The following article was written for PAXsims by Scott DeJong, a Public Scholar and PhD candidate in Communications at Concordia University. His research investigates how media literacy, play, and game design can be used as tools for dealing with disinformation.Scott receives funding from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec.
Like any research endeavour, it started with a question: can we wargame the “disinformation war”? Initially part of a directed study on wargames, I worked with Dr. Rex Brynen to understand wargame design so I could think about conflict simulation for disinformation. This work led to an early prototype, a boardgame I called Lizards and Lies. It had a red team spreading disinformation and a blue team trying to remove it and it studied the analogy of disinformation as a war through simulation design. But the game has become so much more than a class project.
The early development of Lizards and Lies found that the war analogy fell flat. Instead, the game turned towards the infodemic for inspiration. A larger process I wrote about here, it became clear that designing a game needed to contemplate actors and environments to connect the technical affordances of platforms (i.e. AI, algorithmic visibility) with the socio-cultural factors of content engagement and dissemination. Here, thanks to a student-project grant from the Technoculture Arts and Games Lab at Concordia, Lizards and Lies came alive. It moved from a static game, to a dynamic, asymmetrical, system management game where each player contributed to the disinformation space as either a spreader (fact checkers, platform moderators, digital literacy educators) or a stopper (edgelords/trolls, content recommendation algorithms, conspiracy theorist) with unique powers and goals.
At this point the game was proving fruitful as a research tool and educational object. The project received a grant from the Digital Citizens Contribution Program which transitioned the game from a research to educational device. The game was translated into French, adjusted for a non-academic audience, and by the spring of 2022 was released as a free, downloadable, print and play game.
With the release of the game, I gave a series of talks discussing the game, its development process, and how it can be implemented as an educational device. In this promotion and discussion with other scholars, I saw the potential applicability of the title beyond the educators I initially sought to connect with. I was contacted by the Embassy of Canada in Lithuania who believed the game might prove helpful in the Lithuanian disinformation space. Working with them, the game was showcased to different government bodies, educators, and journalists to see how it might best fit the Lithuanian context.
It was a whirlwind, but the game was eventually localized and I was invited to Lithuania to discuss its use. I met with academics in media studies, the Ministry of Defence, and members from the Department of Strategic Communication. I facilitated 5 different play sessions that looked at how the game functions, the design goals, and how it could be adjusted to different contexts.The responses were positive, with many contemplating how the game could be used in schools, as training tools, or even adjusted to discuss Russian disinformation rather than the conspiracy theories it currently visualizes.
From this I learned three things. First, interaction is key. There is a need for tools that allow players to explore systems rather than just tell them through a story or simple mechanics. Second, media literacy and disinformation bleeds into a variety of spaces, and games like Lizards and Lies need to be malleable to explore an array of instances. Hearing this, I am creating tools to reorient and help the game in its classroom implementation. Third, disinformation is global but also deeply local. I made a game for the Canadian context but in adapting it for Lithuania we talked about the cultural differences in where disinformation is most common – contemplating audience and demographics for use.
While the game is released, I see it as a beta or a version that will continue to be adjusted. It has been a year and a half since Lizards and Lies inception, yet there is so much potential left unexplored. Gaming disinformation is challenging and complex, but also deeply critical when we look at the issues and conflicts of today. For me, this means continuing to work on and adjust the game by creating alternate versions for different contexts so that it best fits the needs it’s addressing. This work is only a start, and I look forward to expanding Lizards and Lies and other tools in the future.