It was on the site I’ve read the most discussion about fake news where I encountered the first game I’d seen about fake news: Twitter. Someone I follow retweeted a link to a game titled Fake It To Make It and simply said: “Play this.” So I did.
I’m a sucker for sim games like Game Dev Tycoon and I’m also a blogger. Fake It To Make It is essentially the perfect Venn diagram of those two passions. Players are dropped into the role of a person in need of some money who decides they’ll get in on the fake news business to generate some income. Players manage different sites, write articles (or just copy others) and try to share those articles as far as possible to get the most clicks, and the most money, they possibly can. It’s a simulation of what happened during the 2016 U.S. presidential election where the infamous phrase “fake news” was born out of the widespread misinformation that plagued our timelines and seeped into daily conversations.
This game about the rise of misinformation was designed by Amanda Warner, a freelance programmer and learning designer who’s designed “courses, games, curriculums, and other experiences that focus on real-world change, skill-building, and motivation” (Source). Amanda created Fake It To Make It as a side project, she makes no money off of it but was motivated by her desire to get people thinking critically about the news they consume on social media, but I’ll let her tell you about it. I interviewed Amanda over Skype and learned a lot about her work, her process and Fake It To Make It. Enjoy!
[Stephan] Why did you want to use games to effect real world change?
[Amanda] I feel like games are really good for that because you can think about what it is that you want to achieve and the sort of messages and ideas that you want people to walk away with and then you can build the game mechanics around that. And then because they have the goal of the game to work towards they keep on cycling through either the information or the actions that you want them to walk away with. So I feel like you reinforce it a lot more. It’s kind of boring to read something over and over again-
[Stephan] Can confirm.
[Amanda] Yeah exactly! But games are a fun thing you have a goal you’re working towards so I think you can use that energy of working towards a goal to promote something good.
[Stephan] Learning games don’t have the best reputation in schools and higher education. Learning games are not people’s go to because it’s either a Trivia game or something that’s not really engaging. So how do you design your games differently than the traditional learning games?
[Amanda] I think the traditional games that are just trivia or whatever, I mean those things are fun to do in person but when you have it on a computer screen you don’t have the social interaction and it feels kind of stupid. I think the key difference to make it more engaging is to have the mechanics of it, so the strategy people are trying to uncover or figure out- have it be about the message or about what you’re trying to teach because I think it just makes it so much more interesting at that point. And it’s harder, making a trivia game is super easy but at the same time I don’t think you’re actually changing that much and people may not learn that much.
[Stephan] One thing we got a lot and in our first-year classes especially is it’s all about interesting choices and if there are no interesting choices the player is not going to take the message you’re trying to teach and apply that to themselves and reflect on that.
[Amanda] And that’s a great point too, you know, reflect on that point and transfer. Generally learning games or games for social impact- you want people to know something or do something differently in the real world and people aren’t going to be playing trivia games about it in the real world that’s not what you want to change. You don’t want to make them better at Trivia games, you want to have those choices in the game be interesting and reflective of what the real world is like so that they’re actually more likely to be able to transfer and use it in the real world.
That being said I hope no one walks away from my game being like “Oh this is how you build a manipulative news site!” So I kind of built one where I flipped it around here and I don’t actually want people to do that.
[Stephan] So talking about Fake It To Make It, how would you describe the game to someone who hasn’t played it?
[Amanda] I would say that it’s a game where you step into the role of someone who is creating and distributing fake news. So you think about things like how to manipulate people’s emotions, how to play on their existing biases in order to profit. So you don’t actually care about changing people’s minds, you just really care about convincing people to click on your links so you can earn money.
[Stephan] Obviously your goal was to show the player why that’s not a great thing and why we need to do something about that. Do you feel putting them on the other end of creating that fake news was the best way to get them to see that?
[Amanda] So I worried that doing it the other way and just having them being people looking at fake news would be kind of boring, people wouldn’t necessarily play the game. I think the first rule of any game is it has to be fun or else people aren’t going to play it. But I was kind of thinking by putting them on the other side it would almost develop empathy for what people are doing, like why they might do it, so that then they would be like “Oh people are trying to fool me and I’m going to be more skeptical in general.” So I guess empathetic skepticism, although I don’t know if that’s really a thing, but I guess that’s what I was trying to build with it. Just this sense of “yes this happens and I don’t want to be the idiot who’s all outraged about everything like the people are in the game.”
[Stephan] I definitely felt like it made me more cynical, if that was even possible, after playing it.
[Amanda] Good! I want people to be more cynical. Be cynical, that’s great!
[Stephan] What was the motivation to make Fake It To Make It?
[Amanda] So I read a news article about the Macedonian teenagers–
[Stephan] I’ve read that article!
