Smokescreen privacy game uses fun missions to show kids how data on social services can be used against them

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29 Responses to “Smokescreen privacy game uses fun missions to show kids how data on social services can be used against them”

  1. RobinClarke says:

    There are many things that I question about this multimedia presentation series (it’s inaccurate to describe a linear narrative with zero interactivity beyond clicking disguised ‘Next’ buttons as a “game”).

    Leaving aside the issue of how much real world demand there is for ‘Little Brother: Online!’ in the first place:-

    The characters read like they’ve been written by 30-something media techies whose research source for “youth culture” is broadsheet Sunday supplements. I started to wonder if this was an intentional parody at the point when I was asked to click around a map of the Glastonbury festival (“Jay-Z, my main man!”) to help an upper-middle-class teenage web 2.0 entrepreneur (in whose mind is such a character supposed to be sympathetic? A: nostalgics who fit that description during the dotcom bubble) charge an iPhone.

    And for all the ‘grittiness’, like Grange Hill, they’re the only kids in Britain who never say “fuck”.

    (There are also some charming nuggets of Littlejohn-esque stereotyping hidden away in there: “No point working if you don’t have to – my dad doesn’t LOL! He’s been on invalidity like forever!” I’m sure it gets on to ASBOs, alcopops, illegals and “Broken Britain” later on.)

    It modestly describes itself as “cutting edge”, which is a bold statement considering epistolary adventure games have been around for at least 20 years (with more sophisticated gameplay in most cases). And didn’t we learn in the grim days of the early 1990s CD-ROM boom that unskippable audio exposition is intolerably bad design? The whole experience is a one-way conversation. Why isn’t it a facebook app, or at least have hooks into where people inhabit? Why is there no way to personalise the experience? Make choices? And have they *really* failed to grasp the concept of ‘achievements’ that fundamentally? It’s old media sticking feathers up it’s bottom and proclaiming itself a web 2.0 chicken.

    Then we get to the question of how effective it is as a communication tool. The things it reminded me of most, with its constant railroading and miniature fake internet, were those ‘toy’ laptops that parents who weren’t familiar with computers bought for their young children instead of real computers. The target demographic takes social networking tools for granted. I can’t imagine this approach not being seen as patronising. The ‘game’ (more accurately, ‘any partly-supervised computer use’) probably focus tests well compared to a conventional lesson because conventional lessons, particularly for 14-16 year olds on the GCSE/A-Level exam treadmill, are so drearily awful.

    One also has to wonder how this will protect those who are most likely to be at risk of running afoul of the dangers described. Making the enormous assumption that non-geek youths actively seek out the site in the first place, who among them are going to have the patience to be lectured in an extremely slow, irritating way about issues that don’t seem hugely relevant? People who use their computers for IM, MySpace and YouTube don’t want to plough through endless pages of tone-deaf Trendy Vicar exposition.

    What really grates however is the fact that this project, with its (presumably costly and largely superfluous) television production values, is eating into a finite budget ostensibly intended for educational games (not ‘game-like experiences’) made by some extraordinarily talented and precariously funded UK devcos. Smokescreen is ephemeral – it’s *marketing*, and it can’t be turned into a *marketable* product (e.g. a textbook, DVD or piece of software) to recoup its costs or extend its useful life. During the period of it being actively maintained by Channel 4, I expect it will be lucky to scrape a voluntary registered user base in five figures (not counting the beta tester partner schools). And then they’ll do another one. This strikes me as being scandalously wasteful.

    The most effective educational software I’ve ever used wasn’t even billed as educational: it was the games that simulated things clearly and thoughtfully enough to encourage further research or real-world application (Sim City, Dwarf Fortress, Civilisation, Ultima IV, Deus Ex), or that provided the tools to learn expressive skills (Deluxe Paint, Photoshop, Cubase). Make viable software that also educates, not lecture slides with hunt-the-thimble games obnoxiously tacked on. And get games developers, who have lived or died by their ability to memorably engage the user, to do it.

    Oh, and since when do teenagers use twitter?

  2. doctorcaligari says:

    As an educator, I love this! This is exactly the curriculum I am trying to teach this year (to both teachers and students).

