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The application of gamification to transmedia activism the case of fort McMoney

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All 41 characters are non-fictional as well as their speeches. The total amount of available video is eight hours, mostly interviews. In the i-doc, there is no main character; every personal story is valuable for the contribution to the whole picture. Some characters may tell a long story, including background, casual life insights and their views on the main concerns. Other inhabitants, such as a local doctor, only share their opinions. Overall, Dufresne kept balance in how much time characters spend with the player and made dialogs natural by applying special algorithms.

As the documentary is separated in four episodes, each representing one aspect of city life, there are specific characters included in each one. For instance, the “Boomtown” episode familiarise us with typical Fort’s occupants, such as homeless people, industry workers and lobbyists, the mayor, public service workers and others who may share their opinions about wages and prices, education, health care, immigrants, sex and drugs, housing and other issues relevant to the social sphere. As “Black gold” episode deals with the local economics, users get in touch with business people, a Shell’s recruiter, etc. The focus is on the domination of the oil industry there, how people make money and what are the job opportunities. The third “Winter road” episode immerses the audience in the environmental topic. There are activists, a fisherman and some other citizens concerned with pollution, as well as industry experts and the Ministry of Environment employees, who argue their points on environmental damage and its aftermath.

On the one hand, the real city of Fort McMurray is the protagonist of the story, since all the actions and discussions revolve around it. On the other hand, its avatar

Fort McMoney is a platform for discoveries and debates rather than a character. Fort McMurray remains a matter of controversy and still occasionally catches

worldwide attention. After launching the project in 2013, the project’s crew produced two spin-offs, in 2015. One is a movie for the French television, combining unpublished and additionally made footage. The 52-minutes movie “Fort McMoney: Vote Jim Rogers!” conveys the story with an emphasis on the topic of democracy in


Fort McMurray. Another released by-product was a book called “Gross: The black gold rush” (Brut: la ruée vers l'or noir) published only in French, revealing more insights into the Canadian oil sands by the familiar and some new characters. Unfortunately, in May 2016, the city gained headlines all over the world because of dramatic wildfires, which caused the evacuation of the whole 80,000 inhabitants of Fort McMurray (Kassam, 2016).


Fort McMoney is a formidable storyworld with large amount of interactive video content, where hundreds of itineraries are possible. Nevertheless, the project’s extensions are focused primarily on the debates. From this perspective, the media partnerships went beyond sharing content and the audience played a prominent role, contributing to engaging more people into the project and its discussions.

There are six major partners involved: French Canadian Radio-Canada, English Canadian The Globe and Mail, Le Monde (France), Süddeutsche (Germany), NZZ (Swiss), RUE 89 (France), and Liberation (France). They all reinforce the real-time aspect of the game experience, providing media coverage outside and inside http://fortmcmoney.com/. Taking The Globe and Mail as an example, they put a home page banner on their own site http://www.theglobeandmail.com/, spread print advertising, posted their own articles about the oil sands into the news feed on http://fortmcmoney.com/ as well as on http://www.theglobeandmail.com/. It occurred that the most effective partnerships were those where a newspaper provided exclusive content. Simple advertising at a home page does not result in effective audience engagement. Journalists’ participation was not limited to writing publications of investigations on oil sands, as they were “super players” in the game debates. That was an expert role with more influence in debates in comparison to the ordinary player. Some archives and partnership investigations were replayed and some unseen footage was disseminated across news platforms.


The role of social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, is also undiminished. Not only did they allow the player to share the information and viewpoints about the game and the topic (posts with hashtag #fortmcmoney or mentioning @FortMcMoney appear in the discussion section on the dashboard), but all relevant tagged posts become part of discussions held on the website. This is how the audience may have contributed to the content. The project has its own channels on Twitter6 and Facebook7. All official trailers were published on National Film Board of Canada’s Vimeo8 profile.

Another extension refers to additional mobile applications, which had their links hidden in one of the locations, namely swimming pool. The purpose was to offer the deeper expertise in the oil sands issues. Among those mobile games were “The Facts on Oil Sands” by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and “Alberta AQHI” by Wood Buffalo Environmental Association. The last shows the air quality in Fort McMurray and the region of Wood Buffalo.

Overall, this is an expansion approach because with each publication the audience of discussions grew and debates went far beyond the original platform. Assigned as “super players”, journalists led their existing audience to the project, moving the debate from the game to the news media, and back. In the game, almost every valuable action is rewarded with influence points. This gamified strategy boosted the accumulation of audience on the main platform.

Media platforms and genres

The authors of Fort McMoney set a goal to create a brand-new genre, which would push the boundaries between game and documentary. Nothing similar has been done before in this scale. Dufresne believes that innovations attract people and this complex thought-provoking gamified combination proves it.

