The Ransomware Game

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United Kingdom

Publishing organisation: Financial Times

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-09-21

Language: English

Authors: Dan Clark, Sam Joiner, Emma Lewis, Hannah Murphy, Caroline Nevitt and Justine Williams.


Dan Clark is a Graphics Journalist in the Visual Storytelling Team, an interdisciplinary group of journalists combining data, design, coding and reporting skills.
Sam Joiner is a Visual Stories Editor and leads the Visual Storytelling Team.
Emma is a senior newsroom developer in the visual and data journalism team.
Hannah Murphy is a technology correspondent in San Francisco, covering social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.
Caroline Nevitt is Head of Editorial Experience Design.
Justine is a newsroom developer apprentice on the FT’s visual and data journalism team.

Project description:

Based on interviews with ransomware negotiators and websites hosted by hacking groups, the ransomware game puts readers in the middle of a cyber-attack and challenges them to minimise the impact on their business and avoid a crippling payout.

Impact reached:

The game proved a hit with readers and 60% of people who started playing the game have made it to the end since its launch in September 2022.

It was popular on social media as well, with a Twitter moment used to amplify the story and the thread/moment combination receiving a lot more engagement than a typical FT post. Organically, many people shared their experiences or suggested tactics for dealing with a ransomware attack. The game was accompanied by an “FT Big Page” which appeared in the paper a few days after the game.

Kurtis Minder, a prominent ransomware specialist interviewed for the project, is now using the game as part of his training to highlight the real-world implications of negotiating with hackers.

Techniques/technologies used:

The ransomware simulation was built using React, made up of individual components that were shown and hidden based on their state. For the state management we used Redux — a way of storing the state in a centralised container that all components can refer back to.

The user choices, including whether to ultimately pay the ransomware attackings or not and asking for more time, were stored in a database via a POST request to a separate node API. This enabled us to have a customised final screen indicating what percentage of readers performed better or worse than you.

To ensure that the simulation was accessible, we worked with The Digital Accessibility Centre to ensure that screen readers were able to navigate through the simulation.

Context about the project:

Ransomware attacks are not only booming, they are now big business. The number of ransomware attacks globally has more than tripled since 2019 and increasingly slick and professional groups focus on large-scale organisations as well as small companies.

According to a report from cybersecurity firm Bitdefender, ransomware attacks increased by 485% in 2020 alone. It’s estimated that around half of businesses end up paying. The Colonial oil pipeline network in the US, Apple, the NBA, hospitals, universities and even police forces have been attacked.

Ransomware attacks have been reported at length in the FT and given they target companies both big and small it is a topic our core readers — many of whom are business owners — will have an inherent interest in.

How they work is less well known, with the companies targeted unwilling to admit they’ve paid a ransom and hackers keeping discussions private. Placing subscribers at the heart of the negotiations should prove engaging and enlightening.

Gamifying an attack also allowed us to teach readers what it would be like to experience an attack — and help them protect their business if they were evert unfortunate enough to have to deal with one in real life.

One challenge we faced was on the design for the game: we wanted it to look and feel extremely similar to a real-life attack, but we were also aware of making it too realistic and potentially scaring readers.

This led to one of the more interesting conversations we’ve had with our legal counsel, and what we ended up with was a mixture of the two — a realistic simulation that sits within the traditional Financial Times website furniture to subtly make clear that it is a game.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

We spent a lot of time user testing the game – something that is always important when you are pushing the envelope and trying new formats for reporting.

It is also important to be thorough with your research before coming up with a finished product. This was a game that was built and based on conversations and leaked images, and it meant speaking to a broad range of people to understand how hackers communicate. It’s a reminder that traditional, shoe leather reporting can still lead to great visual and data stories.

Project links: