Credit: Screenshot from Bad News

For years, our typical approach to addressing false information has been to engage in a variety of fact-checking processes or point audiences towards answers from the experts. 

Take The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column as a prime example. Journalists sifted through four years’ worth of statements made by former US President Donald Trump during his tenure and used independent data to prove that 30,000 of those statements were false or misleading.

That is all well and good. But this comes after the fact, and in many ways, is just damage limitation. Studies show that even if participants see corrections to Trump’s false claims, that does not change their feelings about him or how they planned to vote. 

So, what if there was a way to provide an earlier solution? Two academics think the answer lies in games that put you in the shoes of the manipulator; trying to gain influence and popularity by using manipulative techniques.

The research project has been led by social psychology professors Sander van der Linden at the University of Cambridge and Stephan Lewandowsky at the University of Bristol. From this, they have produced games and videos intended to "vaccinate" users against misinformation. 

Prebunking, not debunking 

The duo refer to this technique as psychological "inoculation". This process of "prebunking" explains manipulation techniques to people before they consume media. The idea is that people will find it easier to spot false or misleading information after engaging with their content. 

Van der Linden created the three games, Bad News, Harmony Square and Go Viral, alongside co-developer Dr Jon Roozenbeek. As players progress through the game, they earn badges for each element of misinformation spreading that they master: impersonation, emotion, polarisation, conspiracy and trolling.

To beat Bad News, for instance, you need to play devil’s advocate and try to build up your “credibility score” and in-game Twitter following through using all the tricks and tactics people normally use to spread falsehoods. 

In the game, you will sow fear and anger, pose as an authentic news source, leverage bots to give your claims validity, spread conspiracy theories and even discredit those who oppose you. This is not to promote bad practice. The idea is that by playing, you will have a better understanding of what to look out for and not inadvertently be swept up in the problem too.

“Even if people can’t agree on the facts, there’s this basic need to not be manipulated. People can make an informed judgment for themselves,” says van der Linden. 


Reception to the games so far has been positive from journalism students and teachers alike. Another game which has grown in popularity throughout the pandemic is Go Viral, designed in partnership with the UK Cabinet Office, it deals specifically with covid-19 misinformation. The task again is to be a manipulator, maximising your likes and credibility by choosing the most manipulative options. 

Cutting down the cascade

Of course, these games can only work if people are invested enough to play. They also need to think more about how to get the games in front of people and how to incentivise player activity; whether through being playable ads or online content.

"Even if inoculation treatment only makes people five per cent more accurate, which sounds small, if you have a million people exposed to it, that can translate to tens of thousands of videos or misleading tweets that have not been shared. So you cut down the cascade," Lewandowsky explains. 

The team will be looking to raise more funding to take their videos and games into other areas and styles. One thing is for sure, they want to carry on providing a new way to help audiences think critically about misinformation. 

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