We’ve compiled a comprehensive overview of digital games trying to advance media and information literacy (MIL) – with a focus on verification, fact-checking, and resilience to disinformation.
Fabricated and manipulated content. Bots and trolls. Clickbait, lies, and subtle framing. AI and OSINT tools. Maintaining a decent level of MIL has become a real challenge. And trying to educate audiences can be tough. Sometimes, asking them to check out two hours worth of really interesting blog posts and tutorial videos just won’t do the trick. At this point, why not invite them to check out a game? Mixing rules of play, point scoring and competition with learning content has proven quite successful (especially for younger audiences), or as a famous dictionary puts it: “Gamification is exciting because it promises to make the hard stuff in life fun.” So here’s a list of (serious) games that have something to say about bad, fake and real news, and the modern media landscape in general.
Adventures of Literatus
Developers: Caucasus Hack Pack/Koreez Games
Adventures of Literatus is an educational hidden object game/point and click fantasy adventure. It is set in the fictitious kingdom of Informia, a once peaceful and harmonic place that is now in grave danger: The beloved Princess Veritas (behold the ticket names!) has disappeared, and there are rumors that she’ll soon marry Manipulus, an evil foreign potentate determined to take over Informia. Players assume the role of Prince Literatus who has to go on a fact-finding quest to rescue his truthful lady – and save the kingdom from chaos and misinformation. On his way, Literatus runs into good, bad, and questionable media people – and has to serve a lot of MIL puzzles. AoL is a rather ambitious game with beautiful artwork and some clever ideas. It is, however, also a bit clicheed (beginning with the damsel-in-distress scenario) and not that easy to play on smaller mobile devices due to tiny fonts/objects and slightly overloaded screens. The game originated at a media hackathon in Moldova (which was organized by the Independent Journalism Center and Deutsche Welle Akademie).
Developers: DROG/University of Cambridge
A highlight in the universe of MIL games! Using a classic choose-your-own-adventure formula, “Bad news” puts players in the shoes of a fake news writer/populist/propagandist on a social media platform very much like Twitter, with guidance from an experienced disinformation “mentor”. The goal is to get as many followers as possible while spreading stories and statements ranging from highly questionable to outright disgusting. Naturally, the developers are not recruiting staff for an evil media empire here – but want to “vaccinate” players against misinformation (which seems to be working). Two aspects make the game particularly interesting: 1) Players can’t win if their posts become too crazy or out-of-touch with the audience. 2) Players receive special badges when they successfully master key elements of disinformation, like impersonating/discrediting/trolling people, spreading conspiracy stories, catalyzing anger/fear/hate and polarizing the public. At some point, the game will ask to take part in a study on fake news recognition – so your students are playing for science!
BBC iReporter is arguably the best and most entertaining MIL game out there at the moment. As a freshly hired BBC journalist, the player is in charge of covering a breaking news story – and posting (the right) updates to a live site/social media. In the course of the game, the hero needs to check out links and leads, talk to colleagues and experts, compile statements, verify photos, separate the wheat from the chaff. The scoring system takes into account the accuracy and impact of posts – and how long it took a player to publish them. A hip browser game first and foremost designed for teenagers, iReporter is all about interactive videos, funny characters and easy gameplay. It also efficiently teaches players the basics of good and bad journalism in the age of social media.
Developer: AU Game Lab/JoLT Program
Factitious is a simple, yet neatly designed “a or b” game that confronts players with (different categories of) “fake” and real news. They can swipe or click to label the content. Little info boxes will then tell them whether or not they’ve picked the right label and point out crucial details about the articles. Factitious may not offer a lot of variety, but it does a good job at conveying basic MIL skills, with a focus on thorough reading. The developers have expanded the game several times: There are now six game levels, three reading levels (medium school, high school, college), and a Coronavirus special edition.
Fake it to make it
Developer: Amanda Warner
In this more sophisticated business simulation game, it’s the players’ job to run a “news” website that will actually publish anything to generate clicks and thus money (so they can afford that nice apartment). Populism? Smear campaigns? Conspiracy stories? Not a problem, as long as economic success is guaranteed. Unlike many other MIL games, “Fake it to make it” asks users to do a lot of stuff, like: picking a logo for their org, creating a website, curating articles, managing social media, and monitoring income. Unfortunately, the game mechanics are a bit clumsy, and the simulation can get both boring and frustrating. Nevertheless, FITMI does a good job when it comes to explaining the business models and strategies behind a lot of dubious news portals. The game was inspired by the (real) story of Macedonian teenagers who collected thousands of ad Dollars with fake news sites during the 2016 US elections.
This rather basic game shows players all kinds of articles from all kinds of sources in a virtual newsfeed. They can then like, share, or fact-check (or skip) the items in question – and score points if they’ve made the right decision. And the right decision is, of course, to share/amplify the quality news and scrutinize the clickbaiters and fakers. Fakey is not exactly exciting to play, but a solid MIL exercise with constantly updated items. The game also features a leaderboard for those who want to get really competitive.
