A Game To Undermine Small Town Democracy Helps Protect People Against Misinformation

The online game Harmony Square teaches people the dark arts of undermining democracy by spreading lies and creating conflict, awarding people for mastering skills like trolling. Cambridge University

In response to the difficulties of correcting false beliefs once people have been manipulated, psychologists have turned to online games. They hope these will serve as a sort of vaccine against common forms of misinformation before people get infected. A study of players has provided evidence one game can help, although whether the effect lasts is less certain.

Harmony Square is a short online game where players get the job of “Chief Disinformation Officer” and they're assigned to undermine local elections in a small American town of the same name. Harmony Square has a history of fair but closely contested elections conducted in a manner befitting a civics lesson, until the player rolls in and tries to create chaos by spreading conspiracy theories and setting people against each other.

Encouraging players to let out their inner troll and undermine democracy might seem like a bad idea – what if some find the game so much fun they take it into the real world? However, the designers hope any such effects will be more than offset by a newly informed electorate, wise to the tricks of election saboteurs because they've used the same ones themselves in the game.

If you're looking for flashy graphics or abundant choices, Harmony Square probably isn't for you. On the other hand, IFLScience can confirm it's fun if you have a whimsical sense of humor and love punning slogans.

The more important question is whether Harmony Square succeeds as an inoculation against those doing something similar for real, also known as “pre-bunking”. "Trying to debunk misinformation after it has spread is like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. By pre-bunking, we aim to stop the spread of fake news in the first place,” said Dr Sander van der Linden, from the Cambridge Social Decision-Making lab (CISA), in a statement.

In the wonderfully named journal Harvard Misinformation Review, van der Linden and Jon Roozenbeek describe having half a sample of 681 people try Harmony Square while the other half played Tetris, before exposing both sets to a variety of media designed to mislead or encourage conflict.

Those who played Harmony Square were more confident in their capacity to spot manipulative media, and it seems that confidence had some basis. The authors showed their sample eight deceptive posts they had found on social media and eight more of their own creation. Harmony Square veterans were 16 percent less likely to be fooled by either category and 11 percent less likely to use social media to pass them on. The latter is particularly important because it raises the possibility of a sort of herd immunity, with Harmony Square players limiting the spread of distortions on social media.

Moreover, the effects were approximately even across the political spectrum, hopefully avoiding making Harmony Square a partisan issue.

Although an impressive outcome for a game some can complete in 10 minutes, the study didn't address the question of how long any benefits might last and whether a booster shot might entrench them.

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