Project description

Based on the real case files of five asylum seekers from five countries and interviews with the medical and legal professionals who evaluate and represent them, The Waiting Game is an immersive story told as a newsgame (with background music and sound effects). You walk in the shoes of an asylum seeker, from the moment they choose to come to the United States to their final hearings before an immigration judge. You experience their life, literally day by day, click by click.

What makes this project innovative?

The Waiting Game represents an innovation in journalistic storytelling as well as in video games. To accurately represent their stories, the reporting for this project asked for an entirely new level of detail from our sources, including the smallest memories and records of what happened on their journey to the U.S. and their stay here afterward, including in detention centers. Many if not all of these details made it into the game, either in the text, or as clear guidance in the illustrations and audio. However, in order to make these experiences playable as a game, we also added some minor details. For instance, to portray events that in the real world took a long time, we’ve made many screens the user must proceed through, including scenic details such as daily weather conditions that we can’t know. None of these details change the underlying facts of a story. No characters are made up, and very importantly, none of the people in these stories are composites. What happens to them and the consequences of their choices are not speculation. They are reality. We used a game to tell this story because games can help readers understand a complex issue by giving them a more personal and emotional experience — a more immersive experience. Readers told us again and again, that playing the game made them feel "humdrum and horror" or "monotony" paired with "danger" and "anxiety" even as nothing happened. After playing, readers also have the ability to check out the entire package, which has three parts: a newsgame that lets you live the life of an asylum seeker, an explainer on how the asylum process works and where it breaks down, and a radio piece that shows how unwelcoming America can be, even after being granted asylum. All three pieces on the page were created and designed together and are interlinked throughout.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

Each of the five stories in the game represent a different path to being granted asylum in the United States. For a player to finish an entire storyline, they must live (and click) through every single day of that experience. Our shortest story takes over two years (over 730 clicks) and our longest story is just over six years (over 2,190 clicks). It takes players, on average, 10 minutes to get through 100 clicks. The goal of the game, in part, is to force players to give up. If they do, we reveal how long the real journey took, and we give them access to a fast-forward mode to experience the story in a shorter amount of time. What we didn't expect was how long players stayed with the stories before deciding to give up. We built custom analytics to follow players along in their journey, and our current high score for our El Salvador story is 1,097 clicks (which takes about 1 hour 50 minutes). Our Bangladesh high score is 819 clicks (1 hour and 20 minutes). Congo's high score is 610 clicks (1 hour). But on top of that, our average days lasted for all five storylines is around 50-60 days, which means most players of the games spent at least 5 to 6 minutes playing before they gave up. We also have high usage rates of our fast-forward button, which means many continued on to read the rest of the story before leaving the game.

Source and methodology

Like any piece of journalism, The Waiting Game presents true stories in each of the game’s five narratives. They’re based on detailed records and accounts from five real asylum seekers, as well as interviews with people who worked directly with them, and with experts who work with asylum seekers on a regular basis. The places, major events and people in our narratives are real, as are the reasons each person sought asylum and the results of their asylum requests. We have omitted details to protect the identity of the asylum seekers. In order to make their experiences playable as a game, we added some details to these stories. For instance, to portray events that in the real world took a long time, we’ve made many screens the user must proceed through, adding minor details — locations, environmental conditions, etc. — we can’t know. None of these scenic details change the underlying facts of a story. No characters are made up, nor are any people in these stories composites. The five stories necessarily represent a fortunate minority of asylum seekers in the United States. The fact that they were able to get legal representation and all the advantages that are likely to come with it — such as no-cost medical and psychological evaluations — contributed significantly to their success, and because asylum affidavits and medical notes are not public records, the level of detail in these cases were made known to us through the professionals who work with asylum seekers. Our software chooses randomly from a large set of possible phrases when it builds such game scenes. No two players will get the same scenic details in the same way, though the facts of each case are as they happened are identical for everybody who plays. A newsgame strives for the same level of research and foundation in reality as a traditional news story, and seeks to help players understand a complex issue by giving them a more personal and emotional experience. In the case of The Waiting Game, we hope that a player understands the difficulties, dangers and precarious nature of seeking asylum in the United States by living the experience of an asylum seeker directly.

Technologies Used

HTML5/Canvas, CSS, JS

Project members

For ProPublica: Sisi Wei Kavitha Surana For Playmatics: Nick Fortugno For WNYC News: Matt Katz Lylla Younes



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