Games are a weapon in the war on disinformation

From The Economist:

The mayor of your city has announced a strange new public project: a lavish park especially for cats. It seems like a waste of money so, with the help of some activists you have met online, you campaign against it on social media. You start with rousing posts—“Breaking News: Outrageous! City prioritises elitist pets over our kids!”—and funny memes. You soon move on to doctoring images to make it look like the mayor is part of “an ultra-secret cat-worshipping cult”. You galvanise your followers to take violent action.

In “Cat Park” players learn to become disinformation warriors. The free 15-minute online game explores the dark art of spreading lies online; players get points for the passion of their posts and shareability of their memes. It is good fun, with a witty script and futuristic cyberpunk style. It is also an educational tool, funded by the Global Engagement Centre (gec), a branch of the us State Department which aims to “recognise, understand, expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts”.

Games such as “Cat Park” are an ingenious response to a widespread problem. Fake news and conspiracy theories are in rich supply; demand for them is high in polarised countries across the world. Many governments are mulling policies to try to limit their spread, since internet users often struggle to discern legitimate sources from nefarious ones. Last year a study by Ofcom, a British regulator, found that 30% of the country’s adults hardly consider the truthfulness of information they read online. About 6% give no thought to the veracity of stories. Around a quarter failed to spot fake social-media accounts.

. . . .

Tilt Studio, the Dutch developer behind “Cat Park”, has also worked with the British government, the European Commission and nato to create games that “help tackle online manipulation head-on”. In 2020 it collaborated with the gec on “Harmony Square”, in which players seek to destabilise an idyllic neighbourhood by using falsehoods to foment disunity. During the pandemic, it released “Go Viral!”, a five-minute game that gets players to scrutinise misleading information about covid-19.

“Rather than simply waiting for lies to spread, and then debunking them with a fact-check, we can leverage games like ‘Cat Park’ to practically educate ourselves about common disinformation techniques,” says Davor Devcic of gec. Aimed primarily at citizens in the West, the games are based on the idea of “active inoculation”: just as individuals build up resistance to a disease after a vaccine, after playing “Cat Park” or “Harmony Square” they are more wary of internet skulduggery. A study by the University of Cambridge found that players of “Harmony Square” were better at spotting dodgy content and less likely to share it. The effect was consistent across right-wing and left-wing players.

. . . .

The Canadian government, meanwhile, helped fund “Lizards and Lies”, a board game about information warfare. It takes the form of a traditional map-based war-game, which you play as one of four characters: an “edgelord”, “conspiracy theorist”, “platform moderator” or “digital literacy educator”. (You are either a “spreader” or a “stopper” of lies.) Cards and tokens help you win over enclaves of supporters. Points are scored for each social-media network you control. It pays to focus on areas of the map that are winnable: as with their real-life counterparts, certain online networks are more amenable to wild conspiracism than others.

Scott DeJong, the designer, says he was partly inspired by the QAnon conspiracy theory, which itself makes use of gaming techniques to acquire and motivate followers. “Disinformation and conspiracy-theory processes are often like puzzles. They draw people in by seeming to ask questions, while really directing the target towards a specific answer,” he says. The originator of the theory, Q, posts “drops”, or cryptic clues, “that the community works together to interpret and resolve”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Here’s a link to Cat Park, which says is a 15-minute game and Lizards and Lies

24 thoughts on “Games are a weapon in the war on disinformation”

  1. Old school didactic game making a point.
    Shows where the euro academic thoughts lie.

    New school game from Stanford academics:

    A version of THE SIMS populated by GPT-driven NPCs.


    “The team used a control group of 25 humans that interacted as the characters while being observed. Those watching the real humans felt that the people were less realistic than their AI counterparts.”

    Just a sample of what is coming in about 4-5 years. Should be fun.
    (It takes time to develop a AAA commercial game.)

    It’ll be interesting to see a MMORPG where you can’t tell the humans from the ‘bots.

  2. “edgelord”, “conspiracy theorist”, “platform moderator” or “digital literacy educator” (You are either a “spreader” or a “stopper” of lies.)

    The problem here is that all four of these spread lies on a regular basis in real life. I would be interested to see the demographics for purchasers of “Lizards and Lies”–I suspect that almost all of them will be Trudeau supporters.

  3. “(You are either a “spreader” or a “stopper” of lies.)”

    For various values of “lies”.

    Absolutists only tolerate one view point, theirs. They usually start with a Committee of Public Safety/Ministry of truth and go on from there. Problem is, in absolutist regimes the narrative of the official monoculture “truth” changes daily to weed out dissenters before they even think of dissenting. A never ending battle for truth, justice, and the absolutist way.

