Agents of Influence – A Video Game to Combat Misinformation

Agents of Influence is a spy-themed game for the fake news world, now up on Kickstarter. Alterea’s Jasper McEvoy tells us how it came to be.

Agents of Influence: Cyber Danger is a spy-themed educational video game that teaches students how to recognize and combat misinformation in their daily lives. The game is currently live on Kickstarter and has raised $17,000+ in just over 3 days at the time of writing.

My team and I at Alterea Inc. have been hard at work for over a year to make Agents of Influence possible, but it wasn’t a straightforward journey to this point: We weren’t always interested in misinformation. In fact, we didn’t start out making video games at all… So, how did we get here?

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The Pandemic Doldrums

The year was 2020. We were a bunch of bright-eyed college grads, though neither of those terms was really true: a fledgling global pandemic had robbed us of a graduation ceremony and our youthful innocence.

Two years earlier, in 2018, we had taken the first step to creating our company when we put on Alohomora: Unlock the Magic, a live-action roleplaying event bringing people to the Wizarding world with immersive theatre gaming. We followed the success of this event with ASCEND: When Myths Fall, Heroes Rise (2019), an ancient mythology-themed experience which was a finalist for the 2020 SXSW Innovation Awards.

Ascend by Alterea
Ascend: When Myths Fall, Heroes Rise

These events were both put on while we were all undergraduates at the University of Southern California. We officially founded the company in 2020, the year of our graduation, and were all set for our professional debut in downtown Los Angeles… until COVID-19 happened. That threw live events right out the window. Forget bringing 500 people together in a small space to experience the beauty of human connection. We couldn’t get together as a team for brainstorming and pizza.

So, we took the only option available to us: We pivoted. Hard. Considering the historical civil rights movement, the divisive upcoming election, and the unprecedented (at least in our lifetimes) global pandemic, we wanted to create something that responded to the unique social moment. Misinformation, ever-present in our suddenly ever-digital lives, was a natural choice. 

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Pivoting Hard to Fail Hard, And Then Growing From That Failure

Our first foray into digital events was an extremely ambitious undertaking. Agents of Influence 1.0, as we call it colloquially within the company, was a live digital game/event, in the vein of ARGs, which played out over a week in October 2020.

We initially envisioned it as a game show with different celebrity hosts every day, but when our outreach fell far short of our expectations we quickly scrambled to reshape the event as the launch date approached. The result was an interactive gaming experience about an evil Dr. Disinfo, who aimed to corrupt the world supply of pineapple pizza using misinformation schemes.

Agents of Influence gif
Agents of Influence “2.0”

Despite (or because of, maybe?) our narrative’s near-deadly levels of sarcasm and self-deprecation, AoI got over 300 players, and though it fell well short of our expectations it was a powerful learning moment for us. Our audience feedback overwhelmingly suggested that we were onto something here: it just needed some adjustments. 

Agents of Influence 2.0: An Educational Video Game for Middle Schoolers

At the beginning of 2021 we compiled all our audience feedback from AoI 1.0 and went into some serious (socially distanced) brainstorming as a core team. Out came AoI 2.0. It was another hard pivot, this type a step further into the digital medium: a video game.

There were a number of challenges with this proposal, chief among them that none of us had ever created a video game before. But we were committed to the idea and through extensive research, planning, relationship development and ultimately partnerships, we were able to bring this idea to life. The game you see today is a result of the vision for Agents of Influence developed in January 2021.

Agents of Influence gif

Designed for classroom integration, It is based on standards like Common Core and CASEL SEL and has been thoroughly tested and guided by educators and media literacy experts at every step of the way. Yet, despite its strong educational content, it’s quite fun to play. This was our most difficult design challenge, and we’re very proud of the way we’ve been able to weave misinformation education into a secret spy narrative that students love.

In Agents of Influence, students will play as a freshman who has transferred to a new high school: Virginia Hall High. They learn it’s built on top of a Cold War-era spy base, and that a mysterious person or organization with spy origins, called Harbinger,  is manipulating students using misinformation.

To defeat Harbinger, the player forms the Agents of Influence, a student-led spy group. In each module, players use research, document analysis, and conversation skills to thwart Harbinger’s plans, learning in the process how to stop misinformation in real life.

We’re so excited to have this game up on Kickstarter. It looks great, achieves the rare feat of being both educationally valuable and really fun to play, and, most importantly to us: it’s a labor of love that took a lot of work and growth to get to where it is today.

If this idea sounds interesting to you, and/or you want to see a world protected from the perils of misinformation, consider backing us on Kickstarter today! Every donation, even $1, helps us reach our goal.

Don’t forget to check out the hot new indie releases this week over at our weekly round-up!

This Article was written by: Jasper McEvoy

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