Game On: Zach Wise on How Video Games Are Influencing Documentaries

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“If I were making a film today, I wouldn’t make it for the cineplex.”
— Zach Wise, Multimedia Producer

Multimedia producer Zach Wise was a member of Peabody and Pulitzer prize-winning teams at the New York Times and the Las Vegas Sun

Multimedia producer Zach Wise was
a member of Peabody and Pulitzer
prize-winning interactive video teams.

If you think video games are just child’s play, think again. Video games are influencing everything from how we share information to how we spend money through community-driven websites like Facebook, Gilt Groupe, Foursquare and Groupon. Even filmmakers and documentarians are taking their cues from video games.

Zach Wise, a multimedia producer who designed the New York Times‘ “Choosing a President” and the user-generated photo gallery “A Moment in Time” as well as the Las Vegas Sun‘s interactive video project, “Quenching Las Vegas’ Thirst” is one hybrid storyteller who is taking notice. As a journalist, multimedia producer and gamer, he’s seen video gaming’s influence growing in traditional media.

How should independent filmmakers go about incorporating gaming into their films?

Wise suggests making a film that incorporates game elements from the start.

“You see a lot of filmmakers doing [interaction] afterwards as a marketing tool, instead of using its power to tell stories. If I were making a film today, I wouldn’t make it for the cineplex. That’s just crazy. Games and interactive [films] can open up a whole other audience.”

Multimedia producer Zach Wise was a member of Peabody and Pulitzer prize-winning teams at the New York Times and the Las Vegas Sun

Stills from three interactive video projects
in Zach Wise’s porfolio.

Wise points out that the bulk of the lucky independent filmmakers who are able exhibit their films the traditional way — in theaters — have a limited audience when compared to the potential market games offer, and that funding opportunities will come.

Earlier this year, the Tribeca Film Institute announced a partnership with the Ford Foundation to fund cross-platform projects, including video games and mobile apps. The National Endowment of the Arts recently announced it would be offering grants to build video games, and Indie Fund, launched in 2010 by the creator of the hit indie game “Braid,” allows developers to submit ideas online for funding.

Rockstar Games’ “L.A. Noire” also became the first video game to have a special “interactive screening” at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, further blurring the line between film and games.

Gamification, a term that encompasses the use of game mechanics in a project or product to increase public participation, is one answer, but it is a controversial one for the old guard who may not see potential in gaming.

“They don’t play video games,” Wise says, and that puts them in the minority.

Studies show Americans embracing video games like never before. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the video game trade group behind the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, 72 percent of American households play video games. And contrary to the stereotype, more than two-fifths of gamers are women and the average gamer is 37 years old.

“Journalism and film are going to struggle,” says Wise, now a freelance multimedia producer and professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “They already struggle with it in the editing process, laying down an edit, trying to make it educational and entertaining at the same time. Now, you’re stepping into interactive at the same time. How do you bring in those same elements, not make it too dry, sort of fun, so that you spend more time with it?”

Already a handful of documentaries have successfully made the bold leap to embracing gaming values and dynamics, despite its challenges in nonfiction filmmaking. Paris-based Honkytonk Films, which makes prime examples of films that bridge the gap between gaming and nonfiction storytelling, describes its work as “interactive documentary films.”



Teaser trailer for Honkytonk Films’ interactive documentary Journey to the End of Coal.

Honkytonk’s choose-your-own-adventure-style film Journey to the End of Coal shows how viewers can interact with a documentary using game-like mechanics, in this case deciding which trajectory to take as the main character, an investigative journalist in a Chinese mining community. Wise also singles out the web documentary Prison Valley, created by David Dufresne and Philippe Brault for the French-German TV channel Arte, which uses various media, social media and an app to explore the prison industry in Cañon City, Colorado, with a game-like interface.

These filmmakers were able to plan with interactivity in mind, rather than having the video-game mechanism become an afterthought.

“They shoot with intent,” Wise says of the filmmakers behind Honkytonk Films and Prison Valley. “They see things unfold with their eyes. Instead of filming this one scene, you shoot three different scenes.”

Wise is now practicing what he preaches. He’s developing a documentary project that will use a system of micro-rewards to promote interactivity.

Are you using game mechanics in your documentary storytelling? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @povdocs.

Alva French
Alva French
Alva French is a freelance multimedia journalist and was a POV Digital intern in Summer 2011. She has been blogging on French and Francophone music, politics and culture since 2007 and is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. Alva is currently an M.A. candidate in International Reporting at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.