An investigations game

The following is a description of a game that I'm hoping to build – if a bid to the IPI News Innovation Contest is successful. I'd welcome any suggestions for how this might be designed better – as well as potential contributors, partners and users.

An investigations game: how it works

Users register with the site and join an existing investigation – or start a new one based on a limited number of ?templates? (e.g. investigating lobbying; following the money of local government or EU expenditure, charity funding or health; testing the claims of a corporation or police investigation; etc.). Once joined, they can also invite others. An investigation must have at least two ?players? before it can begin.

Once under way, as a player you are given a challenge (e.g. submit a Freedom of Information request; analyse data; identify regulations; speak to an expert; sum up the story so far, etc.). The challenge will come with help tips and resources from investigative journalists. It also has a points value based on its difficulty.

You choose to accept, exchange or pass on the challenge. Exchanging will bring up a new challenge; passing will pass the challenge on to the next player.

Exchanging or passing come with a points penalty – but if you accept and then complete a challenge, you will gain points. These can also be used to ?unlock? parts of the game or ?level up?.

Once you have accepted a challenge you have a limited time to complete it – anything from 24 hours to three weeks depending on the challenge.?You can also choose to try to do the challenge faster for extra points.

You can add updates on your progress and edit the challenge itself, adding new resources or tips of your own. These are added to the global ?template?, allowing other investigations to benefit. They will also gain you extra points.

If you have not marked the challenge as complete as the deadline nears, you will receive reminders (one of the findings of research into Help Me Investigate was the need for more ?negative feedback?). You can ?stall? the deadline – but it will cost you points (the gamble you make is that you will earn more points if you succeed). If you fail to complete the challenge, points are deducted and play passes to the next player.

If you complete the challenge, however, you are awarded points, and rise up the leaderboard. Some challenges also come with ?badges? such as ?FOI Star?, ?Document Hound?, ?Data Don?, and so on. These can be cross-published to social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

You will also be asked if you want to add or change an investigation ?hypothesis?, and the next player must confirm that you have completed the challenge. They can ask you questions if your process is not transparent. Rejection will cost you points: trust is central to collaboration – two rejections will lead to your being ejected from an investigation.

Play continues in turn until a player decides the investigation is ?closed?, posting a link to a report on the results.

Template investigations

The following represents a selection of potential investigations that users might be able to pursue, based on existing successful examples. These are obviously subject to change in discussion with partner organisations:

  1. Local government spending – follow the money
  2. National government: lobbying – identifying conflicts of interest
  3. EU politics – follow the money
  4. Policing and crime – accountability
  5. Consumer affairs – testing claims
  6. Science and environment – testing claims
  7. Health – follow the money
  8. Charity – follow the money
  9. Education – follow the money

11 thoughts on “An investigations game

  1. Sagar

    Hi Paul,I have been checking your updates on the regular, and today I see some good news. This game idea, like a treasure hunt, is cool. Would it be available as a white label plugin, so I can integrate it into my site?Oh yes, there are many avenues that you could go down with this app, and unearth so many areas of public interest that have been ignored.p.s. when will hmi app be fully available?cheers,Sagar

  2. Mary Hamilton

    I’m slightly hesitant to say this, because I like the core idea of an investigative game, but where’s the fun bit? Where’s the play? It looks like a game – it has turns and time limits and points and badges and a scoreboard – but as far as I can see it’s missing a fundamental element: actual gameplay.If I were designing this game from first principles, I’d start by mapping out the tasks you want players to be able to do (put in FOI requests, speak to experts etc.) and thinking about the learning curve. Maybe the game needs tutorials, or an experience path going from very simple basic tasks to more complex or more challenging tasks. It needs to be engaging for the players, something they’ll come back to because it’s fun not just because it’s important, so I guess needs to prioritise the bits of investigative journalism that are "fun" (to non-journalists, anyway). And it needs to have flow – a mix of challenge and reward – to stop people becoming bored with repetition or frustrated with difficulty.Are there ways of breaking down the tasks involved into very small, quick chunks that can generate that sort of flow in themselves, as GalaxyZoo does? Or ways to create tutorials and classify tasks into rough skill levels like FoldIt? Either of those options might give a good framework for gameplay.