    However, there is one slight problem. In the first mission, the Rumour Mill game used the word “ass” alot. While I don’t have a problem with it (and hate censorship), I am afraid that I wouldn’t be able to promote it as an educational tool. Is there any way to change “ass” to something else?

    All-in-all, this learning-by-doing approach is exactly the way to get through to today’s middle-and-high schoolers. Thank you so much for creating it!

  3. Quiet Noises says:

    What I find a little interesting is that someone decided that the target audience will actually want to play this game. Educational video games haven’t always been the preferred passtime of that generation. I’m presuming it is targeting 14-17 yearolds, I think they’d rather be binge drinking and getting fake IDs than going to Epcot centre and brushing up on their algebra.

    Will teenagers, who are already prone to peer pressure and other forces that drive them to apply to these networking sites to begin with, be so conducive to learn (or actually play) from this type of media?

  4. Jason Erik Lundberg says:

    This is an excellent idea. I’ll point my students toward it, see what they think.

  5. adrianhon says:

    @robinclark: You make a lot of interesting points very passionately, so I’ll try to be as clear as possible in my responses.

    Obviously you don’t like the story and you feel that it patronises teens. What would constitute a good story that appeals to ‘teens’? Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series? It’s incredibly popular – but of course more teens *haven’t* read it than have. Or Skins? Again, very popular, but hardly ubiquitous viewing amongst all teens. Hollyoaks? Doctor Who?

    It’s very easy to treat ‘teens’ as a homogenous audience, but in reality, different teens like different things. Smokescreen is not going to appeal to all of them, any more than a TV show or book might – but believe it or not, it does appeal to many teens. We know this, because we’ve tested the game with teens (and not just in schools, either).

    I agree that it’s not realistic that the characters don’t say “fuck”. Personally, I would have liked them to, but our hands – and C4′s – are tied by the Ofcom guidelines for things aimed at 14-16 year olds. “Shit” and “bullshit” is the strongest we can go – and you can see that teachers are bothered about even the mild usage of “ass”.

    We care about what teachers think because they are a very good way to reaching teens. Not all teachers are bad, and not all lessons are dreary; many teachers are looking for resources that can help enliven discussions of online privacy and security, and Smokescreen is a free resource they can draw on.

    Incidentally, Smokescreen is not supposed to recoup costs. Neither are any of C4 Education’s other games. It’s being provided to people for free, and it will be available online for several years – longer than the average TV show, and cheaper than a DVD. Over that period, I expect the game to have many, many, many more users than ‘five figures’, which frankly will be easy to achieve.

    As it happens, I think there *is* an argument for educational games that recoup their costs; however, this is not something that C4 Education is currently set up to do, and there is huge value in making these games available for free.

    The fact that Smokescreen is much, much more linear than the typical game has not passed us by. We spent a lot of time trying to work out what to call it – many people liked the idea of ‘interactive story’, which is certainly more accurate but not a well-known term. As such, no, it is not personalised and you do not get to make the sort of choices you can do in other games.

    Is this necessarily a bad thing? TV and film are not interactive, and they’re totally linear. So are books. They can all still be very powerful learning experiences though, and that’s where we see Smokescreen – as a crossover between gaming and storytelling. It won’t float everyone’s boat, but it’s been received well by the people we’ve tested it on (and incidentally, they called it a ‘game’).

    Given the importance of the story, we don’t want to let people skip the dialogue. This is clearly a problem if you don’t like the dialogue, but unfortunately it is important if you want to do well and understand the game, particularly in the later missions. We’ve made a lot of the dialogue voiced, so that this is a bit more entertaining for people.

    (Is the written dialogue slow? For fast readers, yes. For slow readers, no. We had a nice idea to make a game where you could calibrate your reading speed but only thought of it too late…)

    Finally, I am currently wearing a Civilization Anonymous T-Shirt. It’s one of my favourite games I wouldn’t want Smokescreen to supplant it. However, Civ will not appeal to every teen (and Dwarf Fortress *definitely* won’t). You need a range of game-types for different people – Smokescreen is a game-type that is very storytelling focused.

    @Oheso has already answered my question about Twitter: teens are actually overrepresented on Twitter – but of course, most teens don’t Tweet. That’s why we only feature Twitter in one out of thirteen missions. However, you may be interested to know that in one of the schools we worked with, we found some teens using a proxy service to get around the school firewall to access Twitter…

  6. x99901 says:

    ha ha… “are legion”

    srsly, just send the kids over to 4chan if you’re already going to be training them to be e-stalkers.

