Fake news as child’s play? Designing a game about fake news and media literacy

As Lalitha conveyed so eloquently in her earlier blog post on citizenship as multimodal practice, we at MASCLab had an impactful period of introspection and soul-searching (read: a very tough time) after the 2016 election. Our post-election meetings were a time for powerful conversations, as well as powerful silences. In these conversations, we listened to each other, reaffirmed our commitment to “getting proximate,” and brainstormed ways to move forward. The feeling was, in the words of Winston Churchill,  that we must not “let a good crisis go to waste” (*never thought I’d quote Churchill in a MASCLab blog post, but again, times are crazy, folks*). The same impetus has been shaping the direction of my own research, where I’ve felt the need to grapple more explicitly with the civic dimensions of online participatory practices, such as the connections between online creativity and youth civic expression (see also our podcast episode on this topic).

A very exciting possibility that came out of these initial post-election conversations was the idea of developing an educational game about fake news, targeted towards middle school students and adopting a playful approach towards media literacy. We felt that we could effectively draw on MASCLab members’ collective expertise in educational research and practice, communication research, and game design, to come up with a game that would be educational, engaging and empowering — in line with our lab’s approaches to the intersections between media and social change.

So, over the past year, we’ve been working on developing this idea through the various stages of game design. We began by articulating the educational aims of our game, which included the ability to assess bias, understand the role of different elements in news stories, triangulate sources, understand how and why fake news spreads, and, ultimately, illuminate the relationship between (news) media and civic participation. In our view, fake news can be understood as a process of encoding / decoding (here, we are indebted to the conceptual work of Stuart Hall), where various factors on each side affect how a message is packaged, circulated, unpacked, and recirculated.


Once we had a schematic understanding of the encoding / decoding processes we wanted to convey in the game, in line with our educational aims (see image above), we used the MDA (Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics) game design framework to try to put these into practice. As part of this process, we also played a wide array of very different games, including Buffalo, Avalon or Mafia, while taking notes on aspects we liked and didn’t like, or mechanics we could build on in our own game. Then came playtesting (yes, it’s been a fun semester!), where we got to share our game with the larger MASCLab community, and also get helpful feedback from our friends at the Games Research Lab and SnowDay Learning Lab, allowing us to further refine our prototype.

Our game is non-digital (at least in this initial version) and centers on role playing and social interaction. Players secretly embody different stakeholders in the fake news ecosystem (e.g. citizens, fake news writers, fake news publishers, fact-checkers — although these are not always called as such) and enact these identities to sway others in debating whether certain news items are real or fake. There’s a lot of other stuff too — alliances, secret ballots, and bots, oh my! — but we’ll leave the story here for now, as we keep working on refining and playtesting our latest prototype.

Meanwhile, last weekend, we organized a full-day game design workshop for middle school and high school students, where we engaged youth in designing games about fake news, as a way to understand how young people might develop and manifest news literacy through the process of game design. Working in teams, participants developed two different game prototypes, which the entire group playtested and discussed at the end of the day. The first game, which the creators titled “Lying Geese: A Game of Disinformation”, was a social party game where, prompted by keyword cards, “writers” presented either fake or real news for a “reader” to investigate; the second game, called “Fake-opoly”, was an adaptation of Monopoly that focused on the larger economic mechanisms of fake news production and dissemination, as well as incorporating “fake news challenges” throughout the board. The participants also playtested our own game and gave us thoughtful feedback on what worked for them and what didn’t (we also realized, in the process, that compared to their very imaginative titles, our game lamely went by “MASCLab MediaLit Game” so we desperately need a title!) We learned a lot from our youth participants, we had way too much fun, and we hope to organize more such workshops in the near future. So stay tuned — lots of exciting things happening at MASCLab on the media literacy front! 🎲🎲🎲

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