When scrolling to the bottom of the page on many websites today, they are riddled with dramatic titles promising a new teeth whitening technique or weight loss program. This realm of online schemes for quick cash evolves into fabricated political stories to generate ad revenue. Fake news has saturated the content online and grows in visibility as people continue to vocalize extensively and informally through Facebook posts, rarely tracing sources. This phenomenon grew leading a wide circulation of these articles to be speculated to have influenced the US presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, fake news furthers the divide with hyper sensationalism. As a US citizen, I had only interacted with it as a receiver and this game gives all players an opportunity to see the inner workings and motivations of fake news as a producer.
The creator of Fake It to Make It, Amanda Warner, had hoped the game would encourage a critically thinking public that was interested in properly assessing and discerning fake, exploitative news. Fake It to Make It dissects fake news into its core tactics and imitates its process for the player to situate their minds in that of running a fake news website. It is a simulation game with the goal to gain profit by creating viral fake news content. When contextualizing the game with the goal of personal achievements and purchases like band equipment or a new home, fake news becomes more complicated. It becomes exciting and justified in a way, fake news begins to have a purpose. The player gains awareness of the functions of fake news through the mechanics in the game. Game mechanics are the various actions afforded to the player which contribute to game dynamics, the behavior of the mechanics on the player, which create the aesthetics, the desirable emotions evoked in the player (Jaroslav, 2017). These mechanics teach the political exploitation, emotional exploitation and the techniques of gaining visibility in an era of high speed of news.
The goals of the game direct the player to first explore and toy with the public’s emotions: fear, anger and happiness. Often comments on a positive news article on Facebook will speak of the high concentration of negative news in the sphere and desperately wish for more encouraging news along similar lines to the article. One of the games mechanics teaches the player very simply why this phenomenon exists- exploiting happiness has very low yield. When publishing an article tagged neutral and planted in neutral groups for the sole purpose of creating happiness, very little profit is made. A large portion of the profits within the game are made when the player chooses drama tags that exploit the trending fears and angers in the specific time frame. The tutorial asks the player to experiment with invoking all three emotions, but the game mechanics encourage the player to rely on anger and fear because they are the most successful. After achieving the “happiness” goal, I never published a neutral article again. The game also provides updates on polls showing trends and allows the player to experience the agency of their in game choices based on exploiting emotions. Because I had published a popular article about immigration and crime, exploiting the fear of immigrants, the public polls showed that fear of crime was at an all-time high despite the statistic realities within the fictional country.
Not as explicitly guided, the player learns that exploiting emotions linked to political issues is incredibly beneficial in gaining profits. The player is told that an article with high scores of drama and believability are more profitable and are then given the option to write articles with neutral or political bases and supports. The player will eventually understand after fiddling with the mechanics, the combinations of bases and supports, that nonpolitical articles fail in these crucial categories and therefore, the public will not care and will then not share the article. The mechanics also encourage planting a politicized article (ex: tagged orange party) into an online group that shares the same political view (also tagged orange party) in order to maximize profits. The more an article has tags that match the tags of the online group, the more popular the article will be. This teaches players that the public will read news that reaffirms their beliefs and makes them more conscious of blindly accepting news that aligns with their politics. This technique has real implications outside the game as this results in stronger polarization and further segregation in an already divided political arena in the US. The use of both the purple and orange tags as a means to increase profits brings awareness that both political parties can be exploited. It is easy to accuse the opposing political party of being “sheeples,” but in reality, every party is vulnerable and lack critical assessments. The game also offers the option to create a new site to target the other political party (as the players learns earlier on that political congruity is important) but the public cannot detect if separate sites are owned by the same creator. This is possible because of the previous mechanism: a reader polarized will very rarely read an article bent towards the opposition and therefore the two audiences never intersect.
The game mechanics also teach players how fake site creators can navigate the high speed characteristic of news. This is introduced in the “trending” goal where the player must race to write an article with tags that will match the trending tags of the day. Trending topics so quickly switch gears which makes writing more difficult. The player has pressure enforced through the calendar and time restrictions the game imposes in contrast to the expenses deducted over time. Choosing a good base and support is difficult due to the high speed frequency of trending tags. In these instances, plagiarism (“copying article” option) is easy to resort to and in order to maximize drama, you must sacrifice truth and believability.
It is interesting to see this interactive medium be used as a tool to educate the public using the same manipulative tools that had exploited this audience. Warner addresses the possibility that this game may, in reality, diverge away from its intended purpose and actually teach players how to generate fake news websites and inspire players to gain profits from similar schemes. She includes a diagram to illustrate the ways in which she hopes the game will influence players to be critical thinkers by educating them through game mechanics to expose the appeals to emotions, confirmation bias, partial truths and misleading specifics. This reminds me of Barbara Kruger’s tactics to educate the public on the manipulative techniques advertising agencies use to exploit consumers by using these same techniques for her own purposes. She shifts the power dynamic by giving consumers tools to better analyze their environment. Warner’s immersive process through game mechanics successfully teaches players tactics to be watchful of through indirect means.
This game becomes more interesting as the public grows warier of the information they are reading since politicians transform this term into a double edged sword in our political climate. It is a weapon used to discredit the opposition on no basis. This game teaches readers to be attentive to tactics fake news producers use to create viral political news but fails to address the new ways politicians themselves use the term to continue exploiting the public, but this time through very fear of “fake news.” This game can also make political parties, through the critical use of tags as a exploitative means, seem trivial and counteractive in ways that may disengage the player from participating in politics, which is also unproductive.
Prior to playing, I had not realized the extent of the politicization of fake news especially through the highly calculated means used to garner views. Playing through Fake It to Make It highlighted the financial benefits gained by successfully targeting both ends of the political spectrum and has made me conscious of the economic factor I had never considered before. I had falsely assumed that fake news articles were written by citizens just as passionate as they were deceitful in the political atmosphere rather than detached young people looking to make a quick buck. It is unsettling to see how easily profiles could be categorized and targeted by the orange and purple tags and their subset of topics. People often believe that the views they are voicing are important, valuable or even unique but to see these subjects so easily classified exposes how little individual critical thinking we really employ. Seeing these tags exposes the greater powers influencing our core beliefs and how they are exploited for both profit in fake news and the political sphere.
Svelch, Jaroslav. “Games, immersion and ethics: Understanding avatars and player agency.” New York University Prague. 15 March, 2017. Lecture.
Amanda Warner 2017. Fake It to Make It, video game. Free to play.