  7. Anonymous says:

    What if, after playing this game, the teenagers don’t sit back and think “Yikes,” but rather “Aha!”

  8. Day Vexx says:

    I’m having trouble reconciling this post with the one the other day about the teacher needing a one-way webcam chat with the YA author.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Shouldn’t that be “social sites” in the title, rather than “social services”? Not a native speaker but I thought social services were catering for the old, the ill, and the infirm whereas social sites are catering for the U21 hip crowd ;-)

  10. sabik says:

    So, a bit like http://xkcd.com/300 ?

    Mind you, if a boy who rather likes you takes the effort to learn something about your interests before hitting on you, I suspect it’s not exactly the end of the world. Obviously, there’s real stalking which can be a real problem, but often enough I suspect it’ll be a good thing. If you have an interest in common, great, and if he’s faking it, it’ll probably be pretty easy to spot. See also NY Magazine’s “Say Everything”.

    As for getting caught out lying to one’s employer, I don’t see how one can really claim the moral high ground there.

  11. airshowfan says:

    Do people really NOT use privacy settings on social networks? Do they not see the difference between the kinds of things that should be posted on a public platform (like this comment) versus the kinds of things that should be posted on a “make visible only to friends” platform (like pictures of drunken partying)? And I thought Kids These Days (TM) were supposed to be tech-savvy! Seriously, I would think that the first time a kid at school makes a surprising comment about something they saw on your Facebook (and something that you did not mean to be seen by everyone), you’d learn mighty fast that controlling what is visible to whom is a good idea.

    I don’t want to speculate TOO much, but it almost sounds like this game was written by people who don’t really know how social networks work, other than just knowing the fact that Kids These Days tend to post their every thought and action on them, while NOT knowing that there is fine-grained control as to who sees what.

    (For example, does “Gaggle”s index include “Fakebook” content? If so, you know that the writers understand these dynamics only superficially, by hear-say).

    Of course there’s still the gossip factor; Information can “leak” when one of your trusted friends tells a non-trusted person about something they saw on your Facebook (or maybe even takes a screenshot). That will teach you to not trust that friend anymore. But that’s life. Incidents like this should happen in the relatively harmless social spaces of adolescence so that by the time you have a job, you don’t do things like call in sick and then later talk to your boss’s friend about how much fun you had that day.

    People who are roughly >50 think that Kids These Days have no sense of privacy. But kids have a VERY strong sense of privacy. It has to do with who has access to what information. Kids with lots of friends and with some kind of social status manage the information about them with great care and effort, by exploiting a series of systems of relationships and interests. “Privacy scandals” on Facebook are when the system displays your information in ways you did not expect, thus forcing you to re-adjust your model of how information about you is spread, e.g. when News Feeds first came out. Didn’t danah boyd write about this once?

  12. TheGibson says:

    Heh. The password in the game’s “admin login” is w1nst0n553, same handle as the kid in Cory’s book Little Brother (minus the 553, of course).

  13. adrianhon says:

    I’m the designer of Smokescreen, so I might be able to answer some of the questions here.

    @Quiet Noises: It’s a fair point, but aren’t presenting the game as an educational one. If you visit the website, you’ll see we present it as a game about ‘life online’. We certainly don’t ram any security messages down people’s throats either – a few of the missions have no educational content whatsoever(!).

    The other thing to consider is that many schools *already* have lessons about online security. From all the schools we’ve talked around the world (and we’ve talked to a lot), they see Smokescreen as a great resource for stimulating thought and discussion – better than a video or leaflet or conversation. And as far as the students are concerned, they love it – playing the game beats a normal lesson any day.

    @Airshowfan: “Do people really NOT use privacy settings on social networks?”

    An awful lot of people don’t use them. If you look at the research – and I have – you’ll find that many people don’t change the default privacy settings on their profiles, and even more don’t understand how they work. Take a look at the Facebook Profile Privacy Settings page – it’s a total mess.

    Another common fallacy is that because ‘kids’ are on the internet a lot, they’re really internet savvy. Again, this is just not borne out by the research. They’re very proficient at doing certain things but it’s often specific to certain tools or websites.

