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If you’ve been online, you’ve seen fake news. A team of graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University created a virtual reality game called Project Axon to raise awareness about how our own behavior on social media platforms can contribute to this problem.

The team hails from the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU, a two-year master’s program that focuses on interactive entertainment. It works closely each year with Games for Change on projects tackling social issues for its annual festival.

Dave Culyba, an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellion’s ETC, oversaw the project. In a phone interview with GamesBeat, he said that Games for Change asked them to create a group game involving VR that deals emotions and neuroscience. The team decided to dive into fake news.

“[The students] pitched ideas and researched and looked into stuff,” said Culyba. “One piece of their research got into fake news, sort of the bubble effect, but also the psychology of why we accept some things and reject other things. That legitimately came from the emotion and neuroscience perspective.”


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Project Axon is a large-scale group game that involved 100 participants. The players were split into two groups and told that they were alien civilizations at war with one another. One player, dubbed the Ancient One, sat away from the others with a VR headset and made decisions and passed judgment based only on the information the rest gave them via a mobile app.

The Ancient One would only see the top four headlines on a kind of social media feed in their headset, which the rest of the players controlled indirectly by liking stories on their app. Most of the players were citizens, but a few got the role of “media.” These could see which headlines were accurate and which were false, and they could choose which ones to promote.

Culyba says that couching it in a science-fiction context added more distance from the interaction so that the players could actually think about what they were doing and the way biases affect behavior. The social media-like interface connected their actions in the game back to how they might actually use real social media in their daily lives.

“One of the big challenges with making something for impact—whenever you’re trying to change someone’s mind or change their behavior, your goal isn’t just that at the moment they read it, they think, ‘Oh, that’s a really good point,'” said Culyba. “Your goal is, a week later they’re different.”

In addition to VR and the mobile app, Project Axon also took place in a physical space. Culyba said that itself led to a lot of design decisions to get players to behave in a certain way.

“One of their goals was to get people to have conversations. They arranged the chairs in semicircles, so when people sat down they were naturally facing each other in a way that said, you are a small group,” said Culyba. He added, “They have two different roles in the experience — citizens and media. They gave the media hats. Just the act of putting on a costume gets people to behave differently.”

Project Axon isn’t available to download since the team built it to present only at the festival. But it’s a part of the larger conversation around “fake news” and particularly the way media can affect people’s perspectives. Facebook, for instance, announced that it will be culling pages that are “misleading, sensational and spammy.” Researchers are training AI to recognize what’s true and false, though imperfectly so. A lot of these types of discussions also happen in game design, as the designers are responsible for creating experiences and guiding players through them.

“How do you prompt people in a certain way? Do you call the action ‘like’? Do you use the phrase ‘fake news’? Do you call it a ‘lie’?” said Culyba. “A lot of those discussions are the same discussions that happen around the media about—just the word you use for something changes how you think about it. What’s the right word to use? That leads to the question of what you want people to think about in the first place. They wrestled with those things.”


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