[Amanda] Perfect! So I read that and I was like “Oh this is fascinating because they do not care about U.S. politics in most cases they’re just like ‘Yup, this is a way to profit.’” So I thought that was a really interesting angle for something that’s scary to me which is the rise of misinformation and the acceptance of it in the world.
[Stephan] With that article in particular something that stuck out to me was whenever I see fake news I always assume someone is trying to push their agenda but those teens did not care who won at all and they were just trying to turn a quick buck. I feel like Fake It To Make It really got that across, that you can tailor your message a specific way or you can just go after whatever, and the ultimate goal and the way to succeed is by making money.
[Amanda] Yes, and that’s exactly the message I wanted to get across. Both with the gameplay but also with the music which was all chipper and upbeat and the graphics it was just like, this is not a sinister thing that people feel like they’re doing they’re just like “We’re making money!”
[Stephan] So the real world change, and on your site you say “engaging learning focused on real-world change,” was making the player more empathetic and more cynical about the news they read?
[Amanda] Yeah, I think cynical and definitely skepticism. I want people to when they’re looking at things that might not be true to go and fact check. I’m not necessarily teaching them how to identify all fake news but hopefully their trigger for seeing things that are potentially manipulative is higher and then they’re more likely to go fact check.
[Stephan] In your process of making games with a real-world learning outcome what’s something you’ve learned and will apply moving forward into the next project?
[Amanda] That’s a good question… So there are a couple things. So I mostly don’t build games for work. Mostly I develop online interactions that are very much like games. People call them “courses” because they get funded by international health organizations and all of that. So they’re not like “Yes we’re building a game!” it’s like “We are building training materials for doctors and nurses in the field.” But they have similar mechanics.
They’re similarly goal-based. It’s like “Okay you’re seeing a patient. This child may or may not have tuberculosis. What questions do you ask?” and this uncovers information, you then have to identify which pieces of information are suspicious. So you’re still with all of this building towards some sort of goal and the mechanics are all about what you want to get across, the message. I think that’s probably what I carry forward across all my projects, I’m not necessarily speaking just about games here but with all of them that’s the thing I learn more about how to do.
And I guess the other thing I would say I’ve gotten better at, both myself and assisting upon, is lots of playtesting. So for courses, we don’t call it playtesting it’s just user testing, but like really super early. I think there’s a lot of resistance to this in the learning world. They like to design everything and be like “These are all the words we’re going to put on all the screens and we’ll eventually show this to the users at the very end.” But I think with any sort of interaction online you don’t know how it’s going to come across until you watch people using it. So I do that for the courses, I did that a tonne for Fake It To Make It. I mean I was playtesting throughout the whole process, from when I barely had anything to click on until the very end. I think doing that will make my future projects a lot stronger.
[Stephan] There were two things about what you just said I found interesting. One was you said you work with a lot of international organizations, is it that they don’t like to use the word “game” or are they just more focused on it being more a simulation or training exercise?
[Amanda] I think it’s the latter. I’ve never been approached about “Let’s make a game about this thing.” And I know international organizations do this but it’s not something I’ve been directly approached about and it doesn’t seem as common in the world. I think the idea of training is much more comfortable in most cases for people.
[Stephan] Right. My other question was, you said you learned with Fake It To Make It how important playtesting was and getting that feedback and you’ve noticed how with a lot of other training games they just build the thing and put it out and just fix problems as the users find them. One thing we learn in our program very early on is you can’t get too attached to any part of your project because you’re going to change it to meet feedback and respond to what players like and don’t like. Has there been a point in your career developing where you didn’t want to throw away something you’ve been working on but you realized the feedback was telling you to do that?
[Amanda] Yes, I’m trying to think of some specific examples but yes absolutely. With various courses there have been whole activities we had brainstormed and were like “Yes this would be a great activity!” and then when we actually put users in front it they just seemed confused. So we were like “Okay maybe this isn’t actually helping get our message across.” So I’ve had to throw away work I’ve done and it’s always less painful to do it if you can do it earlier in the process because then even if you’re throwing away an idea you really liked a lot you haven’t spent tonnes of time on it.
[Stephan] Is there anything else you want to add about Fake It To Make It or designing games for real world change?
[Amanda] I don’t know if I have anything specific to add other than for this game at least, and I guess for most of my projects, it feels really investing in the beginning. As I was doing the research for all this and coming up with ideas it feels kind of like this mess I’m never going to be able to get out of and find like a common thread for how I’m going to put together the gameplay. And then it just works out, as you start to build things and start to iterate and try things it sort of comes together. So I think I’ve become less afraid of that messy part in the beginning and started to have more faith and be like “okay I’m just going to keep on researching and keep on trying things and it’ll be okay.” So I think persistence is very important in the beginning.