The docu-game. Towards the immersive mode

October 1, 2011

Play, Research

The documentary genre is one of the most powerful tools for telling non-fiction stories about reality. Its numerous applications have helped the documentary become a cornerstone of the film industry, ever since the first documentary film Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922), which shows the media’s powerful inclination towards immersing audiences in the lives of other people and places. Today, the documentary continues to provide audiences with unique experiences, representing life and providing in-depth observations and reflections on culture, politics, ideologies and people.

Meanwhile, interactive media, virtual worlds and video games have begun to redefine documentary experiences beyond the context of the traditional film. It is possible to argue that these experiences are documentaries in the sense that they provide information and knowledge on topics and subjects from real life, but unlike traditional documentaries, these new documentaries allow users to have a unique experience, and they offer their users options and control over the documentary itself (Britain, 2009:2).

Video games have begun to tap the potential of sophisticated simulations, thanks to modern technology and by doing so, are creating a potential new future for documentary experiences (Britain, 2009:12). The rapid growth of the video game industry has led to the creation of a number of new genre niches, but few are more controversial than the advent of documentary computer games known as “serious games”. Unlike most video games, these simulations focus on education, training or politics, and have a purpose other than entertainment (Raessens, 2006:215).

As Joost Raessens says in Reality play: Documentary computer games beyond fact and fiction (2006), the main objective of the “docu-game” as it is often called, is to expose players to past events and to strive for “facticity” (Raessens, 2006:215). But can a video game provide a significant view of real life events? The author highlights the docu-game’s assiduous reconstruction of the complexity of real life experiences by means of simulation of “feelings, moral decisions and sensitivity,” and that they provide the player with a sense of a situation that they would otherwise have not had the opportunity to experience (Raessens, 2006:215-216). Galloway, McAlpine and Harris (2007:329) argue that there are enough parallels between the documentary and the objectives of the docu-game to make the comparison a fair one, and note that because the video game has an innate ability to create appealing stories and characters, it easily lends itself to the player’s immersion in the simulation.

One of the most controversial examples of the documentary game occurred with the release of “JFK Reloaded” (2004, Traffic Games), a game that put the player in the role of Lee Harvey Oswald with the task of assassinating the president. As cruel as this description sounds, the makers vehemently defended their game, claiming their goal was to let the player either prove or disprove the lone gunman theory by having them try to recreate Oswald’s supposed shots perfectly. The makers stated that they video game treatment was a mere extension of prior looks at the Kennedy assassination in the media, even claiming that while Oliver Stone’s acclaimed film version of the situation exploited the truth by obfuscating it with a conspiracy theory, their game merely aimed to explore the situation by using technology to try and reenact the Warren Commission’s account of what happened (Galloway et al., 2007:329; Raessens, 2006:214).

In his attempt to defend such docu‐games as having legitimate places in the world of documentary, Raessens argues that, if nothing else, games like JFK Reloaded open up discussion and get people talking about the issue, and, he asks, is this not one of the goals of documentary. Yet many people find issue with the docu‐game, proclaiming that a simulation can’t possibility represent reality and that there’s no accuracy in the interactive – that history can’t be history if players can have a choice in constructing it (Raessens, 2006:219). Raessens (2007:221) counters these arguments by pointing out that documentary has always been a creative treatment of reality and arguing that there’s no “real” objective history.

Whereas documentary film as always had a degree of bias, interactive documentary should be no cause for concern (Galloway et al., 2007: 335). This does not mean that the docu‐game should be regarded without a healthy degree of skepticism, however. Raessens(2007:223) admits that docu‐games must have some degree of entertainment value to be effective, so what happens if the entertainment value supersedes the documenting value?


Arnau Gifreu Castells
Researcher, Professor and Producer
Universitat Ramón Llull /Universitat de Vic



Britain, C. (2009), Raising Reality to the Mythic on the Web: The Future of Interactive Documentary Film. North Carolina: Elon University.

Flaherty, R. (1922), Nanook of the North

Galloway, D.; Mc, Mcapline, K. B.; Harris, P. (2007), “From Michael Moore to JFK Reloaded: Towards a working model of interactive documentary”. Journal of Media Practice, 8(3), pp 325‐339.

Raessens, J. (2006), “Reality play: Documentary computer games beyond fact and Fiction”. Popular Communication, 4(3), pp 213‐224.

Traffic Games (2004), “JFK Reloaded”


Recommended citation:

Gifreu, Arnau (2010), El documental multimèdia interactiu. Per un proposta de model d’anàlisi. [Treball de recerca]. Departament de Comunicació. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 106-107.

Gifreu, Arnau (2010). The interactive multimedia documentary. A proposed model of analysis. [Research Pre PhD]. Department of Communication. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 106-107.


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3 Responses to “The docu-game. Towards the immersive mode”

  1. Melvina Oharroll Says:

    Yet another issue is that video games are generally serious anyway with the most important focus on mastering rather than entertainment. Although, it comes with an entertainment factor to keep your young ones engaged, each game is usually designed to work on a specific experience or course, such as math or scientific research. Thanks for your article.

    • arnaugifreu Says:

      I agree, Melvina. One of my research interests focuses on how to apply the potential offered by the interactive documentary on the educational field. Regarding that, I presented two papers which will be published soon (EADiM 2011 – European Academy of Digital Media and INTED2012 (International Technology, Education and Development Conference). Soon will be available in the “resources section”.

      My point here is that one of the essential assumptions of the traditional documentary is the desire to organize a story in such a way that it is informative and entertaining at the same time. In this respect, the interactive format must follow tradition and attempt to offer similar experiences that combine as efficiently, originally and attractively as possible, an entertainment with a didactic and/or educational dimension – knowledge.

      First, the act of navigating and visiting various ideas for presenting and structuring content (information and knowledge), implies using game strategies and resources. As a result, using the structure of the interactive documentary, and the modes of navigation, users to a certain extent “play” with the opportunities which are offered by the work and which can meet their basic needs: those related to fun and entertainment. At this stage, the interactor “learns by playing” and after having “learned the lesson” in a fun, original and relaxed way, can share it with other interactors, in real time or whenever appropriate.

      Thanks for your response.



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