Game On!, Source: Unsplash

Video Games: Playing Both Sides on the Disinfo Warfront

Video Games: Playing Both Sides on the Disinfo Warfront

The gamification of fake news is a potent sphere that needs more attention from educators, researchers and policymakers

Imagine you’re sitting home alone, bored and friendless. Browsing on your phone you stumble upon an event that gathers people to discuss a recent idea promoted by the city for a new cat park. Having nothing better to do you decide to attend only to quickly get sucked in and enlisted to help in a digital campaign that calls to scrap plans for the feline park. After all, that public money could go for better things, right?

What starts off as an innocuous initiative quickly turns out to be something more sinister and now you’ve become the central actor in crafting an entire disinformation campaign that is about much more than some cats.

You actually have the chance to play this scenario out for yourself in the free online game Cat Park, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center and the University of Cambridge.

The creators of the game, which is available in several languages, have stated that their mission was to educate the public about the opaque nature of disinformation and to offer them the ability to peek into the kitchen, so to speak, when it comes to creating misleading content and who and why might be interested in all of that. In other words, it’s meant to promote digital literacy in a fun way – an increasingly preferred method of teaching and learning in the wake of pervasive digital consumption and short attention spans.

However, things might not be as clear-cut as the game creators might have intended them to be.

Double-edged sword

In teaching players how to recognize fake news and disinformation, games like Cat Park, also teach them how to create fake news and disinformation – if they would ever feel so inclined. That of course is an educational paradox that cannot be avoided, and it comes down to the individual moral makeup of each player.

That is where research published at the Lusofona University (Portugal) showed that while many of these games emphasize the individual responsibility of critical thinking and doing the right thing to educate about disinformation – through quizzes and role-playing scenarios – practically none of them bother to throw light on the bigger picture.

Issues like governments’ platform regulations, effective fact-checking services or issues that pervade public discourse beyond individual action are not touched upon in these games. The reason is often because these free mobile and browser games are low budget to begin with plus some of these larger issues aren’t as much fun and easy to digest and they do not translate easily into a gaming concept.

Video games as a source of fake news

By now, many have become well attuned to the message that disinformation thrives online, especially on social media, blogs, vlogs and dubious media outlets. Yet video games seem to not get much attention when it comes to discussing that issue. And it’s not like they aren’t popular.

Statista shows that video gaming is one of the most popular pastimes for people when they are using their phones or laptops, with 1.7 billion users in the world playing games on their phones alone.

Video games are thus a significant part of the digital consumption that goes on in our contemporary world. They themselves could be a platform for the spread of disinformation and misinformation through a variety of channels, but also the very content created by game players can end up being used to mislead the public.

Nowadays, some video games are so realistic that they can easily be mistaken for video footage – and that spells trouble. Consider the following example, footage from a war game called Arma 3 has repeatedly been posted on social media, and even on Romanian TV as footage from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While experts said that it was unlikely that this was the work of state actors, it was more possibly a manipulative tactic of online trolls, who in many cases probably posted it online just to generate some attention. The fact is many times it works, and it had even fooled journalists. The problem with that is that video game content gets freely uploaded and shared on YouTube where anyone could find some material for their next disinformation gig.

There are other examples of similar tactics of using video game content to masquerade as disinformation, such as a Russian TV host posting a map of Azerbaijan supposedly taking over the territory of Georgia. The fictional map, however, was a screenshot from the game Age of Civilizations II.

Game Not Over!

The potential of using video games to further government propaganda has been well established, given the surge of popularity of war-themed games at times of conflict, which the U.S. Army and Hezbollah have used as tactics to encourage recruitment. Video gaming has also featured prominently in far-right subcultures in the West and online multi-player platforms have often become social media and virtual meeting hubs of their own right allowing various, viewpoints, rumours and narratives to be shared while playing in what can be considered a heightened emotional state.

The abundance of niche video games treating the subject of fake news shows that disinformation has become a shared cultural touchpoint. Ultimately, what’s left for the general public is to pay closer attention to video games overall and to understand that much like the rest of the online space, they too have evolved with the times. It’s old-fashioned to think of them only as platforms for entertainment, as they have the potential both to educate and disinform – on a scale that we’ve only thought reserved for social media.



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