#Hacked – Syria’s Electronic Armies is Al Jazeera’s disquieting look at the hard realities of cyberwarfare – GameTheNews Exclusive Interview


Can you give us a brief description of #Hacked?

#Hacked – Syria’s Electronic Armies is a real-life investigation into Syria’s cyberwar presented in the form of a mobile web app. It’s a war where viruses and malware is proving just as dangerous as guns and bullets and the user is asked to gather the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of time without endangering the security of his / her sources and without getting hacked.

What real-world event or topic inspired this game?

#Hacked is journalism presented in a game format and as such all content is factual and real. The web app is based ona film with the same title that I made for Al Jazeera’s People & Power strand but the process of decision making takes the user deep  into subject and creates a much more immersive experience.

The user may feel as if playing a game when meeting and interacting with hackers, activists and cyberwar analysts but the moment s/he clicks on links such as Facebook profiles or news events s/he realises this is real and decisions can have deadly consequences.

Throughout the project the user is encouraged to click on links but must avoid behind hacked and infected with malware. All hacks are meticulously researched and based on real hacks that have taken place during Syria’s cyberwar.

The goal of #Hacked is to reach audiences who would not normally visit a news website or be interested in news content.

When people tried #Hacked, what was their reaction, especially in relation to the real-world inspired / newsgame elements?

There were several things we heard again and again, especially when we tested with younger users (16 – 17 years old): “Normally I am not really interested in news but this is different” and “strangely addictive” was one type of comment.

Users loved going to real life social media profiles and being reminded that everything is real.

They said they would be much more careful with opening links from now on and much more cyber-security aware.

Some of the younger users were disappointed that the point-scoring system was not more significant and were looking for stronger game elements.

Did you consult specialists on the subject when developing the game?

Absolutely, right from the start.

We tried to engage with our target audience right from the start. We had two focus groups, one at Birmingham City University and one at the National Film and Television School on the Game Design course. Both groups were MA students and we bounced all our ideas off them from before we even started going into production. The final user testing took place with students from London City University MA in International Journalism. I took their comments extremely seriously and it led to re-design in terms of content and user journey.

Ethical hacker Ali Haidar is a veteran of the Arab Spring, he rescued activists who were tracked, provided cyber security for NGOs, and reverse coded hacks to track the hackers. I met Ali during the making of the TV programme and Ali was massively helpful with our web app. He responded to an endless series of info-sec questions and he even gives some advice in the app. He also helped write the text for the Black Hat Hacker and finally brought some of his ethical hacking students to the last round of user testing.

Before launching I sent the beta version of the app to everyone who is in it, the Syrians, the hackers, the analysts and Jean Pierre Lesueur who coded the Dark Comet RAT that was used by the Syrian Electronic Army. They were all positive about the project and gave full consent to being featured.

I probably did much more than was necessary but I really felt the credibility and authenticity and ultimately the success of the project depends on getting their voices right.

Did the development of #Hacked change or affect your stance on the subject matter, and did you learn anything from the experience of making it?

First and foremost the project put me in touch with my inner geek. I am a journalist and documentary storyteller who is mostly concerned with the human experience in the world. The degree of technology involved with this production, both in content and production, was really new to me. I am now fascinated by all things cybersecurity and viral warfare and I believe we have only just seen the beginning of it.

In terms of the production process I did like collaborating with a whole new set of people although I have to admit that it was a challenge at times. We had technical problems that involved coding where people disagreed and it was tough helping to find a solution because I was simply out of my depth.

What did you hope this project would achieve?

As a journalist my number one concern is to get people engaged with news and current affairs and in this case the conflict in Syria, so my starting point was simply to do that.

Since we have launched I have been approached by teachers and organisations who say that #Hacked is really useful to teach journalism or cybersecurity. I would be super happy if it gets used as a teaching tool but that was not my objective.

What advantages and / or disadvantages do you see in using an interactive digital medium as a way of sparking debate or tackling real-world topics and issues?

I don’t really see any disadvantages. Mostly the consumption of news is a solitary experience, so the use of the app does not destroy an existing group experience in the same way an online game may get critiqued for destroying the communal experience of a board game.

The interactive nature really does seem to lead to news immersion. But we in journalism need to be very careful with the games side of things because game is easily equated with ‘fictional’. So we have to keep looking for ways to assure our audiences that what we deal with is real and what’s at stake!

Do you see newsgames becoming more popular in the future, or created by more developers more frequently?

I am not sure. I collaborated with Rob Pratten and Nataly Rios Goico at Conducttr on this because their platform was already developed and they came with a skillset that complimented mine for this project. I wanted to avoid incurring costs by developing something from start and I also wanted it to be replicable, but it still took 3 – 4 months to build and launch it (though we were not always all working on this full time). So it took longer than expected.

Personally I feel that in newsrooms we are still very much at the beginning and groping for the right way to engage with game formats.

I had dinner with a journalism professor and I asked her if she had told her students about the project and she said “I didn’t know what to say to them, I didn’t want to call it a ‘game’”.

That really hit me. As a fellow journalist I do understand the concerns, throughout the production of #Hacked I kept asking myself “why would a broadcaster do this?”

Do you have plans to make more titles with real-world elements to them?

If I can get funding, yes!

Where can people find #Hacked to check it out for themselves?

The link is www.syhacked.com. We are still more than happy to get feedback, tweet us at #SyHacked and we’ll get back to you!

Thanks to Juliana Ruhfus of Al Jazeera for taking the time to speak with us. If you’ve made a newsgame or an interactive experience based on real-world issues, we’d love to speak with you, click here to find out how to get in touch.

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