  3. Paul Bradshaw

    @Sagar there are no plans for it to be a white label tool in the bid but yes, we should probably ensure that we plan for any open sourcing.

  4. Paul Bradshaw

    (Oh, and I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘HMI app’ but as we have no funding for HMI at the moment the answer is there are no plans for any development at the moment (although as the code is now open source anyone could create one))

  5. Paul Bradshaw

    @newsMary thanks enormously for your points. The game does have tutorials and it’s likely that it will start with simpler challenges and ‘level up’ as those are completed. You’ve helped focus my brief on making those initial tasks as fun as possible. As you say, the most difficult balance in any game is between being too difficult and being too easy, and some users will be skilled journalists, so the iterations when it’s first released will probably key in pinning that down. Would welcome ideas on how we can borrow from GalaxyZoo and Foldit.

  6. Mary Hamilton

    I’d actually suggest that the difficult balance is in providing a consistently rewarding challenge that increases in complexity at the same rate as the player’s skills increase. The graph on this page illustrates what I’m talking about: Galaxy Zoo isn’t really a game, it manages to get a lot of work done by breaking down complex tasks into incredibly simple, quick ones. It’s prescriptive, closed play, and the reward for "players" is the satisfaction of correct classification, and a few points. It doesn’t maintain flow well, because once you can do one task you can do all the tasks, but it does provide satisfaction for certain types of player.Fold It, on the other hand, is a very open-ended game that’s played by experts as well as total novices. So it has pre-scripted and easy-to-follow tutorials that teach the mechanics of the game, and then lets the player explore what’s possible within those rules. It’s much less conscribed, so encourages exploration; it has social elements to encourage co-operation on tasks, and the learning curve is maintained beyond the initial tutorial levels so that tasks continue to get harder as your skills improve.In both, the gamification elements (points, leaderboards, etc.) don’t overpower or conflict with the play itself. Shallow tasks are rewarded with points, but in Fold It deeply rewarding tasks stand alone and players get real satisfaction from completing them and competing/collaborating on them. Galaxy Zoo, by comparison, makes sure not to force people to play – if you don’t want to be bothered by the gamification elements, you probably won’t be. (I imagine some skilled journalists might prefer not to be forced to play tutorials, for instance, or graded by points; making it possible for them to choose to work, not play, might be an important consideration.)Do you know Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types? It’s a very crude tool but might be a useful model to apply to your gameplay if you haven’t done so already.

  7. EvoMRI

    I just wanted to post a comment of the "I imagine some skilled X might prefer not to be forced to play tutorials, for instance, or graded by points; making it possible for them to choose to work, not play, might be an important consideration." kind for X=scientist, and thank Mary for the template. I also agree with her characterization of FoldIt.

  8. Trippenbach

    Hi Paul. This is a great idea – of course you’d expect I would think that. I think newsmary’s thoughts are right on the money. I’d propose a few tweaks. You are straying onto dangerous ground when you say people will lose points or be penalized. Players hate this. This brings me to the larger point of the game design – as newsmary said, where’s the fun? Of course investigative reporting is inherently an interesting task, so the real trick in this project will be to bring out that interest and translate it into small, doable fun chunks. The only difference between games and real life is clear direction and good feedback for complex tasks.You NEED a professional game designer on this task. Can’t stress this enough. It’s not enough to layer a points system on top of something else. It’s got to be cloned into the project at a molecular level.

  9. Paul Bradshaw

    Thanks Phillip – agree completely (I have a games design company that I’ve been talking to, and which I’m expecting to lead on much of the detail you talk about). Interesting point about points penalties – one issue I’m addressing is the need for negative feedback: how do we do that without penalties?


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