  4. “Games are a weapon in the war on disinformation.”

    But “disinformation” according to whom? Whose innuendo, half-truths and outright lies are perfectly fine with the guy (or gal) in the mirror? That any at all are acceptable, that’s the problem.

    I wish everyone in the world would take a nap to get over the crankiness, take a pill to drop the nastiness, and Just Stop trying to manipulate and control everyone else.

    • Which is all well and good, Harvey, so long as stasis isn’t itself a manipulation or control of everyone else. Consider this from the perspective of a resident — any resident — of Kosovo in 1993. Or of Armenia in 1915. In both instances, there really weren’t any “good guys” (those “in power” in all of the various ethnicities on all sides in those disputes centered on centuries of tribalist conflict were, in technical terms, The Bad Guys).

      “Live and let live” works most of the time. When it doesn’t, it’s a doozy, and usually has extensive body counts (however well suppressed… or enthusiastically ignored). I’m not sure there’s a simple, or easy, or even explicable universal rationale with no failure modes, because we’re ultimately dealing with human conduct and not with theological truth (which is itself one of those failure modes — Pascal’s Wager doesn’t ask the question “but which actual/potential god?”, probably because multivariate calculus and multitailed probability theory hadn’t been developed yet).

      • Yes, sigh, I forget we live in the age of eggshells and scripts. I should have written “Just Stop trying intentionally to manipulate and control everyone else.”

        I personally do not intentionally exert control or influence over anyone else, and I can absolutely guarantee you I’d rather put up with a jail sentence for aggravated assault than allow anyone else to control me.

        Unfortunately, before the world became what it is now, I made commitments that I will not allow myself to break. Otherwise, if it were within my power, I would hide away and have zero further human contact. Even in that situation, I suspect someone would file a civil suit alleging that my withdrawal from “society” is causing them some kind of harm.

        Only death, it seems, is an acceptable and effective escape mechanism. Which makes me exceedingly glad I’m as old as I am. Those who lie awake at night dreaming up ways to screw with other people and the fact that society in general simply shrugs and accepts that as the norm makes me want to chew wheels and spit nails.

        • I’m a live and let die guy. “Better to walk alone than keep the wrong company”

          I see what’s coming and will shrug off most anything as long as I have options.
          Once they take those away, though… Well, the Gadsen Flag comes to mind. I’m a ChemE by training and engineers use science to solve problems.
          I’m also on the lazy side so I expect somebody else will solve the problem before that. 😐

          “Live and let live” is a survival trait.

  5. I saw the post when I got up and had breakfast before I headed out for lunch and running errands. I debated commenting. I have folder after folder about this stuff, but there is too much to post here. I’ll save it for my latest WIP.


    Start with this, and the rest is obvious:

    ARG Pioneer Joseph Matheny on the Counterculture’s Hijacking from Corporatization to QAnon

    Now, watch the trailers for:

    – Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

    – Rabbit Hole | Official Trailer | Paramount+

    – Citadel – Official Trailer | Prime Video

    Notice, they are telling the same story.

    They are being blatant, and they don’t care:


    After all, what can you do.

  6. A large part of the problem, of course, is determining what qualifies as “disinformation.” Not all that long ago — each of the following was disinformation:

    • That kings were not selected by and supported by God.
    • That the earth revolved around the sun.
    • That human beings were descended from a common ancestor with apes.
    • That money and units of exchange do not require one-for-one backing in refined precious metals.
    • That below-visual-range organisms can, and do, cause lots and lots of disease and other ailments.
    • That women can write literature.
    • That Aristotle — ok, maybe Galen too — did not have all knowledge of medicine that there was.
    • That there are more than four elements.

    I won’t go on. Just as history is written by (the literate, self-interested, governing subset of) the victors, determining whether something constitutes “disinformation” is not “for everybody.”

    • But that isn’t how “disinformation” is peddled today, is it?
      Today, “disinformation” is anything that questions the aspiring monoculture of the Jacobins in power. It isn’t about demonstrable facts or even theories but of opinions and viewpoints. They no longer seek to control expresion (like McCarthy) but thought, ala Mao. And like Mao, they change their mind (singular) everyother week.
      Conform, or else.

      • Try this from an old school liberal:

        Most telling is the monoculture he gets from aspiring writers looking to work for his show.

        That is something we see these days in practically every Marvel and Star Wars production where the nominal protagonist gets shunted aside to highlight the awesomeness of some “strong, powerful” female. It is replacing an old tired meme with another equally tired trope, but in a totally graceless way.

        No room left for anything but *their* view, no room for rational consideration and discussion. Just axiomatic, cultish “conform or be destroyed”. Well, that works both ways. Dangerous stuff.

        • One might ask why so many female superheroes are sex-changed male superheroes. (Starbuck is not a girl.)

          • Two names:
            Kathleen Kennedy and Victoria Alonso.
            Both open about their agenda.
            The latter just got fired, the former isn’t done running STAR WARS into the ground.

            As bad as the gender bent record is, try the redheads: there is but one comic book redhead that hasn’t been race bent. Only the XMEN’s Jean Gray. Everybody else from Wally West to Jimmy Olsen to Garth Ranzz, over and over.
            (And aliens? Whether green, blue, or orange, only one race of actor need apply.)
            Never mind that there is no shortage of equivalent characters to use that don’t require race bending.

            Hollywood is weird.

            And, of course, should a producer seek to do the character as designed generations ago (with full backstory) they’ll be roasted.

            (As to Starbuck, fret not; there’s a remake coming. They’ll just make’em gay like the other 69% percent of characters these days.)

      • I can’t agree, Felix. “Divine right of kings” was fact-free doctrine/opinion, and the methods used in opposition have been directly copied by others. The resemblance between antivaxer stuff and pro-Copernicus writings is disturbingly close (and, as I understand it from at least one antivaxer, intentionally so); and the Wedge Document argues explicitly that “demonstrable” is irrelevant regarding all evolutionary theories that have any element of common descent.

        That the Pope used theological language to go after the Copernicans, centuries before the term “disinformation” existed, is not a contradiction. The actions were the same: Destroy the offending communication so it doesn’t mislead! (And, incidentally, take steps to ensure that Bruno wouldn’t repeat the offense.) It’s an infinitely-reflexive, house-of-mirrors inquiry: We don’t spend enough time looking at the self interests of everyone involved, and pondering how that might have affected their positions and rhetoric, when we label a dispute as being about “disinformation” and take sides. (Anyone who had unwound the interests behind the initial antivax articles would have had some additional questions…)

        • As in the past, so today?
          Give the Jacobins free reign because others did the same?
          We can’t aspire to be better?
          So much for MLK.

          And the species.
          That way lies extinction.

          Instead of focusing on the disinformation from one side, how about the urban legends taking hold from the other side?

          No shortage of idiots.

          • The mislabelling of dissent as disinformation can be directly dangerous. Have you no decency, sir? More to the point, exactly how many card-carrying communists are in the Department of Defense today? (Remember: I didn’t just live through the 80s, I was a government insider. I knows me some enforcement-of-orthodoxy-as-a-way-of-life signposts.)

            My point is not that “getting rid of disinformation would be bad,” but that we need to be a little bit careful — and have a little bit of humility — when labelling something that is outside our own personal experience and understanding as “disinformation” because that something is unorthodox.

            • Is the orthodoxy of the left any better than the orthodoxy of the right?
              How about trying to do away with both?

              Pogo got it right last century.

  7. Actually, the culture war is about to move into the “AI” arena.

    There’s already griping about woke chatbots and today it came out that Elon “AI is moving too fast and needs to be paused” announced his own “AI” company under the name X.AI. He’s been hiring Google refugees and other “AI” researchers.

    Less reported, at the time he registered the company name last month, he folded twitter into a holding company named X. And since the biggest problem facing the “free speech absolutist” is moderating tweets, it’s pretty clear he wants his own Large Language Model bot that meets his idea of balance.

    Should get interesting when he starts flagging fact-free propaganda.

    (Last weekend he really pulled a number on a BBC reporter.)

    He is *definitely* working off the D.D. Harriman playbook to raise the money for his space colony. 😀

    • I’m waiting patiently to see if someone is going to pull off the maneuver used in “Pandora’s Star,” where the spaceman who takes the first steps onto Mars is greeted by a cocky college student who created the equivalent of a transporter beam / wormhole. In the book the incident was televised live; I would even pay for the livestream of that.

      I’ll get more interested in Musk’s AI when he applies it to get a rocket to Mars and back within the Hohmann transfer window. If he can, humans can plausibly visit the Red Planet, and we may kick off a less dreary version of KSR’s “Red Mars” trilogy.

      • Would this do it for you?
        45 days to Mars?

        Personally, I want to see what VASIMR can do, not just Draco.
        And I’m hoping one if the compact aneutronic fusion design pans out to power VASIMR.
        Would be nice if the MEGA drive actually rewards its NASA funding but I’d settle for a VASIMR plasma drive.

        One thing to remember is all these big fast drives are space to space.

        You’ll still need landers and cheap cargo vehicles.
        A reasonable approach would be to send out slow unmanned cargo landers ahead and use the fast vehicle to move a group of passenger landers. And the landers can be an evolved version of STARSHIP.
        Build a thousand one way Starships and a few dozen two-way passenger starships and three or four of the nuclear ferries so you’d always have one orbiting Earth and Mars and one in transit each way. Monthly arrivals and departures.

        A lot hinges on monday’s STARSHIP launch.

        (I have my own ideas for building a permanent moon base for 100 people with just five one-way modified Starships. With just current tech. Well, and a robotic/teleoperated luar bulldozer.)

        All we need is to get the idiots out of the way.
        (We could’ve had NERVA by 1980 if not for Nixon.)

        • Oh yes on the landers. To be clear, I meant “get to Mars, land on Mars, and then take off and get back to Earth in one piece.” I was concerned about the transfer window in case it’s a factor in rescuing crew members obliged to live out the plot of “The Martian.” But the 45-day option (some say 39) is tantalizing …

          Musk spent a lot of time test-crashing shuttles so I’m just waiting for the test-landing / test-launchings on Mars to begin. The prologue to a true space-age era of humanity, as it were. I feel a twinge of envy for any teenager trying to decide between the Space Force or Space X; it would have been a marvelous dilemma to have.

          Although, on the IdiotPolitician front I am less confident that humans would be allowed to peacefully slip the surly bonds of Earth. I think I said before that David Weber is probably naive for positing the Manticoran settlers would have been permitted to leave their money un-plundered in Swiss bank accounts for 600 years. Doubt they’d make it to 60 years the way things are now. And the late Ric Locke of “Temporary Duty” looks prescient for having armed IRS agents. Armed, and ready to go after any “tax evaders” who had the audacity to take an interstellar TDY. We’ll see soon enough which of them was right.

          • About Weber:
            1- He wrote thought that up in the ’90’s, when Secret Swiss Bank accounts were still considered “inviolate”. Not anymore.
            2- It wasn’t a terrible way to justify his three tier society, which has some validity given human nature (of course early arrivals will find a way to set themselves up high up the social pyramid–just look at zoning laws in California and elsewhere) and most significantly: good economics. Vastly underappreciate by the Jacobins and levelers out there is that any functioning economy needs (at least) tiers of workers to meet the needs of manufacturing. That is where Marx and even Henry Ford missed the boat; a stable economy isn’t just built on capital plus generic workers but rather on capital plus *skills*, with different components/tasks bringing different degrees of value add, and thus proportional pay. That is how globalization (the recent past) and regionalization (the new norm) work. Best example phones: capital and tech from one country (US, Japan, Korea), cases and assembly another (say, Vietnam or Phillipines), and the circuit boards and assembly at a third (Indonesia). At best, you need three regions in the same area (Nafta!). The South and Serfdom were both equally doomed because the workforce needs stratification. So will any off-world colony. I suspect that is what Musk is looking at with the humanoid robots for his hyped Mars colony which, as the Expanse correctly pointed out will only have room for STEMers and “breeders”. And won’t that be fun to watch. (Which is where his current campaign against “child sterilizers” comes in. They’re messing with his colonizers! 🙂

            3- Weber got this right. Stratified Manticore thrives where two tier Haven flounders. The prescriptions of both levelers and jacobins are incompatible with stable modern economies. Which is why both Russia and China are expansionistic and parasitic. (Haven) Their economies are unsustainable. A key point for world building, methinks.

            As to the IdiotPoliticians™ it’s a given that they’ll try to exploit the nascent civilizations. (Under UN “supervision” or a CO-DOMINION.) Either way the situation quickly grows unstable. Which is why Musk wants Mars, not the moon. 😀 The Martian Space Defense network won’t be a joke forever. Orbital LASERS aimed outward will work for a while. That’s why most stable interstellar states are presented as Empires, either De jure or defacto. Even STAR TREK blew up their Federation. (“Sorry Mr Roddenbury but your toy broke!”) Unavoidable once you let humans into the game and, let’s face it, all the STAR TREK tribes are human, even the Gorn (North Korea!).

            Put enough humans together in fiction or reality and the outcome always is chaos. Of course “In chaos there is opportunity”, for stories at least.

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