What would you do if you were president? Innovative journalists in Ecuador launch interactive game as part of election coverage

This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)

Ecuador’s citizens went to the polls on Feb. 19 to elect a new president who will face a variety of challenges, not least among them, the reduction of a steep fiscal deficit.

To reach these voters in a politicized internet landscape where many complain, but few propose solutions, online magazine GKillCity launched an innovative journalistic project designed to put players in the president’s shoes.

“Reto Carondelet” (Carondelet Challenge), named in reference to Palacio Carondelet, the official residence of the Ecuadorian president, is an online game in which players try to reduce the country’s very high budget deficit by making decisions about investment and public spending.

The project, which is part of a mini site dedicated to the presidential elections in Ecuador debuted by GKillCity in November 2016, responded to the need to explain the complexity of the decisions the next president will need to make. The goal was to do this in a playful way that, at the same time, engages the audience on electoral issues.

“Politics becomes a super popular topic during the election season, and there is no shortage of people saying 'I would do this,' 'I would take that away.' But the majority have no idea of the magnitude and the consequences that those decisions represent,” said Isabela Ponce, one of the founders of GKillCity, to the Knight Center.

In the game, players can make a maximum of 40 decisions about investment and public spending (10 per presidential year), which include eliminating ministries, raising taxes, withdrawing subsidies and selling state-owned companies. Each decision affects the budget, and the popularity of the “president.”

The player will win the challenge if he manages to make the right decisions to reduce the country’s deficit as much as possible without dropping under 4 percent in popularity. For example, while eliminating the subsidy for gasoline reduces the deficit by more than $300 million in the game, it also cuts the popularity of the “president” in half.

“There is no government that can resist the elimination of a subsidy. Your popularity is very low and you are close to a social revolt,” the game warns when the user chooses to withdraw a subsidy.

“Reto Carondelet" was released on Feb. 10 and a week later has recorded almost 10,000 visits, in addition to more than 1,500 shares on Facebook. The game has had a reach of 55,457 people, of which 39 percent is organic and the rest is thanks to basic advertising on the social network.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm to share the game, because there has never been a political game in Ecuador like this. Yes, it’s a novelty, more in election time, when everyone wants to talk about it,” Ponce added.

Producing an interactive game is not easy for an independent media site like GKillCity, with an editorial team of four editors. For more than four months, the creators carried out a very detailed process of collecting, organizing and verifying data. Later, they consulted outside experts in economics and politics to design the possible consequences that each decision could have in real life.

“It was ‘ant’s work’ for everything to be attached to reality, even though we put a warning that they are reference data. We had the idea of refining it,” said Ponce, who clarified that the data shown is through 2015, and doesn't include 2016, which is what was available when the game was created.

The editors of GKillCity were clear from the beginning that they would not profit financially from the game. The investment in the project was considerably higher than other elements on its elections site.

Since advertising is not one of its sources of income, the site had to resort to the resources that they generate as a content marketing agency to produce the game.

“We are so accustomed to the fact that political issues are not attractive to brands, that we never saw it as a business. Nor do we look for it. The political issues are very delicate for the sponsors, nobody wants to advertise in a media that is neither with the government nor the opposition,” Ponce said.

The journalist is confident that the good results of Reto Carondelet will serve as a precedent to market future projects.

“These are new forms of journalism, new narratives. In Ecuador, we are far behind Latin America in terms of independent media. The political situation has trapped us in the day-to-day and there is no space for innovation, and that is very sad. We want to cover things differently, we think that should not be lost,” Ponce added.

Results of the Feb. 19 election are still unclear. Voters are waiting to hear whether Lenin Moreno will face Guillermo Lasso in a runoff or pull ahead with the necessary 40 percent of votes and 10 percentage-point difference. Moreno is a former vice president and member of Alianza País, the same party as current President Rafael Correa. Lasso is a businessman and center-right candidate, the founder of the Creando Oportunidades (CREO) political movement.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.