmaker and the editor/publisher of Indie Film Reporter. He writes and produces video about independent film, filmmakers and production technology for trade publications, online and broader audience outlets.