A short, free-to-play online game where players learn how political misinformation is made and spread as a "Chief Disinformation Officer" has shown to make its players more resistant to political misinformation themselves.

Psychologists from the University of Cambridge have released "Breaking Harmony Square," in collaboration with Dutch media collective DROG, design agency Gusmanson, Park Advisors, and the US Department of State's Global Engagement Center and the Department of Homeland Security.

A review and a study on its effectiveness have been published in the Harvard Misinformation Review, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on misinformation.

Increasing Confidence Against Misinformation

The ten-minute, free online browser game tasks its players with "spreading misinformation and fomenting internal divisions" in the titular neighborhood of Harmony Square. It has four levels where players learn five manipulation techniques used in political misinformation in the real world - trolling, use of emotional language, polarizing the people, fabrication of conspiracy theories, and artificially exaggerating influence and reach with likes and shares from bot accounts.

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In letting people play the game, researchers behind "Breaking Harmony Square" ask a couple of questions. It aims to inquire on whether the game actually makes people better at identifying manipulation techniques; if it does increase their confidence in distinguishing fabricated content especially in social media; and if the game reduces the people's self-willingness in sharing fake news.

Drawing data from 681 players across the world, researchers observed that players of the game find misinformation "significantly less reliable" after playing the game. They are also found to be "significantly more confident" in their ability to spot misinformation, and are significantly less likely to share misinformation. From this data, researchers conclude that Harmony Square is an effective tool in "inoculating" people against online manipulation.


A Psychological Vaccine

The game draws from "inoculation theory," a theory in social psychology and communications that exposure to a weaker, controlled version of a social threat - political misinformation in this case - strengthens a person or a group of persons from similar threats in the future. It likens a person's psychological condition to biological health, with exposure from a virus strain "inoculates" a person from future infections, as is the case with chickenpox.

With this inspiration, Breaking Harmony Square works as a "psychological vaccine" that exposes people to a weaker, controlled version of the political misinformation used to sway public opinion especially during election periods.

This game, however, departs from what has been established as the standard in inoculation research by focusing on building psychological immunity against the techniques - the same five strategies players use to foment discord in the game - instead of focusing on issues. Breaking Harmony Square works as a "perspective-taking exercise," in an approach the researchers refer to as "active inoculation." The participants' active participation in the study, by playing a game, instead of passive participation as in reading a book or listening to a broadcast, is expected to increase the retention of these cognitive resistances.

Researchers also found that political ideology has no direct effect on the benefits from playing the game, making Breaking Harmony Square an effective psychological inoculation platform for both liberals and conservatives.

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