The Latest Weapon Against Fake News? Video Games
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
These games make you think like fake-news purveyors — so you know what to expect in real life.
By Andrew Hirschfeld
- From the U.S. to Sweden, developers are designing a bouquet of video games targeted at helping players understand and identify fake news.
- Experts and developers believe these games make news literacy more appealing than standard education modules, increasing the chance that players will actually learn the lessons they need to.
It wasn’t the pandemic that motivated Donald Trump supporters to storm the Capitol. Nor were they driven by anger related to the civil rights abuses facing communities of color or the delayed stimulus payments to address the economic slowdown.
Their response was the outcome of a democratically free and fair election — an election that Trump claimed, without evidence, to have lost because of widespread fraud. That’s what drove thousands of people to take part in an act of domestic terrorism. People like Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran who was shot and killed during the Capitol siege, and whose social media feeds are loaded with misinformation and pure fiction that have been passed off as fact.
Now, as the fatal implications of fake news — whether it has to do with the pandemic or politics — become increasingly clear, a growing slate of video games is emerging to counter that threat. Designed as fun teaching tools, they’re meant to help both budding news consumers and veteran news junkies learn how to discern factually sound, vetted reporting from malicious misinformation.
One standout example is Harmony Square, which teachers users through role-play how troll farms work. Users play “chief disinformation officer,” and over the course of the game, they must must create “internal divisions” and pit residents against one another. The idea is to illustrate how misinformation is used to divide people — often with tragic consequences. Harmony Square was created by University of Cambridge psychologists in tandem with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to address the misinformation problem rampant in the U.S. The Cambridge team has also created two other games focused on tackling misinformation, called Bad News and Go Viral! — the latter targeted at fake news about COVID-19.
The game teaches healthy skepticism so that if someone is seeing something online or elsewhere, you don’t automatically trust it.
Amanda Warner, developer of Fake It to Make It
Other developers are also turning to the fight against fake news as the central theme of the games they’re creating. There’s Fake It to Make It, designed by Stockholm developer Amanda Warner. Madison, Wisconsin–based Filament Games has teamed up with the Annenberg Public Policy Center and iCivics, a civics education program based in Massachusetts, to develop NewsFeed Defenders.
“The role-playing games that ask you to be a troll can be really effective and can help start a discussion,” says Renee Hobbs, a professor of communication studies and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island.
While it’s too early to know whether these games will catch on with the broader public, educators are using them as tools to train the next generation to identify and tackle fake news. Hobbs, for instance, uses Bad News — where players assume the role of a tycoon seeking to profit off fake news — in her curriculum, both undergraduate freshman-level courses and graduate ones.
The aim of these games is to make news literacy more alluring as a field of study, says Jon Roozenbeek, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge who was part of the team that created the games with the Department of Homeland Security. “The idea behind Bad News, Go Viral! and Harmony Square was, what’s the harm of showing how this stuff works from the inside,” he explains.
Of course, getting young people to play the bad guys in the fake news industry has the potential to be counterproductive in some cases, cautions Hobbs. “These games put the learner in a position of modeling bad behavior,” she says, adding that “the appeal of the games sometimes can play to the adolescent lifestyle of rebellion, so there is that concern.”
Developers like Warner, though, say that the games have built-in elements that help players identify what to trust and what to disregard in the news. “The game teaches healthy skepticism, so that if someone is seeing something online or elsewhere, you don’t automatically trust it,” she says of Fake It to Make It. “You think, why would someone spread this information?” Ensuring that players have “a strong reaction … that is what I would like them to take away from this,” Warner adds.
Not all games targeted at fake news place the player in the role of someone out to spread misinformation. In NewsFeed Defenders, players run a fictional social media site and need to scrutinize the news coming in to check whether it’s factual and so can go online, or is misleading and so deserves to be junked. Through the game, players learn how media illiteracy can make all of us unwitting accomplices in spreading fake news.
The developers behind these games know they face an uphill battle in the fight against misinformation. “You’re asking [people] to reject every single piece of the tools they’ve assembled to understand the world around them,” says Dan Norton, chief creative officer at Filament Games. Changing fundamental habits isn’t easy.
Still, the diverse nature of these games allows them to appeal to different audiences — across different age groups — and experts believe they offer a shot at helping people understand the severity of the misinformation pandemic. At the very least, these games could play a significant role in shaping the habits of new news consumers. Will they win against fake news? Time will tell. Until then, it’s game on.
- Andrew Hirschfeld, OZY Author Contact Andrew Hirschfeld