Games

Homeland Security Funded This Game About Destabilizing a Small U.S. Town

Researchers want players to utterly wreck the idyllic town of Harmony Square so they can understand how misinformation works and how to spot it.
November 6, 2020, 2:00pm
Homeland Security Funded This Game About Destabilizing a Small U.S. Town
Screengrab: Harmony Square

Things really went to Hell for the idyllic American town of Harmony Square after I started talking about the election. The election for Bear Patroller, that is. 

Ashley Ploog was running unopposed for the position of Bear Patroller and the goal of my website, Arguments & Facts, was to sow chaos in town. So of course, I called Ploog corrupt.

The corruption story took hold and the town of Harmony Square no longer trusted Ploog. Polarized, the town was ready for my website to spread more disinformation. I launched a conspiracy theory about nuclear waste, impugned the character of a beloved local newscaster, and called for protests at the town square ahead of a Vice Presidential visit. In the end, the town descended into chaos and paranoia. Everyone hated each other and no one much wanted to go outside.

This all happened in a video game called Harmony Square. In it, players attempt to destabilize the town of Harmony Square by sowing disinformation. The game is a research tool developed by Cambridge research psychologists Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden with funding from the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, and it's designed to teach people to spot misinformation and disinformation online. 

It couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. Disinformation following the election is being circulated online, especially by Trump and his surrogates. "If you're trying to follow what's going on in the wake of US polling day, playing the game will help you learn to identify unreliable and manipulative online content,” Dr Jon Roozenbeek, a Cambridge psychologist and lead author of the study said in a press release.

According to a study of the game published in Harvard Misinformation Review, players who went through the game better understand misinformation and are less likely to share false stories online. The idea behind the game is inoculation theory, the idea that understanding how disinformation and misinformation campaigns work can "vaccinate" a user from succumbing to them. The researchers called it pre-bunking. 

“Trying to debunk misinformation after it has spread is like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. By pre-bunking, we aim to stop the spread of fake news in the first place," Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making lab and senior author of the new study, said in a press release about the study.

Harmony Square is a simple game that takes about 10 minutes to complete. Players take control of an avowed agent of chaos hired by a shadowy organization to disrupt the city for unclear purposes. “Harmony Square is obsessed with democracy. Its three political parties are bickering constantly, and the news ticker can't stop reporting on it,” the game explained. “The perfect place for an influence campaign.”

Harmony Square

Screengrab: Harmony Square

Play proceeds through four rounds as the users builds a presence online and begins trolling the town and spreading misinformation. Harmony Square runs through silly and obvious examples of trolling to provoke outrage: exploiting emotional language to create anger and fear, artificially amplifying reach through bots and fake followers, creating and spreading conspiracy theories, and polarizing audiences. At one point, I began a spirited online debate about pizza toppings that I used to start a protest movement in the town square.

According to researchers, the game’s silly nature is part of the point, even if it echoes real-world disinformation campaigns like the current push to sow confusion about the vote in Philadelphia.

"The game itself is quick, easy and tongue-in-cheek, but the experiential learning that underpins it means that people are more likely to spot misinformation, and less likely to share it, next time they log on to Facebook or YouTube," Roozenbeek said in a press release. 

Researchers divided a randomized group of 681 people into two groups. Before and after playing the game, researchers had the test subjects rate 16 different social media posts.“In total, 8 of these posts were examples of ‘real’ manipulative content found ‘in the wild’ on social media and in fake news articles. The other 8 were social media posts that we created,” the study said.

Then both groups played a game. The control group played Tetris while the other group played Harmony Square

The researchers asked participants how reliable they found the posts, to rate their confidence in their judgement, and to say how likely they were to share the post with a friend. According to the study, the group that played Harmony Square shared fake news at a rate 11 percent lower than the control and called bullshit on misinformation 16 percent more often. “We find that people who played Harmony Square rated manipulative social media posts making use of the above techniques as less relatable after playing, were more confident in their ability to spot such content, and more importantly, were less likely to share it in their social network,” the study said.

The State Department and DHS partly funded the study as part of a broader effort to better educate the public about disinformation. A previous effort involved the DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency publishing a flyer that explained disinformation using controversial pizza toppings as an example of why Americans are often at each other’s throats online.

"The aftermath of this week's election day is likely to see an explosion of dangerous online falsehoods as tensions reach fever pitch," said Van der Linden in a press release. "Fake news and online conspiracies will continue to chip away at the democratic process until we take seriously the need to improve digital media literacy across populations. The effectiveness of interventions such as Harmony Square are a promising start.”