6Access Twitter account on https://twitter.com/fortmcmoney

7Access Facebook account on https://www.facebook.com/FortMcMoney/?fref=ts

8Access National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo on https://vimeo.com/thenfb


The project mostly exists on the web-based platform and has an iPad application, which presents the same experience as on the website. Although Fort McMoney tentpole is presented on the Internet, other media platforms are involved: television (TV movie spin-off), print media (spin-off book, news media partners), radio (news media partner), mobile (games), and social media (Twitter and Facebook). Fort McMoney is comparable to the contemporary video games. Content and design go hand in hand to make the experience fluent, immersive and engaging.

The ordinary player may be used to play fictional games but Fort McMoney is completely non-fictional. Even the “SimCity” part is considered documentary as it is based on the actual city metrics and real people’s voices. Remarkably, there is no winner or loser in that game for real.

Audience and market

Originally created in three different languages (French, English, and German),

Fort McMoney is supposed to be widely disseminated. Notwithstanding, the target audience was the Canadians, who are affected by the country’s economic backbone and interested in changes or, at least, in a better understanding of what is going on in this comparatively undiscovered region. Interestingly, even the producers were uncertain about who would be attracted by this innovative format. Moreover, there were some concerns about the perception of the game. Therefore, finding the audience for an unfamiliar format like this is a huge challenge, complicated by the fact that without a player it would be “a beautiful but empty cathedral” (D. Dufresne, personal communication, October 26, 2015).

The project sells itself as a game experience. But this means different things for different people. For a non-gamer interested in interactive docs, the ‘game’ label might suggest a required video game skillset that makes the project feel inaccessible. For a gamer, the title might suggest a higher-level of player


control of the Fort McMoney environment that doesn’t bear out in the playthrough. (MIT Open Documentary Lab, n.d.a)

In any case, this new kind of hybrid media puts forward a new experience for any user. The player can become a virtual citizen in the simulated city and, simultaneously, explore the storyworld and manage it in real life. The project probably functions better with navigational viewers, who are interested in delving into all the meanders of Fort McMoney. Users can navigate according to their priorities, choosing from 515 dialogs and 32 indexes within the i-doc.

The results of Google Analytics by December 2014 (Power to the pixel, 2014) states that there were more than 2,000,000 page views, 615,000 visits and 412,000 registered players. Some players came every week to participate in referendum and explore the city as deep as possible. Considered as hardcore gamers, they reached 21,000 people. It is interesting that the major audience was French speaking (48%), followed by German speaking (32%) and English speaking (20%). Within the period from November 2013 to July 2014 the major groups visiting the project were aged 18 to 24 (27,5%) and 25 to 34 (33,5%), according to Google Analytics (Flynn, n.d.). The project can be considered a success in terms of public reach, encompassing domestic and international audiences.

Previously, Fort McMurray was pictured by other directors, such as Peter Mettler. In 2009, he presented Petropolis, a scenic film showing the view on the huge industry located in Alberta and the current environmental conditions. The 43minutes film warned people about an urgent problem from just an ecological specialist’s perspective. Dufresne’s interactive project represents the whole storyworld with different viewpoints incorporated and real-life discussions around a number of issues. In this perspective, it is a unique project and the first attempt to marry documentary and game, as there was no other interactive project covering the oil sands.


Fort McMoney, as well as its application and extensions on other media platforms, is available for free. The total Fort’s budget of $870,000 was raised mainly by public services with the purpose to undertake an experiment and introduce a fresh insight on how to tell stories and reach audiences in a new way. The production costs are average for the documentary production in Canada and also at National Film Board, which is highly interested in interactive works and provided 30% of the budget. Montreal-based creative agency Toxa funded $30,790, realising that they would not get a return on the investments. The non-profit funding agency Canada Media Fund, supporting Canadian content creation for television and digital media industries, provided 54% of the entire budget ($471,210). The European public service cultural television channel ARTE gave $100,000 for Fort McMoney, previously funding another Dufresne’s interactive documentary Prison Valley. Ultimately, this is the price for the research and production, which resulted in an award-winning project.


The player experiences the storyworld from the first person’s perspective, being an occasional visitor in Fort McMurray. While voting, the player determines

Fort McMoney’s destiny, contributing to the constantly changing virtual representation of the actual city. This process is likened to real democracy, where every voice matters. “Another design challenge with Fort McMoney was striking a balance between journalistic neutrality and more documentary-style point of view. It was important for David that the project reflect both left-wing and right-wing political perspectives on the issues” (Flynn, n.d.).

