Fake It To Make It (Ryan Najjar)

Fake it to Make It (Warner, 2017) is an interactive simulation game developed and designed by Amanda Warner, a creator of a wide range of online educational tools developed with the World Health Organization, The Union (an organization fighting tuberculosis and lung disease), Transparency International Norway, ACCION International, and more (Warner). This game is yet another addition to the wide range of educational tools and simulations she has worked on in the past, and this one focuses on the ideas and motivations behind fake news and it’s creators.

In the game, you have the choice between four characters, the main difference between which seems to be the physical appearance, since you can customize the name, and there isn’t really specific backstories associated with each person. When selecting the character before the beginning of the journey, one also has the option to pick a financial goal; these range from music equipment, to an apartment deposit, to a used car. Again, these are the same for all four of the characters. While it just makes sense for this game to have a sort of motivator to serve as a goal, so people don’t get uninterested while playing, I believe that the specific motivators were created specifically to appeal to those who might be unempathetic to creators of fake news; “They’re humans with needs, just like you,” this inclusion implies, “There’s a reason they’re doing this.”

From there, the game begins. From the outset, it lets you know that you’ll be targeting the US with your news sites, since “…views and clicks from people in this country are paid at a higher rate than in other countries,” hinting the user at the fact that the United States has a specific issue with this for a reason. It also lets you know that you’ll be making fake news because it “…takes less time to create, and it often spreads better than real news…” This seems to serve the same purpose as the previous statement, and also serves as a rationale for the character you are playing (they need money, after all)! From there, you enter the actual interface of the game, and are prompted to create your first site, which only needs to have a credibility rating of 30/100, a rating that can be achieved with a custom domain and an inexpensive site theme. You also have to select a form of monetization, whether it be ads, collecting user information, or malware, but ads are the only available option in the beginning. From there, you are told to copy articles from other sites, and select them based on general topics like immigration, crime, religion, politics, animals, and the like. Available articles are also rated based on their believability and drama, with scores being out of 20. From there, you are told to buy a social media profile with a certain amount of clout, and get them to share the articles into social media groups that indicate an interest in the article’s topics. The game prompts you to try an earn certain amounts of shares and revenue first, but then instructs you to invoke happiness with a certain article.

Through these promptings, the game (and Warner in turn) uses what Bogost refers to as procedural rhetoric to offer it’s opinions and perceptions of fake news (Bogost). In using these procedures, and through it’s use of specific trackers of time, exposure, and finances, the game also creates an immersive simulation, enforcing the narrative in turn.

After sharing the happy article, the player is informed that happy articles don’t get people riled up, and are therefore less popular; saying this, it then tells you to exploit fear, which is quickly found to be an easy way for an article to become widespread. Later on, you are told to write your own articles, with high ratings of drama and believability; you are told to accomplish this first by picking a general base topic (for example, “unverified report implicates the senate leader in sex scandal.”) Then by specifying it with different tropes that are engineered to invoke credibility and drama (things like quoting out-of-context information and asking readers to help expose the truth, respectively), and by giving it a title, one can create an article that is engineered to go viral and earn money. The game even indicates when a famous person shares your articles, and, if writing about immigration or specific groups of people, it even tells you when hate crimes against the people you wrote about increase in the United States.

The significance of the socio-cultural issue this game tackles cannot be ignored. Politifact, a prominent fact-checking site that worked overtime during the 2016 election, named the phenomenon it’s “Lie of the Year,” and harped on the prevalence of stories that made claims of pizza shop sex rings, implementation of Sharia law in the US, and mass racist chants at Donald Trump rallies (Politifact). It is these types of stories, and their prevalence, that led to an increased wave of confusion about the truth, with even 23% of Americans in one study saying they shared a fake news story, voluntarily or otherwise (Pew Research Center). Our current aforementioned president also routinely invoked the concept, although he tended to target it at CNN, and other news organizations that produced stories ill-fitting the Trump narrative (PoliticusUSA). However, even though it dominated a significant part of the political conversation in the previous year, a major study from Stanford University showed that it may have not necessarily swayed the election, although it definitely had a semi-significant footing through it’s prevalence in increasingly prevalent social media sites (Stanford).

Overall, I believe that the immersive nature of the game allowed it to address the issue in a fairly effective manner. By presenting the player with various tropes of fake news, it allows the player to understand patterns in these types of stories, and prepares them to encounter false information on social media in the future. Furthermore, placing the player in the perspective of the fake news creator also serves the purpose of inducing empathy for the creators of these works, although it could have done this in a more effective manner. For instance, all of the characters had the same exact three goals, which depersonalizes the experience quite a bit. Also, the fact they had no set name, or any identity beyond a face, enforced this depersonalization. This made me, and perhaps some others, feel slightly disconnected from the experience of this character. This is a minor problem, however, and the game as a whole functions smoothly, and serves its purpose quite well.

 

Works Cited:

Barthel, Michael, Amy Mitchell, and Jesse Holcomb. “Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. The Pew Charitable Trusts, 15 Dec. 2016. Web. 09 May 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.

Crawford, Krysten. “Stanford Study Examines Fake News and the 2016 Presidential Election.” Stanford News. Stanford University, 19 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 May 2017.

Haraldsson, Hrafnkell. “Trump Reacts to Terrible Poll Results by Calling CNN ‘Fake News’.” Politicus USA. Politicus USA, 20 Mar. 2017. Web. 09 May 2017.

Holan, Angie Drobnic. “PolitiFact’s 2016 Lie of the Year: Fake News.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 13 Dec. 2016. Web. 09 May 2017.

Warner, Amanda. “Portfolio.” Amanda Warner. Amanda Warner, n.d. Web. 09 May 2017.

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