    Our Gaggle index *does* include Fakebook content, because that’s what happens in real life. We aren’t pretending that Facebook content (e.g. wall posts) is indexed by Google, but if you search for someone’s name, you’ll find a link to their Facebook profile (unless the user has disabled that – which most people don’t).

    I’d invite you to play the game – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by our treatment of the issues.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Let me see if I get this right?

    Problem:
    People do bad things that could cost them employment or otherwise embarrass them, and then brag about it to their friends. Other people discover the bragging and judge these people based on the choices they made.

    Good Solution:
    Teach people to limit who they brag to, and hide the truth. Thus, they can be rewarded for their poor choices, rather than pay the cost.

    Poor Solution:
    Allow these people to suffer the costs of bragging about their poor choices, thus 1) teaching them (and others) not to make and/or brag about these decisions and 2) rewarding the individuals who made good choices.

    I mean, if Future Employer see photos of Drunken Fratboy snorting cocaine off a hooker’s backside, he may choose to hire Nice Girl instead. That would be a horrible shame.

    If only Drunken Fratboy had set his photos to private – then he would get the hooker-blow, the bragging rights, AND the job.

    People who make the right choices get the satisfaction of knowing they did the right thing, why should they get the jobs, too?


    NOTE:, as usual, the internet makes this reply sound angry and hostile – it’s not meant that way. It’s meant as a humorous jab at the idea that we are concerned about the truth getting to future employers. The natural, human solution is to cover up our bad choices, rather than to accept the consequences and learn to make better choices in the future. Strange creatures, we are.

  15. RobinClarke says:

    Adrian: Thanks for responding to my points. I actually *did* like what I saw of the story. And the way that it was presented (aside from the clunky way you could sometimes skip ahead but other times had to wait around for the voiceover to catch up) was technically very impressive. Having read your blog about it I am encouraged by the decisions about not requiring registration and making the content modular and replayable (although it’s more reusable), etc.

    I just thought the characterisation and dialogue were distractingly clunky. I’d level that at Skins, Hollyoaks and (the 80%+ of the time it’s in throwaway teatime fun mode) Doctor Who as well. Most things made specifically for that demographic are pretty bad, at least it seems to me. It’s a hard problem. The Wire managed to make its young characters believable, and I hear good things about the Inbetweeners (I think it’s called?), but most things don’t bother.

    I am sceptical that Smokescreen will have a useful lifespan of several years without ongoing updates. Or that it’s a proportionate response for the relatively marginal subject matter.

    I think it is a bad thing to describe something that isn’t a game as a game. You guys seem to specialise in telling stories, so why not just do that?

    The better solution to stopping people from missing important information is to make the dialogue skippable and reviewable. OK, I’m not a teenager, but I got the “White Smoke” / Pope connection as soon as that page came up, and having to go through about five minutes of busywork (not gameplay) to continue was grating.

    I’m not telling you to make Civilisation, just pointing out that learning by doing is more effective than using interaction that serves as a roadblock and doesn’t integrate with what you’re trying to convey.

  16. airshowfan says:

    I have to admit that, if ADRIANHON’s numbers are correct, then a large fraction of people really don’t use these networks as mindfully as I thought, in which case they’ll probably benefit from this game.

    But still… Facebook content showing up on Google? Is that really the default setting? (I don’t even remember what the default settings are anymore. I signed up to Facebook in 2004). I can’t imagine anyone thinking that this is a good idea, except for the most basic of information (the kind you’d want on LinkedIn, or on a public blog, or on other online profiles that are meant to be what people find when they Google you).

  17. Anonymous says:

    That’s all well and good, Airshow, but there are plenty of privacy-fail screenshots out there and plenty of job-hunter articles that indicate that no, people DON’T use the privacy settings on Facebook and MySpace — recruiters and HR people DO look at Facebook and MySpace profiles, and the stories are long and lurid about what people are dumb enough to post on their pages that shouldn’t be left open to the public.

    You can never, ever underestimate the stupidity of some people.

    I find it ridiculously ironic that the same game that is pointing you toward never giving out private information is the same game that asks for an email address….

