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Real or fake news?

During the major part of 2018 Vizlab Studios have been developing a VR game for young students, to help educate them about Fake News and source criticism in general. The project has been conducted in collaboration with Viborg library and funded by the DDB.

In the Danish schools, students in the 7th to 9th grade get taught how to be critical about their sources of information and this project we developed a safe “trial environment” in which the students could experience this in a more vivid way than usual classroom education. The VR-game is preceded by a short educational course about the subject, where the students are divided into groups that represent interest groups within the game’s story.

Kick-Off workshop

From the beginning of the project it was determined that the focus was Fake News and source criticism. In collaboration with Viborg library Vizlab Studios hosted a workshop to kick off the project. During two days of sharing experiences, brainstorming and putting ideas on the wall, the end result was a game in which one player took on the role of a journalist who has to discover the truth behind an environmental disaster.

One of the criterias for this educational game was to engage half a class at once, i.e. 10-14 students, where only one could be wearing the VR headset. From the beginning we knew that would be a big challenge and it was an important element to test and iterate on. The way we approached this issue from the beginning was to divide the class into groups, that each had an important role in the game.

First prototypes

After the workshop the first round of development began. Before creating anything in VR we started out by creating the basic interactions there would be between the students playing the game in a paper prototype. We designed a story where a journalist was uncovering an environmental disaster in a small monotown – i.e. a town where all industry was focused on one thing. The focus started out being lead-production, then we changed it into nuclear power as that was more relevant to the students. The players were divided into groups. There were citizens worried about their health but also their jobs, a manager of the powerplant was worried about the state of the powerplant, and a NGO which was worried about the environment – then there was also a group functioning as the editorial board of the newspaper.

It was important to test that the group interactions were working well, before starting to implement them into a digital game. The first test session worked out well and the journalist was able to interview the groups as well as compose the correct article successfully.

 

After this we created a gray box prototype in VR, where the journalist could walk around in their office, visit the groups in their respective environments and collect hints to assemble into an article. This first simple VR prototype was tested internally on the collaboration group, but not on the students yet, as the social interactions were not implemented yet. At this point we showed them concept art for the game as well, to make sure that all members of the projects agreed on the visual trajectory of the development.

After gathering feedback from the test session, the second round of development began. All the gray boxes were given some color and role cards were created for the groups, so we could test the social interactions. Following this the first test sessions with the real target audience were conducted at the schools involved in the project.

Important findings

This first test session with the target audience was very important as we had made assumptions about how this age group would think, act and interact. These assumptions were put to the test, as some students played the game perfectly while others had some obvious issues with the game that were only visible to us when we saw the it all in action. In this first test we did not have the preceding educational course, so many of the problems stemmed from the students not being able to process all the information given in the short test session. We learned important information about how to set up the play session, dividing the groups into physical groups, not putting nervous teenagers on a stand to talk, height differences, lix numbers etc.

Final changes

After the test session a third and final development cycle began, in which we made many minor alterations based on the test. We also ramped up the ingame characters’ looks and animation as well as improving the overall environment of the game.

The most important changes we had to make in the game was actually changes outside of VR. We have never seen anyone else attempt to create this type of social VR experience and we had to try out many of the things we thought would work, based on game theory and board game designs.

 

In the final test sessions we would allow the outside players to talk directly to the VR-player, we also opened up the VR-world more to allow the outside players to hear the ingame world and give them more information on a large screen with a custom UI for them. The involvement and encouragement for discussion between the players seemed to heighten their experience and engage them in the subject at hand. In the final test sessions, a prototype session of the preceding educational course was conducted as well, which helped give the students a more thorough introduction to the game world.

This time the playthrough went much smoother and after this it was only a matter of tweaking a few minor things to make the final version of the game. It must be said that even this final version is considered a functional prototype, it is not 100% perfect and should be tested several more times to make it just right.

 

After this final test session we also created a couple of animation movies in the style of a news clip. The first movie was created to introduce the players to the world of the game and the mystery to be solved. The other movies will be played when the game is over to conclude the game. Depending on the player’s choices the movie will show a recap of the story and the consequences be they either a failure or a success.

End of project and conclusions

In the final week of development we attended Viborg Animations Festival’s “EXTENDED” XR Expo, where we showcased the game to other game developers, local business people as well as the young and old citizens of Viborg. This was a great opportunity to show of the game to a varied group of people and get feedback on the project from outside the target audience. Regrettably they could not play the game under ideal circumstances, as it requires half and class, a prior educational course etc., but they could get a feel for what we had created and many saw the value of a game like this, teaching the youth about fake news.

 

During this exciting development process we learned a lot of valuable lessons about educational VR games, especially about the social interactions that can be made using a VR setting. Some of these aspects we already knew, but they got confirmed during this development, others where new and interesting and we are looking forward to implementing this knowledge in future projects.

–  Jannick Petersen, Game developer

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  • contact@vizlabstudios.com
  • Kasernevej 8-10, 8800 Viborg, Denmark
Vizlab Studios