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The Lying Game

Are Barack Obama and John McCain telling
the truth? A new
online video game helps confused voters fact-check the candidates’ claims.

USC alumnus Jeremy Bernstein was angry. While watching TV several weeks ago, he saw a campaign ad for one of the presidential candidates that gave false information.

“It made me so mad that I can’t even remember what was said, but it was one of those bald-faced, no footing in reality, blatantly untrue lies,” Bernstein says. “I spent the whole night fuming and went to bed mad because I felt like there was nothing I could do. But when I woke up, I remembered that I’m a game designer — I can design a game.”

After graduation, Bernstein had kept in touch with faculty and students in the USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media Division, collaborating on several of their projects, including The Redistricting Game, which debuted in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

So, calling in favors from other designers and friends he’d worked with in the past, Bernstein whipped up Truth Invaders, which he describes as “Space Invaders meets Factcheck.org.”

The concept is simple: The player is given a list of untruths from Barack Obama and John McCain to choose from. Then the player uses keyboard commands to maneuver a White House icon and shoot missiles at the text of the lie; the lie moves back and forth, raining down bombs of its own. As the player’s missiles hit parts of the text, the truth behind the lie is revealed, piece by piece.

Once Bernstein had the idea for the game, he knew that time was of the essence. “I had to do it fast and with no money, so I had to rely on the help of friends and acquaintances,” he says. “Creating a new game play style from the ground up takes a lot of time, testing and programming work, so the way to get it done quickly is base it on something that was already out there. It’s hard to get game play more tried-and-true than Space Invaders.”

“Jeremy is a natural game designer,” says Christopher Swain, co-director of the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC, who led The Redistricting Game team and oversaw design and marketing on Truth Invaders. “It’s not easy to communicate a rhetoric via a game, but he managed to put in some very subtle and clever bits that work extremely well in both making the game entertaining and helping get the message across.”

Bernstein is quick to point out that neither party is blameless in this race. “I will stand by the statement that there are more untrue statements coming out of McCain’s camp than Obama’s, but the Obama camp isn’t blameless either,” Bernstein says. “Bottom line, I don’t think we should have to accept the flagrant lies that they’re throwing at the country. It’s worth calling them out.”

According to Bernstein, the response to the game has been enthusiastic, particularly from members of sites like Factcheck.org and Politifact.com, who warmed to the game’s combination of hard facts and play. It’s the play part of the game that makes it truly effective, Bernstein notes.

“If it were a political cartoon, if it were static, I don’t think it would be terribly engaging. And if I did this as a lecture or a speech, people would tune out after the first 30 seconds,” he explains. “One of the reasons why games are such a powerful learning tool is that they give you that spoonful of sugar. If you’re playing a game and you’re having fun, then you don’t necessarily realize you’re learning at the same time.”

To play the game, visit www.truthinvaders.com.

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