Last year we told you about Bad News, a web game that teaches you about misinformation by putting you in the role of a trolling media tycoon. Now, the game’s creators have evidence that the game works as a “vaccine” against misinformation – and they’ve created a simplified version for kids.
I played through Bad News for the first time today. It’s simple – you just get to choose between a few options at each step, and it only takes a few minutes to get through the whole game – but it’s based on a very smart premise. Instead of being told how to spot misinformation, you implement strategies to create it.
I started by choosing a name for my media outlet, Honest Truth Online. Then the game guided me through faux-tweeting appeals to emotion, believable conspiracy theories, and attacks on people who tried to debunk me. At the beginning and end of the game, you have an option to take a short quiz, rating the reliability of a handful of in-game tweets.
At the beginning, I was sceptical: a lot of these tweets and headlines could be true; how was I to know? By the end, I was clicking “unreliable” for most of them, since they clearly employed some of the strategies I’d been using in the game: impersonation, appeals to emotion, polarising an issue, and more. So, I guess you could say it worked.
That’s how most people reacted, according to a study published this week authored by the game’s creators. The in-game tweets meant to simulate real news had similar credibility ratings whether players saw them before or after the game, but the ones meant to be manipulative got lower ratings after people played. In other words, the game seems to work.
The game is now available in more languages, and there’s also a kids’ version, meant for ages eight to 10.
I asked my nine-year-old to play, and the game put him in charge of a fictional school website. At the game’s urging, he spread a lie that the school was going to bring puppies to class, and he fanned the flames of a rumour about a video game ban.
It didn’t surprise him that people might lie, he told me afterward, but he never really thought about it in terms of manipulating crowds of people for fun and profit. Here’s hoping he uses that knowledge for good and not for evil.