  18. Anonymous says:

    Have you guys actually played the missions? I just played the mission on the main page about the fake id’s. Where the object of the game is to act as the administrator of this website where members (underage kids) have started an illegal fake id ring. One of the kids ends up in hospital, bringing the ring to the attention of the police. So now its your job to deceive the police by altering the site content so that you don’t get in trouble?

    What kind of message is this sending?

  19. tboy says:

    I like the concept, and I actually played the game.

    Me, I don’t disagree with the points raised by @Adrianhon, but my concerns are primarily over style (you can’t help it, I suppose — your client’s Channel 4, so there’s a certain look and stylistic voice you have to adopt in order to fit their idea of what the “teen demographic” wants).

    Frankly, though, what would have really been cool if it had also been geared not only for teenagers, but also adults. Because some adults could use the lesson, oh yes.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I played through two of the missions and found it really enjoyable. Having played internet detective before, I think it was actually a decent facsimile.

    I liked the ‘aha’ moments in the first mission. @adrianhon: I hope you get good publicity and usage out of the website, it got its point across well and I was entertained.

  21. doctorcaligari says:

    @Anonymous

    Thanks for your reply. I was just making the same argument the other day to the prudish staff here who wanted to ban a book over sexual depictions and language. Unfortunately, I live in the “Bible Belt” of the US, where even saying “crap” can get you in trouble (never mind the F-bombs I whisper while working on computer issues…)

    I think this is a great concept, though, and I do love the realism. But this wouldn’t fly with the people that sign my checks (and keeping a roof over my head and my health insurance paid up takes precedence).

  22. airshowfan says:

    Let me try to explain where I’m coming from as far as how I use social networking sites. I’m having a hard time imagining how the average person is not influenced by any of the following factors (which are what led me to be mindful about privacy before I even published my first social-networking profile).

    When I first signed up on Facebook, I remember being shown the privacy settings right away. I remember thinking; “Depending on what kind of information I want to put on this thing, and depending on whom I accept as Friends, I need to pick the right settings. And I need to remember what settings I chose, so that if later on it turns out that I’m using this thing differently than I expected, I might need to finetune who sees what”. That’s just common sense. But “common sense” is built on experience. My experiences were: 1) We’re still figuring out what role social networking sites play in people’s lives. Especially, I’m still figuring out what role social networking sites play in MY life. (This was 2004, remember). So, like anytime anyone tries to figure anything out (like, say, a videogame), unless we keep careful track of the independent (adjustable) variables, the results will be impossible to optimize. 2) From having been to a high school, and at the time being in a college, with tons of people of differing personalities all in the same social groups, I knew that a) There are people who don’t like me, and there are certain things about my life that I would rather they did not discover but that might come up in my social-networking space, and b) There are people who DO like me, and there are certain things I would prefer that THEY don’t find out about me. 3) I come from a country where the kinds of people who can afford computers are a small fraction of the population, and I regularly hear about targeted scams and kidnappings-for-ransom. Whenever I am approached by someone at a gas station who wants help, my “This could be a kidnapping” flag raises. I don’t tell a whole lot of people if my house will be vacant for multiple days because I am mindful of people breaking in (even though where I live is very safe). This kind of paranoia led me to make sure that it’s impossible for someone whom I don’t know to get enough information about me to pretend effectively that they know me. Allowing anyone other than my friends to see my Facebook info would make possible a situation where someone malicious (who somehow became a friend’s friend on Facebook, say) could come up to me and say “I met you the other day, I’m so-and-so’s friend” or “I’m in ME191 with you, do you want to study together” or “We met at such-and-such an event last week” and gain more trust than I normally grant a stranger.

    Sure, most people on Facebook probably don’t come from third-world countries. And maybe the current role of Facebook in people’s lives (everyone puts up everything about what they’re doing) is so well-established that people no longer craft that role mindfully, no longer see it as an experiment that needs to be optimized. But still, most people on Facebook have been to high school, and thus should have some idea about how you don’t present every aspect of who you are to every person that meets you.

    That’s basically what it comes down to for me. I have a hard time imagining that people either somehow don’t know that “you don’t present every aspect of who you are to every person that meets you”, or somehow don’t connect this idea with being mindful of your online profile’s privacy settings.

    (And in any case, I do appreciate now that the makers of this game probably know what they’re talking about, and created something that will be beneficial. I just thought I should say that explicitly after my harsh first comment. I apologize for not giving them the benefit of the doubt).

