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October 28, 2008

The Lying Game

Alumnus Uses Game To Keep Candidates Honest

By Mel Cowan

Splash page for Truth Invaders.
Jeremy Bernstein is mad. While watching TV several weeks ago, he saw a campaign ad for one of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election 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," said Bernstein, who graduated from the M.F.A. writing program in 2002. "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 I'm a game designer. I can design a game."

In addition to his writing background, Bernstein has long had an interest in games. At the time he was working on his masters, the Interactive Media Division (IMD) was getting ready to initiate its M.F.A. program. After graduation, Bernstein kept in touch with IMD faculty and students, eventually collaborating on several of their projects, including the Redistricting Game, which debuted in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

Calling in favors from other designers and friends he'd worked with in the past, Bernstein whipped together Truth Invaders, which he describes as "Space Invaders meets Factcheck.org." Launched on October 11 without any formal fanfare, the game has already garnered over 8,000 page views.

The concept is simple: the player is presented with a list of untruths from Barack Obama and John McCain. The player clicks on one of the statements and the gameplay begins. Once under way, the player uses the arrows and space bar on the keyboard to move a White House icon around and shoot missiles at the text of the lie, which moves back and forth above the icon, raining down bombs of its own. Each time one of the player’s missiles hits a portion of the text, the truth behind the lie is literally revealed, piece by piece.

Game designer Jeremy Bernstein.
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," said Bernstein. "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," said IMD Assistant Professor Chris Swain, 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 both sides are guilty of bending the truth in this campaign. "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,' said Bernstein. "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 organizations like Factcheck.org and Politifact.com, who warmed to the game's combination of hard fact and play. Bernstein underscored that it's the play part of the game that makes it truly effective.

"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," said Bernstein. "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."

Like some before him, Bernstein may end up a victim of his game's success. "I've had friends email me saying, 'I want more lies. I've already played all these lies!'"

Play the game at http://www.truthinvaders.com