Geoguessr is a popular geolocation/geographic discovery game that has been around for quite a while and can also be used for MIL purposes. Players are shown a still from Google Street view and have to guess the location where it was taken, based on nothing but visual clues in the picture (mountains, buildings, signs, licence plates, etc.). Geoguessr is neatly designed and feature-rich: There are tons of maps (e.g. random places all over the world, famous places, capital cities, etc.) as well as challenges and badges. Geoguesser is also a social media platform: Players can invite and compete with friends, join a league, build their own quizzes and share them. The game would be mandatory MIL education material if it weren’t for the fact that it’s not really beginner friendly: Geoguessr expects players to already know what they’re doing. Those who have never analyzed an image and can’t handle external tools will probably be frustrated soon, especially when playing against the clock. Access to Geoguessr quizzes and features is limited unless players get a pro account (which costs $1.99 a month).
Grandma’s Album is a geolocation mini game. Players are shown old photos (collected by granny) and need to compare them with a selection of modern views that may or may not show the same location. While the game is fun to play and also provides some historical context here and there, it doesn’t explain much with regard to the how and why of geolocation. Furthermore, it remains unclear how grandma was able to collect authentic photos taken all over the Soviet Union in an impressive 70 year time span.
Hate or Tolerate
This one is another MilLab minigame, but with a different focus: Players are asked to put together a balanced social media article on a school initiative for migrants that has brought several haters to the scene. The goal is to eventually publish a balanced, verified, non-populist post. MIL students can learn about the basics of fair reporting here, although the game is over way too soon and the choice of angel wings for the fairest editor might be a bit over-the-top.
A modern mobile quiz game featuring real web content, Informable lets players test their MIL skills in four different ways. They can play “Ad or not”, “Evidence or not”, “News or Opinion”, and “Checkable or Not”. There are three difficulty levels per category. Eventually, players can also unlock a mixup (or: real life) mode that features random questions from all of the categories. Getting proper accounts will let players save their progress and enter the highscore list. Informable is elegantly designed and fun to play. However, it’s a pity the game doesn’t provide any comments on the items that pop up while people are playing it, thus leaving them in the dark as to why their answers are right or wrong. It’s only after finishing an entire level that they can see a review providing the crucial information.
Measure The Truth and Your Nose
MTTAYN is yet another Milab minigame. It revolves around questions about fabricated and authentic social media content as well as popular propaganda techniques, with a couple of explanations interspersed. Depending on how well players do, they complete the game with a regular nose – or looking like Pinocchio at his worst. It’s a pity the developers haven’t added more questions yet. The really interesting but squeezed in propaganda part (“ad nauseam or false dilemma?”) could be developed into a game of its own.
NewsFeed Defenders takes the opposite approach of games like “Fake it to make it” or “Bad news”. The player’s job is to maintain the fictitious social media site “Newsably” – and keep it clean of bad posts and clickbait. After picking an avatar and a scenario (e.g. “student life”), the player is facing a timeline with a collection of posts that can be investigated, commented on, upvoted, downvoted or ignored. Of course, there’s also an option to add new posts. To win the game, players need to keep integrity (try to be accurate, transparent, trustworthy) and focus (some content is simply irrelevant for the audience). At the same time, there’s the need to generate enough traffic – which makes the game more realistic. All in all, NewsFeed Defenders is a professionally designed business simulation with a decent flow. And even though the game can be a little dry and uninspired at times, it’s certainly good for teaching younger students the basics of decent journalism and/or social media curation.
Developer: Jan Tegze & team
The most geeky and plain MIL game on this list, “Sourcing Games” is a collection of quizzes for die-hard open source intelligence (OSINT) fans with a recruiting background. Typical questions go like this: “What was the name of the first company Ms. A and Ms. B worked for before they joined Ms. C to start their own business?” or “In which year did Convention X issue the t-shirt Mr. Y is wearing in this video?”. To come up with the right answer, players have to do thorough research with real online tools. The game is relatively hard to get into and also tailored for a specific scene, but not a bad choice if students want to plunge in at the deep end of OSINT.
This one is another MIL game highlight: Short, well designed, and to-the-point. However, the multiple choice, click-through Troll Factory is probably not for everyone, as it is radical in order to be effective. An anonymous (and ruthless) boss tasks players with spreading anti-immigration content (“Do it!”) – and he’s already prepared some very ugly memes. Needless to say, the game is not about promoting racism, but about exposing the dreadful mechanisms of fabricated news, stirred up emotions, and bot armies (which players can enlist later on). Troll Factory uses extremely offensive (real) web content and teaches players an important lesson: Right wing agitators are organized and act systematically – which makes their campaigns extra dangerous.
Developer: Double Zero One Zero
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, MacOS, Microsoft Windows
Westport Independent is probably the most complex and most talked about game on this list. It’s also the only fully commercial title (available from $0.99, depending on the platform). The retro-style, black and white media simulator is best summed up by its tagline: “A game about censorship, corruption, and newspapers”. In an unstable, post-war country marked by the divide between the newly elected Loyalist party and rebel factions, players take on the job of editor-in-chief of an independent newspaper. Or more precisely: an independent newspaper that is in the last stages of being one. Editorial decisions – i.e. printing the truth, framing stories, or censoring them – will have all kinds of political, social, and economic consequences. Players have to think long and hard, and there seem to be no right decisions. While Westport Independent doesn’t fit into the educational MIL game category 100%, it gives players a very good idea of what it’s like to be a journalist in a country that has little to no press freedom.
(Note: Westport Independent is quite similar to the “The Republia Times“, but was created by different developers, independently. As RT is less sophisticated than WI both in terms of design and concept, we decided to not include a review here.
Do you know a game that’s missing on this list? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll amend this post.