By Michael Warker
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world forever, we at Alterea began to develop a spy-themed, educational, digital event called Agents of Influence. This event was designed as a week-long interactive story that would educate players about online threats. We launched our event in October of 2020 to help fight the “infodemic” that surrounded the presidential election the following month, and while we were happy with what we accomplished, we knew that we could do more to help the world fight misinformation. That’s when we began to develop Agents of Influence … 2.0.
For the second version of Agents of Influence, we decided not to make another digital event. Instead, we wanted to create a video game that could be widely distributed to our target audience of middle school students around the world. In 2015, a Pew study found that 60% of Millennials got their news from Facebook in a given week, and this figure is likely higher for the “digitally native” Gen Z, especially during a global pandemic. We’ve seen multiple cases of misinformation that have led to loss of life this past year alone, and we must equip the next generation with tools to better discern fact from fiction online.
Through the research we did during the creation of our first event, we started to discover what was truly important for us to teach our players. From there, we spoke to multiple experts, and we looked to other organizations such as MediaWise, News Literacy Project, and many others to create our three core educational objectives.
Through Agents of Influence, we will teach students how to:
- Question the trustworthiness of information.
- Investigate the trustworthiness of information.
- Use this investigation to inform their decisions and build better information consumption habits.
While creating the new version of our game, we sent out multiple surveys to teachers around the world to learn how to make Agents of Influence seamlessly fill their various classroom needs. Through this research, we learned that designing with ample flexibility was essential, which is why we decided to separate the game into smaller, thirty-minute sections that are individually playable. This structure allows for teachers to focus on skills that are most applicable to their classrooms. This feedback — along with further guidance from media literacy experts, government officials, and other consultants — has been essential in forming the structure and content of our game. With this knowledge, we crafted four core games to meet all of our educational objectives:
Conversation: Disguised in the narrative context of an interrogation, students must use good conversation practices to talk to a suspect. Every turn, students choose between different dialogue options, putting them in control of how they talk and act. If they’re not careful, however, they could trigger a negative “state,” such as making their suspect defensive or suspicious of them. These negative states are triggered when a student says something aggressive, critical, contemptuous, or alienating to their suspect. In addition, this game also teaches students how to recognize logical fallacies that may arise in arguments so they can better combat these fallacies in their daily lives.
Research: This game takes place in the all-too-familiar landscape of a social media feed. Setting the game on social media allows for high transferability of skills, as this is where students would most likely encounter misinformation in their own lives. In our research game, students must flag posts as “accurate” or “misleading” by researching the posts’ content in a simulated search engine. They’re also taught lateral reading techniques, along with learning about different misinformation types such as satire, false context, imposter content, and fact versus opinion.
Analysis: Your artificial intelligence friend, A.M.I.E., is malfunctioning, and you have to prove to her that you’re a master of misinformation by answering her questions. We created a maze as a visual representation of A.M.I.E.’s circuitry, which students can navigate if they correctly answer analytical questions about an article they read. Students answer true and false questions about the purpose of the article, the bias of the author, logical and data fallacies the article employs, and many other relevant skills useful to critical reading.
Finale: This last game is the emotional and intellectual climax of every module of Agents of Influence. Players must save a fellow student who has had their memories corrupted by misinformation. Through research and critical thinking, the player must remind their classmate who they truly are and save them from the clutches of misinformation.
All of these games were created by constantly asking ourselves how to make learning fun for students, and after some initial testing with middle school students, we think we’re on the right track. Studies have shown that feedback works best when it is “specific” and “immediate,” which is the exact framework that video games allow for. The fun in video games also encourages students to learn for its own sake, as opposed to simply learning for a grade. This mindset, called mastery orientations, has been shown to help students perform better.
We do not think that our video game will change the world on its own, but we do think that it can help foster instinctive critical thinking, which is an essential skill to have when trying to recognize misinformation. Our game, coupled with supplemental, in-class material we plan to develop, could become one of the essential tools in the war against misinformation. By creating a more media literate generation, we are arming students with the tools to assess the true meanings behind what they consume online, which can only help to make them safer and more knowledgeable. To learn more about this project, play our prototype here. And to help make this game a reality, visit our Kickstarter or our website for more information.
Michael Warker is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, where he studied theater and screenwriting. In this article, he writes on behalf of Alterea, Inc., a storytelling company focused on immersive story-living that allows participants to grow and change as they experience narratives. This article was written in association with Anahita Dalmia and Jasper McEvoy.