David Dufresne visits ODL

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Last week the Open Doc Lab was lucky enough to host an impromptu presentation with David Dufresne, creator of Fort McMoney, one of this year’s hottest interactive pieces. The project  was produced by Toxa, the National Film Board of Canada, and Arte with additional financial support from the Canada Media Fund (CMF/FMC).

For the few of our readers who haven’t checked it out (or seen it featured everywhere from the New York Times to IDFA Doc Lab), here’s a quick rundown: Fort McMoney is a “documentary game” based on Fort McMurray, Alberta, a rough and tumble territory in the far north of Canada. It’s home to a burgeoning boomtown thrown up to support the oil industry’s surface mining of the Athabasca Tar Sands. While Fort McMoney is styled as a video game, the content is real: characters are residents of Fort McMurray interviewed by the production team, the stages and sets are all photo/video representations of the town, and even the player actions are based on real-life social and economic scenarios (more on this later.)

It’s clear when wading into the intricacies Fort McMoney that Dufresne is a fearless experimenter. He was also an early convert from print journalism and long-form documentary to the wide-open possibilities for media on the web, producing a webzine and other documentary material for web distribution.

By 2010, Dufresne cemented his role as a master of interactives with Prison Valley, a highly acclaimed interactive documentary co-directed with Philippe Brault on the prison system in the United States. Prison Valley features some game-like elements, Dufresne told the Open Doc Lab, but with Fort McMoney he knew he wanted to make “a game for real.”

Dufresne kicked off his talk by jokingly giving us an insight into his ability to lead by inspiration when creating interactive pieces, and his desire to dive head first into unknown territory. When he hit on the concept of turning the Fort McMurray story into a playable documentary game, his first pitch to Toxa, a web-agency and producers from Montreal, was, “Let’s do Sim City – for real!” When the project was green-lighted, he recalled with a smile, he said to his wife, “We’re doing Sim City for real! … How are we going to do it?”

If Dufresne was headed to Fort McMoney without a roadmap, it’s clear he had the chops – in production, in storytelling, in visual and interaction design – to forge his own path to a successful project. Like any good leader, he also knew he needed to construct a unique team that was equipped to make his vision a reality, drawing from the documentary and interactive storytelling worlds as well as from the games industry – game designers Guillaume Perreault, Olivier Mauco, Florent Maurin served as consultants to the project. The final ecosystem of Fort McMoney involves player exploration through the simulated town via point-and-click navigation, access to branching, interactive interviews, and embedded news items from the real world about the Fort McMurray and the effects of the oil industry. As players witness the realities and learn more about the social and environmental issues at stake, player action is funneled into a series of debates about the future of the virtual town. Players take surveys, share comments, and vote on referenda which function as game play levels: after a vote, new consequences drive Fort McMoney in new directions that the players must grapple with.

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Dufresne shared with us the many design phases that shaped Fort McMoney

 

In discussing the game design, Dufresne opened up about the lessons, insights and strategies that contributed to the success of this piece – and why they’re relevant to the future of documentary interaction design. Here a few of the key takeaways:

Fort McMurray vs. Fort McMoney

At the outset of Fort McMoney, the game-town adheres to the realities of Fort McMurray that Dufresne and his production team discovered in two years of research and 60 days of filming. As the experience unfolds through player actions, however, the virtual city starts to change. Voting on referenda, players come to decisions that alter the game town as a consequence.

In one instance, Dufresne recalls, “People voted ‘no more oil,’ and the city became a ghost town in the game. Everyone left.”

The cause & effect mechanism of Fort McMoney speaks to big changes for the way we think about documentary. Dufresne detailed the heavy research and projection work he conducted to design the results of any potential decision the players voted on. Working in collaboration with IRIS, an economic research group from Montreal, the team employed mathematical models and close consultation with experts to create realistic scenarios for any outcome for each referendum. In this sense, the documentary game not only records non-fiction content, it moves into the realm of non-fiction projection and representing reality-based futures.

The model has been well-received. “So far, no one has called out the projections,” Dufresne noted of the events in Fort McMoney. “It’s resonated as very accurate, very realistic.”

 

The Long Time vs. The Real Time

The distribution and roll-out of Fort McMoney is one of its most complex and interesting features. Dufresne grappled with balancing act of allowing in-depth examination of real-world issues through lengthy investment while creating a dynamic experience that changed rapidly enough to keep players engaged.

Fort McMoney hit on an innovative structure based on ‘episodes’ within game segments. Games were released a few months apart, with episodes occurring each week for four weeks that the game is live.

When he requested a one-month live game-play experience, Dufresne said, some of his producers were shocked that he wasn’t asking for just a few hours. “We have to protect the long-format documentary, the ‘long time,’” he said. “But,” he added, “on the internet, we also have to change our way to show.”

To change that way of showing, the Real Time elements of the game take center stage. During the playable periods, players converge in message boards and forums to discuss the goals of the game based on what they find in the media-rich interface. The goal driving players is to make their opinions for Fort McMoney’s future heard. One of the taglines of the project encapsulates the stakes of this game mechanic: Make your worldview triumph.