The documentary part is where users collect clues and obtain the information from locals. Every action, valuable in terms of data gathering, is rewarded by influence points. Missions incorporated in this part are also incentives to investigate more. The interaction with characters occurs by clicking on them and choosing from one up to three questions (see Figure 10). Clues are objects to be found in the steady


picture. Them all have descriptions and may be reached lately in the inventory. The player may get to the next location by clicking on the relevant arrow or consulting the city map. Videos can be paused or skipped at any time and the second part of the project’s interface is always available. There are no distractions for the user, favouring the immerse experience into the story.

Figure 10. Interaction with a character. Source: screenshot from


The dashboard is designed fully in a game-like style, resembling earliest “SimsCity” user interface. The map occupies a central position on the dashboard. It is useful in terms of determining the current player’s location and finding out what is unexplored yet. In this map, there is also the virtual representation of Fort McMurray scaled in population, economic productivity and other variables.

The debates section brings a new question every week, showing in real time the number and rate of voters. Any argument there can be liked or disliked as well as commented by registered players. Time constrain is one of the game design


patterns and mechanics applied there. Debates and surveys put forward questions like “Should there be tighter environmental controls?” and offers just two options: “for” and “against”. Both types of participation determine the Fort McMoney’s destiny, but the difference is that these debates are followed by the open real time discussion. This player to player interactivity is the most valuable in the game as it stimulates the exchange of ideas and the competition.

The discussion sector is where the player might have posted brief comments, chatted and asked general questions about the game. In order to do so, a Twitter account is required. The overall number of comments in the debates reached 6,500, posted by 2,000 people. The project was mentioned 7,300 times on Twitter. However, there were no other specific user-generated content revealed, except these posts and comments on the referendums.

Users profiles contain the details of their progress, including the possibility to see how many places and people they have already met and how many remain unrevealed. The player rankings, based on quantity of influence points, is also presented there with user’s current position in a worldwide leader board. It is possible to modify the profile and set subscription options.

Players are assigned regular missions throughout the game cycle, such as invitations to explore certain locations or meet specific characters. Accomplished missions give the player influence points, which add weight to votes. The inventory is a complete list of characters, videos and data seen by the user within the game, indicating those that the player has already viewed. In the news block, users may follow the news that are happening in Fort McMurray along with updates on game progress. An entertainment is supported by a tiny radio button at the bottom of the dashboard. Some original music records may be played. Users may also push Twitter or Facebook buttons to share the project.

As a result, Fort McMoney provides a platform for different communities interested in the issues raised by project to participate, which characterises a cultural attractor. Throughout its discussions inside the game and outside via news media


partners and social media networks, the project also represents a cultural activator. To facilitate the process three “game masters” were introduced. That role, played by Dufresne and two team members, Philip Lewis and Frédéric Dubois, was likened to a community manager. Their responsibilities were to moderate discussions and reveal in-game news. They also managed social media accounts of the project. Dufresne, seeing it as an extension of his director’s role, conceived the game masters as those who keep balance in the game. For instance, during the debates, they were able to help summarising one side’s points or to provide some arguments for a backward part of the game community. According to the author, who is directly engaged in the docugame, this strategy makes the artefact’s community more reallike and balanced; people felt like they were guided.

This is an entirely social and human-driven task set that added another level of dynamic change to the game experience, on top of more mechanical changes to the game world as it progresses, such as the unlocking of new areas and the introduction of new characters. (MIT Open Documentary Lab, n.d.a).


Fort McMoney is a proactive project, since it was planned upfront to be transmediatic, involving different media platforms, content expansion, and audience engagement. Working closely with the newspapers, Dufresne’s team planned in advance the strategies of involving the audience in each particular theme and issue within all the episodes.

Taking into account that the main circle within the game experience is from the newspapers to the game and back and that the complete one-month experience was offered simultaneously, this transmedia project should be considered as portmanteau (Pratten, 2015). All the involved platforms contributed to the single experience. The actions, such as posting news, voting and exploring the game space,


took place at the same time through different platforms, each of them playing a significant role in the storytelling.

The partners’ websites, the Fort McMoney iOS application and the channels on the social networks may work as entry points to the story but the experience is just complete when users, as in a puzzle, put all the pieces together. The project and its app are still available, as well as updating social channels, though the activity on the external sites has already faded. Debates were active only over the first month. In other words, the active phase with discussion had passed, while the simple polls and debates questions have still remained. The documentary part is also currently online.

Rather than explore the issues through looser

interactivity, Fort McMoney uses the structure, tropes, and timing of a video game, all moving the user through the experience in a mission-oriented way.

(…) The game is played out in phases, which makes the project live at certain times and inactive between phases, driving audiences to moments of shared interactivity and play-through, with each phase featuring new content. (Fort McMoney, n.d.)

The possibility of not just interacting, but also participating, is the reason the story can be considered as open system. The Fort McMoney’s structure of the interaction with characters is represented in the scheme below (see Figure 11).

Figure 11. Interaction with a character. Source: screenshot from