  23. adrianhon says:

    @Tboy: The game was funded by C4 Education, which has a specific remit for teens, so we really had to target and market it to that audience (specifically, 14-16). That said, we don’t condescend to them and I think the story and situations would still be entertaining and interesting for adults.

    @Airshowfan: I totally agree that many teens are *extremely* mindful of how they present themselves online – you only need to look at the amount of time people spend crafting their profiles on Facebook or Myspace, and coming up with the perfect profile pic and status update, to see that.

    And certainly, if you ask teens about online security, they do know about the issues of profile privacy, identity theft, scams, and so on. But that knowledge often doesn’t translate into action, because:

    a) No-one thinks it will happen to them
    b) Most people don’t know how they’re supposed to change their profile privacy

    Most people know that they aren’t supposed to use the same password for every website, and it should involve numbers and characters, and it shouldn’t be a dictionary word – but that doesn’t stop people from using the name of their pet as a password. BTW, apology accepted :)

  24. Anonymous says:

    @Doctorcaligari: I’m afraid that ‘ass’ is one of the milder swearwords used in the game – later missions go a bit further (although not using the F or C-words). I understand that this will cause problems for use in schools, but our primary aim was to have the game to be realistic, and to appeal to teens directly – and in real life, teens do swear!

  25. tboy says:

    @Adrianhon: Yeah, I caught on to it pretty quick, and frankly my issues with it are essentially stylistic and a matter of my own preferences.

    As for whether it’s patronizing or not, I’m afraid the proof’s in the pudding is in the eating, isn’t it? Yeah, here’s hoping your primary demographic doesn’t feel that way, at any rate.

    Mind you, the only thing that’ll complete the circle would be an 8-bit demake.

    Hint, hint.

  26. Anonymous says:

    holy wall of text! anyway, part of the problem is that facebook applications can access friend data regardless of privacy settings. I know many of my friends take a lot of quizzes and other worthless stuff. I don’t post any more information on facebook than would be in a standard phone directory. Everyone I know thinks I’m overly paranoid but oh well.

  27. MMoni says:

    My plans fell through and I ended up with a looot of free time. I tried out Smokescreen and I have thoroughly enjoyed it; I completed 4 of the missions. I am 20.
    I will say I was a bit surprised by the language, but as someone who has been to England and Wales, they generally seem a little more unabashed about cursing. I would say the language keeps it from being a good idea for 12 or 13 year old kids but probably just adds to the authenticity and relatability for the 14/15+ crowd. I actually plan on passing this on to my 15 year old brother; he’s usually game for this sort of thing and hopefully it will teach him some good lessons. Honestly, he didn’t set things to private on his FB account until I really beat the horse dead.

    I think you did a good job with providing valuable lessons without making it feel too “school-y.” It’s sad that the cursing might keep it out of the classroom as that would be a great way to teach your target audience, but I can’t imagine any way to fix it unless you cut out large amounts of the audio and changed the subtitles. I wish you the best, thanks for making this!

  28. Charangoid says:

    I’ve been stalked by comedians who wanted me to like them and work with them! They would find out personal info on me then write standup routines based on the info to perform at gigs they knew I’d be coming to. It backfired– now I’m frightened of them and would never work with them. NEVER make a joke about how someone’s ex-girlfriend has gotten fat and expect a big laugh.

  29. oheso says:

    @airshowfan: I don’t have stats, but I have a whole buncha first-hand anecdotal evidence. I couldn’t give a percentage-to-peers relationship on this, but I know a lot of intelligent teens who are frankly amazed to find out that school administrators know what facebook is. I tell kids what’s going down, and they just don’t pay attention until it happens to them or someone like them. They don’t bother with privacy settings or pseudonyms. When they do make something private, it’s not for the purpose of keeping the square adults out, but for the purpose of making their own “secret club” and keeping other peers out. And when something happens in those “secret clubs,” there’s invariably someone who rats them out to the admins.

    You seem to have put some thought into the privacy thing from the start, and that’s good. That apparently makes you the exception rather than the rule.

    @robinclark: Teens twit. The idea that they don’t was based on a bad reading of the stats. Wasn’t that reported here?

    Here it is:

    http://www.boingboing.net/2009/08/07/teens-tweet.html

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