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 meant to educate players about threats online. 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: Cyber Danger, a video game designed around teaching middle school students about misinformation on the internet.
We chose this medium because the mechanics of video games were perfect for our educational needs. The simulated environments of video games allow students to learn skills in similar settings where they would encounter misinformation in real life, which makes transferability of knowledge much greater. They also allow for “extensive” and “varied” practice through in-game activities that can tackle the topic of misinformation from copious different avenues. Feedback is also best delivered when it is “specific” and “immediate”, which is exactly the framework that video games allow for.
We at Alterea also believe firmly in the power of storytelling as a way to help people learn and become more engaged with the world around them. Emotional resonance can be a key asset in retaining information, so we knew our story had to be relevant and emotionally impactful to our middle schooler audience. To accomplish this task, we spent months crafting a narrative for Agents of Influence. Our story begins as a sinister group, led by the nefarious Harbinger, starts wreaking havoc at Virginia Hall High, a school built above an abandoned Cold War spy base. To combat them, the player forms a spy team called the Agents of Influence to stop Harbinger’s misinformation attacks.
After we crafted our narrative, we created mini-games themed around teaching good conversation mechanics, online research best practices, and document analysis, all while wondering: will a middle schooler actually have fun with this? After roughly a year of developing our game, we had our first tests for two of our core educational mini-games. Going into the test, we were all wondering about the same questions. Will these students learn anything? And, very importantly, will they have fun?
Our initial test was with a very small pool of middle schoolers we already were loosely connected to through friends and family. Our testers were all enthusiastic, but I want to focus on one, average, American middle schooler. He was a shy kid, and he seemed very overwhelmed by being in a Zoom room with so many strangers. When we started playing our games with him, however, he quickly became more engaged and opened up.
We were immediately encouraged by his enthusiasm as he played our first game centered around teaching good conversation practices. He knew that this was an educational video game, but that never got in the way of him having fun. This was a big accomplishment for us, as it's much more beneficial for a student’s development when they want to learn for its own sake. In this game, the drive to win makes the students want to actively learn new skills and accomplish our educational goals.
Thanks to our feedback system, our tester felt when he had made a wrong move in both of our games, but unlike getting a test question wrong, he wasn’t discouraged by his failure. In fact, it encouraged him to move forward, and he took the hits in stride.
Next, he tested our research game, which has students defend a social media feed from misleading posts to teach them how to properly check sources online. We created this game around social media because so much misinformation is found on these platforms, so this setting increases the transferability of skills gained in the game. Our tester immediately became emotionally attached to a robot helper named A.M.I.E., who would become corrupted if you didn’t properly research and incorrectly determined the credibility of posts. This emotional connection to A.M.I.E. may have even increased the power of his takeaways from our game.
By the end of his time playing, we asked if he would change his habits online, and he said “I would probably research more,” which sent a wave of excitement across the whole team. He also confirmed that he had fun by asking that we make the game for his Nintendo DS so that he could play it on the go.
This may have been only a small initial test, but it demonstrates the power of fun and games to teach students about the heavy topic of misinformation online. Of course, to truly test our game, we need to have larger pools of people but it was encouraging to see this positive response because change starts with one student at a time. 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.
About the Author
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., which is 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 our website here: https://www.altereainc.com/