Fort McMoney doubles down on the ability to gather an audience by remaining an engaging interactive environment even after the live play is complete. At the end of the one-month real-time play, the records of player action, interaction, and voting remain fixed in the interface and open for exploration. Walkthroughs of the Fort McMoney universe – right now, Episodes 1 and 2 – are still possible to navigate in the down time when game play isn’t live.

 

Game Managers vs. Directors

The month-long periods of real-time play meant constant monitoring by Dufresne and two team members, Philip Lewis and Frédéric Dubois. Working under the role of “Game Managers,” they continually updated and facilitated the universe of Fort McMoney. 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.

Dufresne enumerated a handful of the tasks handled by the game managers, including:

  • Control the database
  • Play with the players
  • Debate with the players (in distinct English, French, and German communities, facilitated separately to avoid language barriers in the debates).
  • Publish daily news items (pulled straight from real headlines from Fort McMurray and the global oil industry)
  • Publish debates
  • Help players navigate the game
  • Administer the Twitter account (used as another channel for communication with players)
  • Launch surveys and referenda
  • Monitor voting process and results
  • Encourage players progressing through the game

This labor-intensive investment in an interactive piece, which requires not just algorithms but actual people to make the project work, is for Dufresne a sign of the times:

“To me, this is more than the role of a community manager. To me it’s a new way to be a filmmaker.”

Dufresne’s enjoyment of this future filmmaker’s resume shines through. He still manages the debates on the Prison Valley site, simply because he likes to see his creation keep moving forward. “It’s wonderful to see your film continue.” Then, with a laugh, “But this time, I get paid for it!”

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The analytics Dufresne shared – from accounts opened to comments added – speak to the success of the Game Managers in building a robust community.

Q&A: What Should We Call Fort McMoney?

One tumblr-worthy topic of the Q&A was the difficulty of immediately shaping viewer (or are they player?) expectations based on how a new-format project identifies itself.

For Fort McMoney, the identifier “documentary game” leaves no room for it’s weaker, watered-down cousin gamification. 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.

So, how can you manage audience expectation for an utterly fragmented audience?

Sarah Wolozin, Director of the Open Documentary Lab, noted that in the world of design that’s data-responsive, viewer expectations could be managed by the interface itself. Imagine, she suggested, that Fort McMoney ask visitors to the site to select “Gamer” or “Non-Gamer,” and provided them a different introduction to the project suited to their background. In the quickly morphing field of interactive production, people come to new forms with widely varied life experience and vastly different genre expectations – perhaps experience designers should think about meeting such diversity halfway.

Philip Tan, Creative Director of the MIT Game Lab, points out that part of expectation management is delivering not just on the interface but on the value proposition of the project. No matter what a player’s game familiarity, he says, Fort McMoney holds up because the piece’s goal is to drive people to the debating forums:

“The game is not something you win,” said Tan, “but it’s a game as a tool for people who are engaged in discussion to try out ideas, trying to see where their point of view will take them. The game is a simulation that allows them to form more coherent thoughts around that.”

The most meaningful interactivity of Fort McMoney is the player to player interactivity, and since the goal is to raise the level of debate, the voting conceit and the message-board interface turns a simple feature into the most resonant game-like element: a competition of ideas.

And this central goal of Fort McMoney to facilitate debate was a staggering success. The project garnered more than 7,000 comments, of which only three were deleted for inappropriate content (a huge feat in the sometimes ugly culture of internet comments.) Both the environmental and industrial lines of argument over the oil sands were represented in the dialogues.

For Dufresne, the rigorous focus on raising the debate kept him focused, and aware that technological bells and whistles could be problematic if pushed out of balance with the point of the project. “I’d love to work with game studios to get better game play, but that element is only the tool for these other things. If game play was harder, it might loose people.”

 

The Future of Fort McMoney

At the beginning of his presentation, Dufresne told the audience one of the hard truths he’s realized as a maker for the web: “The more you give freedom to the viewers, to internet users, the more you get problems – or, the more you get complications for the development.”

But Fort McMoney represents a creative approach to bounding users to specific types of engagement, while encompassing a complete freedom of expression and engagement with one another in those open social spaces in the game. And not just in the message boards: Dufresne and the other Game Managers gave users freedom of access to the project makers – increasing the sense of Fort McMoney as an open community.

And Dufesne is still expanding the options for user engagement with the Fort McMoney universe. He’s returning to Fort McMurray to complete a long-form documentary on the city and its inhabitants, as well as working on the development of Fort McMoney iPad app.

Listening to his excitement for the future of the project, it’s easy to see that David Dufresne is at his best imagining future worlds. Fort McMoney isn’t only engaged in envisioning possible futures of Fort McMurray, it’s also Dufresne’s vehicle for imagining a new world of media creation. When the referendum is called, his model absolutely gets my vote.