How Alterea Inc., a live experience design company, pivoted with a digital project during the pandemic.
It isn’t common for video games to be featured on Themed Attraction. To be fair, it wasn’t common for live event companies to create them, either, but that was exactly the position we found ourselves in this year as an experience design startup thwarted by a pandemic that made the dream of bringing people together to experience and co-create stories in a shared space impossible. Ironically, we at “Alterea,” which refers to “alternate reality,” stepped into a wholly unexpected kind of alternate reality to preserve our company.
For the last year, we have reapplied our storytelling powers to a new medium to create Agents of Influence, a spy-themed educational video game that teaches the next generation how to recognize and combat misinformation in their daily lives. The idea for such an experience began during the first months of lockdown. Our plans for a summer of immersive theatre thwarted, we turned, like most everyone else, to the internet and found misinformation a native inhabitant of the digital world. Of particular concern to us was the power misinformation had (or, rather, the disempowerment misinformation created) over people making critical decisions. With an historical civil rights movement, momentous upcoming election, and in the midst of an unprecedented (at least in our lifetimes) global pandemic, we felt like people’s actions mattered more than ever; but if they couldn’t trust the information they were getting, how could they make those important decisions with confidence?
In immersive theatre, particularly for the flavor of project we create at Alterea, decisions (or “agency moments,” as we like to call them) are everything: Do you help the prince on his quest, or follow the witch into the woods? Do you join the revolution, rebelling against tradition, or do you side with the order to preserve the status quo? Does the little scuffle you got into on main street make it into the local paper? Does it make you a wanted person in town? Do the characters call an impromptu town hall meeting? To create living, breathing worlds, these are the kind of questions we obsess over, that we want to get right so our participants feel like they’re participating in something where their actions truly matter. This made the threat of misinformation particularly distressing: that such agency could be distorted, blocked, or wholly eliminated — often without anyone’s knowledge.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, we set about creating a solution to misinformation. We were under no illusion that what we created would be The Solution; the more we researched, the more we realized misinformation was an incredibly thorny problem vexing experts far more qualified than us who had spent far more time trying to solve it. Misinformation is a particularly interdisciplinary problem: It originates from and spreads through citizens; it is enabled by large tech organizations and governments; once it is out in the world, it can rarely be stopped by anyone until it has run its course; and, it affects everyone. Our research suggested it would benefit from an interdisciplinary solution, too. It wasn’t enough to rely on government and tech regulations, nor would the efforts of individual fact-checkers be sufficient. Only through a combined effort from all stakeholders, a collective increased awareness and effort, could it be stopped. This freed us up to make something native to our skillset: we weren’t policy experts, nor were we equipped to build misinformation-flagging bots, but when it came to creating a compelling story people would remember, we were in our element.
The creation of Agents of Influence was a long process filled with setbacks and failure, but we realized many of our skills honed through producing live shows transferred well to the digital world: designing a core story, creating for multiple audiences at once, team cohesion and attention to deadlines. After over a year of development we emerged with something our whole team is quite proud of. The game takes place at Virginia Hall High, a fictional American high school built on top of a fictional spy base for the Omni-Directional Organization for Propaganda and Surveillance (otherwise known as O.O.P.S.). This setting is designed to increase transferability of learning: with the game happening in a familiar setting where students will encounter misinformation, we increase the application of concepts learned during the game to real life.
You play as an incoming freshman who has just transferred to the school along with their sister, Dawn, and you quickly learn things are not as they seem: the campus is full of misinformation schemes, students have been disappearing, and there is some strange activity in the old O.O.P.S. tunnels underground. Worst of all, a shadowy organization by the name of Harbinger seems to be behind it all. You join forces with Taylor Jones, a brilliant outcast senior, to create the Agents of Influence, a spy group dedicated to stopping Harbinger’s schemes and saving the school.
Agents of Influence has three main modules: Cyber Danger, Political Bias, and Pseudoscience, each designed to teach the same skills in different contexts, another practice that increases transferability. Over these modules, you uncover the story of Harbinger and some of its skeletons in the closet (or basement, in our case). Each module takes the form of the investigation, where you use your misinformation detection and prevention skills to nip a Harbinger plan in the bud, saving the school from a harmful misinformation attack and getting one step closer to unraveling the deeper mysteries of the game world.
Ultimately, we are very excited to share this game with the world. Creating on a foreign topic in a foreign medium was a unique challenge for us, and for that this game holds a special place in our hearts. This does not mean we’re moving on from live entertainment, however, so stay tuned! As we grow Agents of Influence we will also be looking to do more of what originally inspired us to create: live, immersive shows where gaming is only one part of a larger world.
Our goal is to get this game into classrooms around the world in the next few years. The first step is raising the funds to make that possible. We are currently on Kickstarter, where we have raised nearly $22,000 in two weeks. Any support at this time helps us reach our goal and better equip the coming generation to deal with the threat of misinformation – lest they lose their agency.
If you’re curious about this project and/or want to back the Kickstarter campaign (you can pledge as little as $1), you can find it at the link below: