Dinner table conversations often turn into mini fact-checking sessions for me. I am either scouring the internet for fact-checks on the latest hot topic on WhatsApp or fact-checking that trending message (or video) myself. But as a former fact-checker, I have realised that explaining how “fact-checking” or “debunking” works often leaves me exhausted, in search of better ways to do it.
Denny George, co-founder at Tattle Civic Technologies, which builds tools and data sets to understand and respond to inaccurate and harmful content on Indian social media, found himself in a similar situation when he ran a short-term experiment on fact-checking misinformation for his mother’s friends in 2020.
“I ran this for two-three months, where I would ask them to send me anything they had doubts about,” he says. The experiment made him want to go beyond “sharing facts” and instead “tell people how to approach misleading messages”. Keen to build an “educational resource”, he was attracted to the idea of games, an “active medium”, rather than a podcast or video “where you can zone out and choose to not pay attention to it”.
Not a gamer himself, he collaborated with Adhiraj Singh, an independent game designer, and a team of writers and illustrators to build Viral Spiral, a digital card game about sharing news on the internet. In technical terms, their effort would be termed “pre-bunking” or “inoculation”.
Theory behind the play
Inoculation theory, a key principle for the game, believes that just like getting inoculated against a disease can help prevent it, being trained to spot misinformation can help us to deal with it better. For true information may or may not reach us during an infodemic—a pandemic of misinformation—as researchers pointed out in a study published by Nature’s journal of human behaviour in 2020.
The concept has been gamified in the past by researchers through games such as Bad News (2018), developed by DROG, a Dutch organisation, in collaboration with researchers at the Social Decision Making Lab at Cambridge University, UK, and Go Viral (2021), developed by the Lab, DROG and the UK cabinet office with support from the World Heath Organisation. Cambridge psychologists found playing games like Bad News has a positive effect on people’s ability to identify fake news.
In Viral Spiral, a player is nudged to think about the incentives a sender could have to share that information. “Our idea is that you will start spotting these kinds of impulses and biases in the real world as well”, and that may affect sharing behaviour online, says George.
In the past, physical board games like Farzi (2022) have been developed around the concept. But recent efforts in the space like the games developed at the University of Cambridge (and now Viral Spiral) are virtual games. They deploy the very medium (the internet) that is the source of misinformation to tackle it, which could be a reason for more digital games coming up in the future.
Rules of the game
As Krysanne Martis, game writer for Viral Spiral, puts it, “The game is supposed to be a microcosm of how we share news on the internet.”
Viral Spiral is based in a fictional city called “CITY”, where players are part of communities distinguished by shirt colours—red, blue, yellow. Residents (the players) feel passionately about certain things, like cats or high-fives, known as “affinities”.
During the game, players receive a news headline in the form of a card. They can either pass it to another player, discard it or use the card at a later stage. These actions can earn you points and increase/decrease your “bias” towards a community or “affinity” towards things like cats or high-fives.
If you share a card with another player, you earn a point called ‘clout’. You keep gaining points if the card is passed further by other players who receive it. Singh explains this through an example: “Player A's turn starts, they get a card. They share it with Player D, who shares it with Player C, who discards it. Player A has earned 2 clout points in this turn.” He adds: “In the real world, this corresponds to your own post or tweet going viral. You only get clout or go viral when it's your own post, not anyone else's.”
Clout helps track who’s winning. If a player’s clout points reach 15, the game ends. Here’s the twist: The cards can also carry bias about a community or affinities (anti-cats, for instance), “which make the game world more chaotic, just as in real life”, says Martis. And if the toll of resharing such “biased cards” reaches a cumulative total of 15, the game world ends before anyone can win.
I played an initial version of the game in December, during a playtest. Surbhi Tandon, a PhD candidate who played it with me, said she began enjoying it once she “got a hang of it”. She especially liked the way the headlines in the cards were framed and thought they could “resonate with a lot of age groups” since they were not difficult to comprehend.
Delhi-based Ashlesh Biradar, an advocacy associate at a digital rights organisation who was part of the audience at the playtest, felt the rule book could be made simpler. Personally, I feel graphics and visual elements could make the rule book easier to follow. George says they intend to work on this.
I also played the present version of the game with the Viral Spiral team while writing the article. At this stage, the background graphic kept changing based on the number of “biased cards” reshared. This made it more interesting, making me realise the negative effect of our actions.
After a few rounds, though, I began wondering if the game would be “replayable”. “You can’t play the game once and make up your mind about the veracity of a source,” explains George. If source “A” was “true” in game one, it could turn “false” in the next game, he adds.
Singh adds, “You can’t tell what is a joke (untrue headline) and what might seem like a joke.” So you have to fact-check when you read the cards. Through this, the game attempts to implement the idea of “lateral reading”—verifying the authenticity of a source by reading more information on other tabs (laterally/horizontally opened), rather than reading the whole webpage vertically.
In other words, by exploring new sources prior to forming an opinion about a piece of information based on its ‘authentic looks’, we can imbibe this crucial skill that fact-checkers use to not fall prey to the “duckness” of a website, as put by researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education who conducted an experiment in 2017 on ‘Reading less and Learning more’ to find this out.
Viral Spiral aims to first be a “fun game to play with friends”. The gameplay can then subconsciously help people start questioning “what is it that I am doing in this game and can I translate it into the real world,” says Singh. It makes you stop, pause, strategise and think “why someone sent this to you or what should be my next move”. If a player imbibes this in real life, “that is good enough impact for me”, says Singh.
For George, it's about expanding the conversation around misinformation, to make people think “maybe let me not forward this”.
Biradar was optimistic that people would be open to playing such a game to learn about misinformation. “I think Viral Spiral has the potential to be an entertaining competitive game. I'd love to see a physical set if that is possible,” he adds.
The conversations between the players during playtests made the team hopeful that these interactions could serve as a site of learning. “If these conversations could happen in a classroom, they could be taken as a starting point for the teacher to intervene and prod students to make them think,” says George.
Viral Spiral releases on 26 February for public playing. The game can be played at viralspiral.net
Preeksha Malhotra is a Delhi-based journalist and researcher.