Interactive documentaries: gamification, interactivity, convergence

Written by: Alessio Casella

The concept of ‘documentary film’ is extremely dynamic and possesses elastic boundaries. Sybil DelGaudio notes that throughout film history, the term itself has in fact “undergone continual scrutiny and re-consideration” (1997, p. 189). With this in mind, it seems natural that this particular area of film practice could not be immune to the shifts caused by new media.

Interactive documentaries perfectly lend themselves to discuss the flexibility of the term, and allow us to observe the role of media convergence in documentary theory, as well as concepts of interactivity, agency and gamification.


Some examples of hypertextual narratives

What makes us recognise a documentary as ‘interactive’ is mainly its hypertextual structure (Miles, 2014) and the nature of its engagement with the viewer. Generally, we can define ‘interactive’ “any documentary that uses interactivity as a core part of its delivery mechanism” (Galloway et al., cited in Aston and Gaudenzi, 2012, p. 126); thus, asking viewers to actively take decisions in order for the ‘narrative’ to proceed. Through this approach, “the viewer is positioned within the artefact itself, [that demands] him, or her, to play an active role in the negotiation of the ‘reality’ being conveyed” (Aston and Gaudenzi, 2012, p. 126).

Furthermore, interactive documentaries also show a substantial degree of convergence and gamification. We can notice this by looking at a relevant example: Pirate Fishing: An Interactive Investigation, produced by Al Jazeera in 2014. This “film” (if we can still define it so) works as a web platform converging text, UI, and journalistic video clips.


piratefishing3 (2)

Pirate Fishing: An Interactive Investigation (2014)

The viewer is invited to impersonate a “junior researcher” investigating illegal fishing in Sierra Leone. By implementing processes of gamification (e.g., stages, “investigation points”, badges) within the structure of an interactive documentary, the viewer then also becomes a ‘player’.

As we mentioned in the introduction of this post, documentary has been showing a high degree of adaptation, encompassing new technologies and media as they became available. We have seen that concepts of interactivity and gamification in documentary film have started being approached, with excellent results. With the development of VR, the next logical step only seems to be the implementation of these potentialities within an immersive virtual environment.



Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (2016)


Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (2016). Available from on Samsung Gear, iOS, Android [Accessed 22 March 2017].

Pirate Fishing: An Interactive Investigation (2014). Available from [Accessed 22 March 2017].

Aston, J. and Gaudenzi, S. (2012). Interactive documentary: setting the field. Studies in Documentary Film, 6 (2), 125-139.

Bonino, F. (2011). Is interactivity in interactive documentaries exploited at its full potential? Interactive Documentary. Available from [Accessed 22 March 2017].

DelGaudio, S. (1997). If truth be told, can ‘toons tell it? Documentary and animation. Film History, 9 (2), 189-199.

Directors Notes (2016). A Guide to Interactive Documentary: Structure, Tools & Narrative. Available from [Accessed 22 March 2017].

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Miles, A. (2014). Interactive Documentaries and Affective Ecologies. In: Nash, K., Hight, C. and Summerhayes C. (eds.) New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 67-82.


2 thoughts on “Interactive documentaries: gamification, interactivity, convergence

  1. This is a fascinating topic and links to many discussions relevant to our module as well as the documentary one. I wonder how you respond to this, other than being interested in it. I, for one, did not know about the documentary NOTES ON BLINDNESS and I wish you mentioned this yesterday after the question about blindness and cinema. I am also curious how you relate the Al Jazeera documentary to the one on blindness.
    PRIVATE FISHING: AN INTERACTIVE INVESTIGATION seems a little too much like a game with a script than an interactive documentary (although I did not go too deep into it, do we get different teams? Do you get to interact with others etc.). You ask the question “what makes us recognise a documentary as interactive” but I guess I am also curious about what makes us recognise something interactive as a documentary.
    NOTES ON BLINDNESS, on the other hand, is fascinating for different reasons as it is about senses and uses the techonogy to explore blindness, while making the film accessible for blind people too.
    Overall fascinating area, and would be interesting to read what you make of it (i.e how does it relate to some of the theoretical discussions?).


  2. Hello Ozlem,
    Thank you for your comments.

    I first heard about “Pirate Fishing” because Juliana Ruhfus (the head reporter who made the investigation) will attend a talk at University of Westminster on 27th March, in which she will discuss the role of games in delivering hard news ( I have been wanting to write a post about interactive documentary and processes of gamification for some weeks, and I found that Ruhfus’ project would be an interesting case study.

    To be fair, “Pirate Fishing” does take more from games rather than documentary. Elements of gamification are at the very core of the whole project; however, I found that it also uses a narrative structure more akin to traditional documentary film. As a matter of fact, the structure of the investigation is fairly linear, with only a few clips not contributing to the game and offering a more “documentarist” purpose (e.g., introduce characters, advocate for the development of villages, show interviews with fishermen).

    These are the main reasons why I treated this project as an interactive documentary. It may be worth to note that “Pirate Fishing” has been defined an ‘interactive documentary’ by MIT (, and has been exhibited at various film festivals around the world – including Sheffield Doc/fest 2015 (

    Finally, I mentioned “Notes on Blindness” in the conclusion of my post as a final comment on the “state of documentary” today (I wish I mentioned it on Tuesday’s class but sadly it didn’t come to my mind). In October I had the chance to attend a talk at BFI London Film Festival on VR and its potentialities in filmmaking, and I found the comments by “Notes on Blindness”‘ directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney particularly interesting. Among other issues, they discussed the role of user agency and of a fitting soundscape to create an environment and orient the viewers/users within the narrative world.

    Despite these two projects are extremely different in purposes and delivery, I believe that they address similar concepts – such as world-building, immersion and interactivity – which will be pivotal in the development of documentary in the new media scenario.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s