A woman is fleeing an abusive husband with her young son in tow. She’s come from El Salvador, her home, to the Mexican-American border. After days of tense travel and extortion, the coyote who brought her and a busload of others this far abandons them to their fate. The desert stretches out before them. Then, the men in uniforms arrive.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Sisi Wei of ProPublica partnered with Playmatics’ Nick Fortugno and the Mount Sinai Human Rights Program to tell the stories of five individuals who sought asylum in the US. Each character is a real person, and every event is taken from their lives. Together, these anecdotes reveal both the anxieties and abuse they faced in their home countries and the limbo in which they found themselves upon arrival in America.
It’s an audio-enhanced choose-your-own-adventure game with a twist, in that each day brings the same two options: keep going or give up. The asylum process takes up to 5 years, which amounts to nearly 2,000 clicks. But the game’s daunting duration is one of its greatest assets. If a reader gives up on an interactive article about asylum seekers a few paragraphs in (as often happens), it’s a loss. For “The Waiting Game,” it’s the point. The average player makes it through 74 days of the Salvadoran woman’s story. In reality, it took 880 for her and her son to receive a verdict. Suddenly, the player starts to understand what that endless uncertainty looks and feels like. Numbers that are typically tossed out or glossed over begin to mean something more concrete.
Wei thinks games offer a unique way forward for journalism. Her first with ProPublica, where she serves as deputy editor for the news applications team, was “HeartSaver.” The minigame uses real data from hospitals around New York to show how where you live and work might affect your chances of surviving a heart attack. It forces the player to think like an EMT and reckon with the life-or-death ramifications of unequal access to care—ideas that are otherwise hard to express quickly and cleanly.
Both “The Waiting Game” and “HeartSaver” show how games can create an embodied sense of space and time where words and statistics fall short. Wei was aware of that power from an early age. “When I was a kid, I had two careers in mind. One was that I wanted to be an author, and the other was that I wanted to be a video game designer,” she told Variety. And as she realized early on, “The amount I’m willing to learn, and the amount of information that I’m willing to keep in my brain that’s only useful for a game, is incredible. I’ve often thought, ‘How can we harness that for journalism?’”
“The Waiting Game” does exactly that. And the information in question came from research—and, unexpectedly, reconnaissance—that went far beyond what a traditional article would require.
“In normal reporting, if you’re setting a scene, you might describe the furniture, but if you don’t have that, you can just describe the atmosphere,” Wei explained. To present the same anecdote in a game, though, she found herself asking lawyers to draw schematics of ICE detention centers and sneaking into immigration court hearings. “I’m still not clear as to whether or not journalists are actually allowed to go to those,” she admitted, laughing. But with help from a source, she did, taking notes on everything from the language used to the layout of the courtroom.
That attention to authenticity paid off. The reception so far has been positive—and the game has even taught other immigration reporters more about the process. “They knew a lot about what happened before you actually get here because that’s what a lot of stories are about,” Wei said. But the liminal space between arriving in the US and receiving a verdict on asylum status is rarely explored by journalists. “I’ve got a lot of feedback that they hadn’t known about that part.”
Not every story can be gamified so successfully. Defaulting to the medium is, Wei warned, “a really easy way to make really bad games.” But she strongly believes that they have a place in journalism overall. And though few outlets have a team quite like Wei’s, many are better equipped to get started than they might think. “A lot of newsrooms now have graphics teams, and that’s where you find people with the same skill set as we have—people who are building interactive graphics, tools, and are developers and designers,” she said.
Organizations are increasingly taking advantage of that overlap. The Washington Post’s graphics designer, Shelley Tan, showcased innovations in science and technology in Defying Death. The New York Times is now experimenting with AR and VR to tell stories from new perspectives. And Wei has another project of her own in the works at ProPublica. It will be “very different” from “The Waiting Game”—in part because, unusually for a news game, it’ll be multiplayer.
The need to understand these systems—and the stakes for those navigating them—is greater than ever. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions overruled existing provisions for those fleeing domestic or gang violence. Today, it would be difficult or impossible for the Salvadoran woman featured in “The Waiting Game” to be granted asylum. It’s likely that she would also have been separated from her son.
There are still those who believe, as Sessions does, that the rules are too lax, and the process too easy. When Nick Fortugno approached Wei about a collaboration between Playmatics and ProPublica, she saw an opportunity to provide crucial context for these conversations. “We wanted to give people an experience they couldn’t refute in any capacity,” she said.
The result is an essential exploration of a process that’s only getting more fraught—and a model for how to keep telling the truth in new and powerful ways.