A new game to combat coronavirus misinformation, developed by Cambridge academics in conjunction with DROG, Gusmanson Design and the UK Cabinet Office press office, was launched earlier this month.
The game’s creators, Dr Sander van der Linden, Melisa Basol, Faith Uenal and Jon Roozenbeek, are all academics at the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab (CSDML).
The game is an attempt to combat the spread of Covid-19 misinformation, which has been shown to come at great human cost with reports of associated racial attacks, arsons, assaults, conspiracies and poisoning by alcohol and cleaning products,
Go Viral!’s start page introduces the game’s premise in a nutshell: “Misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading far and wide. Play the role of a media manipulator and uncover their tactics to learn how to resist them in the future.”
The objective is simple: the more misinformation you can spread, the higher the credibility you gain as a manipulator. The decisions you make throughout the game and the posts your avatar publishes on its virtual social media account increase or decrease your score, as you have the ability to go from receiving few likes at a local level to making it into the national news.
Go Viral! is centred on ‘inoculation theory’. Speaking to Varsity, the creators posited that “a small ‘microdose’ of information can serve as a ‘psychological vaccine’” when users later encounter misinformation. Stepping into the shoes of a fake news creator in an environment which is “risk-free”, players “are ‘inoculated’ against “misinformation that they may encounter in the future that makes use of one of the manipulation techniques that they learned about while playing.”
On this point, they emphasised the importance of prebunking [preventing the publication of misinformation] as well as ‘debunking’ [the denouncing of misinformation which already exists on public forums], arguing that “prebunking individuals about these manipulation strategies and building resistance against them is a critical step towards preventing such harmful information from going viral in the first place.”
The game’s creators said that they wanted “to keep the game fun and light-hearted. Rather than telling players what to believe, we wanted to offer an ideologically neutral and non-judgemental environment that includes easy, relatable and enjoyable content.”
One feature to keep the game light-hearted was the use of amusing character descriptions, for instance, when invited to select an avatar upon starting the game, the character of Joel’s motto is that he “[likes] big books and [he] cannot lie.”,
The creator’s said “the aim was to ensure that people keep playing the game all the way through to the end and as a result, learn for themselves how to spot manipulation strategies in the future. We wanted to show that you can take the problem seriously without being alarmist.”
Referencing one key element of the game, the creators explained that “the function of the ‘credibility’ meter is to show how some people become popular by spreading misinformation about COVID-19: they build up credibility by posing as ‘truth-tellers’ and sowing doubt about what they perceive as ‘mainstream’ sources.”
The creators explained that the game uses three prevalent misinformation techniques: “fearmongering (e.g. by using excessively emotional language and provoking outrage), using fake experts (such as “this Nobel Prize-winning doctor says coronavirus is a hoax!”)… and spreading conspiracy theories (e.g. “5G radiation causes COVID symptoms”).”
The game had been in development since July of this year, with the initial idea sprouting from their previous experiments with other fake news games they have created, such as Bad News – which one Harvard Kennedy School study found to have the ability to “confer psychological resistance against common online misinformation strategies across different cultures.”
They added that the UK Cabinet Office funded the production of the game after the CSDML received seed funding from the University of Cambridge’s rapid response fund for scientific research on Covid-19 in May.
While no studies have yet been published regarding the impact of Go Viral!, the CSDML “[ran] a pilot study last week with promising initial results, and will launch a large international study in the UK, France and Germany into the effectiveness of the game as a ‘vaccine’ against COVID-19 misinformation in the coming weeks.” .
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