São Paulo-based writer, multimedia artist, musician, and 'newsgame' pioneer Fred Di Giacomo redefines the meaning of multidisciplinary storytelling, working across various platforms from books and videos to games and infographics. In his short but successful career, he's created an online portrait of recent immigration to Brazil, as well as a point-and-click game about World War II Brazilian soldiers. Among his proudest achievements is a massive report on the nature of happiness. But by all accounts, the Brazilian artist's own story is as interesting as those he creates.
Born in Penápolis in the economically challenged rural outskirts of São Paulo, Di Giacomo was raised by a pair of high school teachers who fervently believed in the power of education. His parents' activism was a huge influence on Di Giacomo, who soon turned into a young punk-rocker and became immersed in the subculture of zines and alternative blogs. He recently wrote a piece called "Rock, Rebellion And My Misguided Shame Of Brazilian Culture," which discussed his years in the subculture from 1999-2003.
"At that time, I thought journalism was a way to tell life-changing stories and build a better world," Di Giacomo says. "So I entered in a public university in 2002, studied journalism, and started to [experiment] with video, TV, radio, and internet."
After graduating college, Di Giacomo worked for one of Latin America's biggest media companies, Editora Abril, creating videos, interactive games, and infographics for a prize-winning teen magazine, Mundo Estranho. By the end of 2008, he began working with Rafael Kenski, "a pioneer in Brazil for Alternate Reality Games (ARG), a type of role-playing game (RPG) based on real life." First, there was a game that "puts the player in the role of a forensic police officer" called CSI – ciência contra o crime. Next came Jogo da Máfia, designed to promote insight into the world of international drug trafficking.
"A famous Brazilian journalist wrote about our work and called it 'newsgames.' That’s when we realized that what we’ve been doing already existed," Di Giacomo says. "The whole idea about newsgames is to use [a] video game’s simulation and immersion powers to inform, educate and tell real stories to people. As my parents did before me teaching in slums, I was also trying to inform and educate young Brazilian people, but in a more entertaining way."
In 2011, Di Giacomo and his colleagues created a game that became an international sensation: an unlikely union of philosophy and wrestling called Filosofighters (Di Giacomo says his friend Raoni Maddalena came up with the idea after watching a Monty Python sketch.)
The next year, Di Giacomo, Otavio Cohen, and friends wanted to create a new fighting came, only casting scientists instead of philosophers. It is called Science Kombat. "The idea was the same: to explain basic information about science and famous scientists in a funny way," he says. "Each scenario is a representative place of the scientist's life. And the final boss is God, that morphs into various God-representations… We thought it would be a good metaphor for the battle of science against faith/superstition. We had the help of editor (and my wife) Karin Hueck to do the journalistic research, and we hired talented people like artist Diego Sanches and artist and sound designer Juliana Moreira Aparecida to help us."
Conceived in 2012, Science Kombat entered production last year and will be released on March 29. It was all conceived in the newsroom of Brazilian publication, Superinteressante, who are the ones who financed the newsgame.
Around the same time, Harvard's NiemanLab took notice of their work. "I thought, 'Holy shit, I came from this shitty city, a.k.a., Penápolis, and now I'm on a Harvard website?'" Di Giacomo recalls. "We had created our newsgames from scratch, just trying to expand the boundaries of journalism."
Di Giacomo and his friends’s animated infographics were recognized by the Society of Publication Designers (SPD), and in 2012, his team's online portrait of recent immigration to Brazil went up against Snowfall by the New York Times. "Of course we didn’t win—but it’s still pretty cool, especially since our budget for this project was only about $700 USD," Di Giacomo says, adding, "I can only imagine how much NYT spent on Snowfall.
Art by Alisson Lima
Since Di Giacomo isn't exactly the type to be restricted to any one discipline, it comes as no surprise that he's also the author of two books. In 2012, his book of lullabies for grownups, Canções Para Ninar Adultos, was published, followed with Animal Haikus a year later.
"Also in 2013, me and my wife were tired of the crazy life we were living in São Paulo—full of violence, pollution, traffic, expensive lifestyle, and social inequality," Di Giacomo says. "We started to ask ourselves about the meaning of life and about what we were doing with our days. So we decided to quit our jobs, move to Berlin (she is a German-Brazilian) and start a big investigation on happiness. We interviewed scientists, doctors, monks, artists and writers from all around the world about the basic questions of life. We called it Glück Project (Glück meaning “happiness” and “luck” in German) and we had a big impact in Brazilian media."
Currently, Di Giacomo is back in Brazil, putting the finishing touches on his latest newsgame while teaching journalism to economically challenged youths through a nonprofit called É Nóis. Finally, he's completing another pair of books as well, one about happiness for children called Felicidade tem cor, and another with "pop poems that talk about the social situation in Brazil, and our political and economical crisis."
No matter the medium, Di Giacomo always explores similar themes, examining the roots of economic inequality as well as the nature of happiness. And if newsgames are indeed the future of journalism, those are exactly the topics we'll need to learn more about.
Click here to visit Fred Di Giacomo's website.