October 4, 2021

Agents of Influence: How to Make Fighting Fake News Fun

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Digital Learning
Agents of Influence

It’s no secret that the world has endured many hardships over the past few years. One of the most prevalent, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. This virus forced us all into our homes as we wondered what was going to happen next. We checked the internet constantly, trying to figure out what we should believe, and online misinformation began to pollute any truth we could grab onto. This “infodemic” we’re living through makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction, which can rob us of our agency to be a responsible digital citizen.

Agents of Influence PosterTo combat this problem, we at Alterea Inc. have been working on Agents of Influence, a spy-themed, educational video game that uses active inoculation theory to protect students from falling for tricks on the internet. This theory is much like an inoculation for a virus, as it states that exposing students to manipulative argumentation strategies makes them more resistant to subsequent manipulation attempts. Through Agents of Influence, we are aiming to equip a generation of “digital natives” in middle school with the tools and knowledge they need to combat digital misinformation.

Agents of Influence was created around the belief that video games have the capacity to be extremely useful learning tools. We consistently abided by best teaching practices to make sure our game was fulfilling all of our learning objectives while also being fun and engaging for our target audience. Video games are a fantastic tool, as demonstrated by the idea of mastery orientations, which states that true knowledge comes from a desire for learning and understanding, as opposed to being incentivized through external means like a letter grade. Through the fun of video games, students actually want to learn. Studies have also shown that feedback is most helpful when it is “specific” and “immediate“, which is easy to accomplish in the video game format. One of the most famous examples of this immediate feedback can be found in the health bar, which takes hits when students make poor choices. In our game, however, we allow ample opportunities for students to win their health back if they are learning from their mistakes. Grades can take weeks or months to be received by students, but health is immediate, and losing it makes you want to learn and be better so you do not make the same mistake twice.

While developing Agents of Influence, we spoke to multiple experts on media literacy and investigated how other organizations, such as MediaWise and News Literacy Project, are educating people about misinformation. From our research, we derived three core learning objectives that have guided our game.

Agents of Influence will teach students how to:

  1. Question the trustworthiness of information.
  2. Investigate the trustworthiness of information.
  3. Use this investigation to inform their decisions and build better information consumption habits.

Because every aspect of our game is centered around these objectives, we are making critical thinking an instinctive action in students. Making critical thinking “top of mind” can have a strong positive effect on students’ ability to recognize misinformation. To make this action instinctive, we are not only providing “extensive” and “varied” practice across the narrative and core games, but we are also designing a practice room for continued drilling along with supplemental interactive lessons for in-class exercises.

Agents of Influence can be played alone, but it is designed for a classroom audience. We distributed multiple surveys to educators around the world to gather information that would help us design our game to seamlessly fill teachers’ 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. In addition, the game is intended to be released with documents for teachers that detail how the game fits into different standards frameworks, which will assist with working it into a yearly curriculum. Performance tracking will also be built into the game, allowing instructors to monitor the progress of their students. This tracking will make it easier to tackle common problems that students are facing in the classroom by using the supplemental material we plan to provide.

To ensure we’re creating the most effective game possible, we have many amazing partners helping us along the way. We have consulted with NAMLE, IREX, Media Literacy Now, iCivics, and The News Literacy Project to help improve our game. In addition, we intend to work with research partners to assist us in evaluating how our game is helping students during our upcoming beta testing period.

Currently, we have created our minimum viable product to show prospective partners what we have and how effective it can be. Our next steps are to obtain funding to make the game a reality. Depending on our funding, our first of three modules, Agents of Influence: Cyber Danger, will have a limited release in the near future for in depth testing purposes. From there, we will grow and refine the game. To learn more about this project, play our prototype, and help make this game a reality, visit our kickstarter or our website for more information.

Guest post by Michael Warker

Michael Warker is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California where he studied Theatre and Screenwriting. He is writing on behalf of Alterea, Inc., a story-telling company focused on immersive story-living that lets participants grow and change through the stories they experience. This article was written in association with Anahita Dalmia and Jasper McEvoy. Visit their website here: https://www.altereainc.com/