Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 14/07/2022

Review: Influence, Inc.

Influence, Inc. Curious Bird, 2022. Game designer: Amanda Warner. USD$11.99 via Steam and Humble, for Mac and PC.

As a political scientist, influence games have always interested me. Information management, message framing, propaganda and disinformation figured prominently in the Brynania peacebuilding simulation and in many of the megagames I’ve designed or helped run. Last year I was involved in several influence games being conducted by or for NATO members, variously swaying elections, undermining democracies, and supporting all sorts of nefarious activities as a leader of the Red team. Most of the matrix games I’ve been involved in—whether exploring the war against ISIS or the dangers of African Swine Fever—have had messgaing and influence as a central game dynamic. Even as I write this review, I’m involved in two game design projects that have information as a central elements: the second phase of the READY project on infectious disease response (which will focus, in part on, risk communication and community engagement), and a newsgathering simulation for CNN Academy.

I’m also impressed with Amanda Warner’s work as a game designer. For those reasons, I was excited to play her latest game, Influence, Inc.

In Influence, Inc. you are a senior executive in advertising/social media firm, seeking to influence public perceptions to support your clients. Some of this is quite benign, for example adding clout to a new product launch. Some of it is a little more dubious, like helping public figures recover from scandals. And some of it is downright nefarious, working for political leaders and governments to defame opponents, undermine (or support) popular protests, and influence elections—often covertly, in a way that provides your client with a degree of plausible deniability. It’s all very Madison Avenue meets Cambridge Analytica.

To do all this, you have access to a network of social media accounts (“online persona” or bots) to insert and signal-boost messages. You can use your team to turn boring press releases and other information into potentially viral content and memes. You can target social media advertising at selected demographics. On the darker side, your “compromiser” can dig up dirt on selected targets, and you can leak information to various media outlets if you would prefer to insert it into the public domain through an intermediary.

Throughout, you’ll have access to information on what content is trending, opinion polling, and the status of petitions. The objective of the game is to earn as much money as possible by accepting and completing contracts within specified periods of time. Be careful which contracts you accept, however, or you might be messaging against yourself!

I though Influence, Inc. was lively, witty, and addressed key elements of modern influence operations and social/media ecosystems. Anyone designing an influence game—including manual ones—would be well advised to play it for inspiration.

I also see the game having potential instructional value as a homework “play” assignment for courses on the media or modern information technology. My only caveat here is that, despite a tutorial mode that explains game controls and options as they become available, some students will feel overwhelmed by the plethora of information, choices, and interface options presented to them—despite everything you hear about Gen-Z “digital natives,” a quite significant proportion of contemporary students still struggle when asked to play an unfamiliar game. Here, I recommend you explain the main interface items in class before sending them off to play it at home. You should also urge students to make liberal use of the pause button to stop the clock as they decide what to do. In the longer term, an instructional guide addressing core game components and interface, key assumptions and game dynamics, and debrief questions to consider after the game is over would be very useful.

Give it a try yourself!

No shadowy foreign interests, bots, media leaks, or covert funding were involved in the writing of this review.

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