Factitious news game tops 1 million plays!

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When the AU Game Lab released the Factitious news game on July 3rd, 2017, we hoped that it might get played a couple of thousand times. On May 14th, 2019 the game topped one million plays!

After a viral spread in the first month (>250K plays), teachers around the country adopted our Factitious fake news game for their media literacy class sessions.

Over the past two academic years 648,403 games have been played by a wide range of students from middle schools to colleges in every state (and several foreign countries).

This article updates the continuing story of the Factitious news game with new info:

Please see our previous articles about Factitious for additional information:

Concept Spark / Viral Game / Learning Powerhouse

Of the many games I’ve designed and produced, very few have had such a clear origin story:

What if we made a game that challenged people to tell if an online story was real or fake?

Award-winning journalist and designer Maggie Farley posed that question to me during a workshop we were attending at American University in the winter of 2015 that was exploring the collision between games and journalism (JoLT). As an award-winning journalist and game designer, I immediately sensed potential. Over the next six months, Maggie and I iteratively developed the game concept and created engaging paper prototypes.

As Maggie and I cobbled together a rough educational prototype for desktop play with artist Patrick McEvoy and developer Chas Brown, Chas and I also designed/ built the Factitious game platform,which streamlined the “ingestion” of online articles into the game. Maggie could focus on finding surprisingly real and deceptively fake articles that would challenge players to tell which was which.

A larger team including Lindsay Grace, Joyce Rice, Kelli Dunlap, and Cherisse Datu, then leveraged the game platform to create the mobile phone version we released in the summer of 2017. The extraordinary viral growth took us all by surprise — over 100,000 plays in the first 42 hours!

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Factitious traffic 6am 7/3/17 6 am) to 7/4/17 (12am)

But, as with most viral games, traffic quickly died down in August. We thought that was the end of the story … little did we know that a second, hidden audience was emerging (please see previous Factitious article ).

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Our tracking data and google analytics both showed thousands of people were playing from Monday to Friday (but not on weekends) between the hours of 8am to 4pm. They were also playing the mobile phone game mostly on desktop and tablet computers.

We’ve estimated that 90% of the games played since Sept. 2017 have been played during school hours — over 648K gameplays in total.

Plotting the traffic every week for the past two years depicts a complicated graph. But evidence of the school calendar can be found with just a bit of analysis. The first big drop was winter break 2017/18; the small drop just before it was Thanksgiving ‘17. See if you can determine the primary causes of the other gaps or big drops. There are three.

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Factitious traffic during school hours (M-F, 8am-4pm, while in session).

As we found out by adding a commenting feature in October 2018, teachers loved how our game challenged students and revealed their inability to separate fake articles from real ones (a very productive ‘teachable moment’).

Cumulative Plays

Over the course of nearly two years, Factitious has been played over one million times with over 648K of those games played during school hours (as of 6/3/19). The viral growth in the summer of 2017 can been seen in the insanely rapid rise in the cumulative total on the far left of the graph. Altogether, players have viewed and rated nearly 14 million real and fake articles (13,760,957).

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Adapting to Teacher Needs

When we updated the content and revealed six, sequential new game levels in October of 2018, we also included a Teacher’s Screen that allowed teachers to tell us how they were using the games and asked for their suggestions for new features.

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The most frequent request from teachers was to support a range of grades: from middle school to college.

Once the initial campaign of the October update wrapped up in early November, we decided to reorganize the six game levels to create three game tiers: one for middle schools, one for high schools, and one for colleges. We analyzed the reading level of each one of the game’s 90 articles using the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

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By combining a normalized reading grade level rating with the normalized average success rate for each article (% of correct answers), we derived a “difficulty” score for each article. Using the Factitious game platform, we quickly executed a complete reorg of the game levels –putting the easier and easy to read articles in levels 1 and 2 (middle school), middle difficulty articles in levels 3 and 4 (high school), and the hardest articles in levels 5 and 6 (college).

In April ’19, we compared the distribution of game levels played before and after the reorganization, which clearly showed that teachers had selected the grade appropriate levels instead of selecting the first game level most of the time.

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Level Distribution: Sequential vs. Grade Level Tiers (purple, orange, blue)

The Factitious game platform pretty much runs on autopilot, so the AU Game Lab will continue to support the game if there is enough traffic. More games were played this spring than in spring ‘18 (+25%) and we expect fall 2019 to be the same or higher than fall 2018, so the game might be around for some time.

Future Extensions

Energized by the continued success of Factitious, we’ve been resurrecting previous game concepts that couldn’t be enacted because of the small project budgets. We also developed several new concepts that could further enhance the educational value of the game. We are currently seeking funding to support further design and development of some or all of these potential features.

Article Annotations

During the early stages of design and prototyping in 2016, Maggie Farley suggested adding annotations to the feedback screen that would point out particular “give-aways” or “tells” of fake and real articles. This promising feature was put on the back burner for cost and schedule reasons in the educational prototype and was then infeasible for the phone design due to lack of screen real estate.

Now that 85% of the games are played in landscape view on desktop and tablet computers in classrooms, the feasibility and appeal of an annotation feature make it our leading candidate for game extensions.

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Annotation feature for educational version

After students make their selection, real or fake, the game would highlight particularly informative words or phrases that would be annotated in the extra space to the left or right of the article (depending on whether the article was fake or real). We would modify the Factitious game platform to include an annotating tool to streamline the annotation process.

Factitious Learning/Assessment Hybrid Game

This feature would utilize the power of the Factitious game platform to easily create new game versions by constructing a hybrid learning/assessment game experience.

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For example, the first two game levels would help students learn how to spot fake articles with the annotation feature and the hint button that shows the name of the website where the article appeared. Level 3; however, would then assess student’s newly developed media literacy skills by removing the hints and annotations. Levels 4 through 5 would again be “learning” levels followed by a second assessment in level 6.

Game Reporting

Many teachers asked if the game could record and report the students’ performances in the game. Co-designer Bob Hone and Lead Developer Chas Brown have designed and constructed learning management systems (LMS) on other educational game projects but the limited budget for Factitious (<$45K for all versions including the game platform) have so far precluded the development of this valuable feature. In addition to providing a teacher interface to let them define a list of students in a class, the LMS would also need to protect the privacy of students and a process for archiving student records. These features are not technically difficult but they do require sufficient resources to produce.

Factitious Live! — Head-to-Head Competitive Play

This appealing game extension, designed by Bob Hone in 2017, would allow players to compete in challenging, one-on-one, online matches with players of similar abilities. Similar to the popular Quiz Up game of 2014, players would receive a ranking based on their previous wins and losses against other ranked players using the popular and powerful ELO ranking algorithm. To support the broad age range of the target audience, players could be initially grouped by age and/or grade level (when used in schools) to foster appropriate competition. The game would also include an Open competition for all ages.

Foreign Language Versions

The Factitious game platform was designed from the start to support multiple languages (UTF-16). Currently, game “modders” can use the authoring version of the game platform to add articles to the game, in any language supported by UTF-16. This feature was tested and confirmed by Maggie Farley during her Factitious workshops in Cambodia during the summer of 2018 to display articles in Khmer script (the game also works with Chinese characters!). To fully support use of foreign languages and non-roman alphabets, the Factitious game platform would be extended with a “localization” feature that would allow Factitious modders to translate all instructional and feedback text into the local language.

Feedback Welcome!

We welcome any comments and suggestions you may have on how to extend Factitious and continue its evolution as a valued media literacy resource.

Written by

UX designer/researcher, health and ed game designer, consultant at Game Design & Architecting, and dad to cool 21-year old daughter, Danni.

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