By Maureen McTaggart
The Rumour Mill, a vicious new game, swept its way across the White Smoke social network with such speed that the network’s founders believed it might be a front for something more sinister.
Max Winston, who created White Smoke with his mate Cal, said he and his staff were working around the clock to find out who was behind the game. He admitted it was a big job and appealed to youngsters to help them find out what the game’s creators were up to.
But stay calm. This was one of the 13 ‘missions’ in the fictional world of Smokescreen, the online adventure game created by Channel 4 and game designer Six to Start to teach young people about the potential pitfalls of revealing too much online.
The game was targeted at 14 to 16-year-olds and used familiar looking social networks to tell a story. Players collaborate and interact with the game’s characters, albeit in a more linear way than a typical game, to solve a mystery.
That's not necessarily a bad thing says Adrian Horn, Six to Start’s chief creative officer: “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.
'Teenagers so turned off by moral panics... they've lost confidence in official warnings'
"Smokescreen is the world’s first game about life online. Every time you hear about a teenager being hauled up at school because of their Facebook profile, or someone being conned out of their password on Twitter – that’s what Smokescreen aims to explore." Teenagers, he added, are so turned off by overblown moral panics about stalkers and paedophiles that they've totally lost confidence in official warnings.
The Smokescreen approach is certainly less direct. There are no crazed psycho killers or adult stalkers. Instead there are simple storylines (missions) such as number three – "Too Much Information" – where a character called Shane asks for help to chat up a girl he likes.
This involves a player using "Gaggle" to find her "Fakebook" and "Tweetr" accounts and then, thanks to her living her life online, sniffing around to get information about her that Shane could use in his chat up. As the mission progresses it becomes clear the girl is not happy about his attentions – she thinks he's a creep and tells him to get lost.
But she wasn't at risk of being kidnapped or killed or anything like that, says Adrian Horn. “She was just being annoyed by some creep in a club, which is a much more likely scenario than anything violent. Our game puts players in a simulated situation, we can give them an experience that is far more powerful and immersive than any other media."
Neither Channel 4 Education nor Six to Start have a clear moral about posting information online. They say they want to simply make people realise that a detailed and real-time online profile might mean having to deal with some creeps; and, on the other hand, that "it's not cool to take online stalking (that we all do a tiny bit of!) too far".
Channel 4 Education, no stranger to cross-media entertainment, has commissioned award-winning alternate reality projects for teenagers. These include Bow Street Runner, 1066 and Routes (a DNA based game).
Smokescreen, with its slick design and intricately woven and entertaining plot, was deliberately marketed to youngsters without reference to education because, explains Alice Taylor, Channel 4's commissioning editor, they don't want to risk turn-off before they've tried it.
'We'll produce resources to help teachers create lesson plans'
"We'd rather they played it and discussed it and discovered it naturally. But we have a five-year licence to the game and once it’s had its run, we will definitely repackage it for use within the classroom or by parents. We'll be producing extra resources to help teachers and other interested parties create lesson plans and the like."
The alternate reality of Smokescreen is more than a horror story of stolen identities, credit cards or gate-crashed house parties. Moreover, there is no rigid list of dos and don’ts. Instead players are expected to make critical choices about whether to disclose information online and sometimes the right answer isn’t straightforward and the consequences are not always grim. And, as with all good stories (without giving the game away) there is an unexpected twist.
The questions, though, are: will it empower and educate young people on how to navigate the web? And while the developers say their primary aim was to make the game as realistic as possible, will the swearwords cause problems in schools?
“Smokescreen is a game about privacy, security, the data trails we leave, and the often strange behaviour of people on social networks," says Alice Taylor. Aimed at 14 to 16-year-olds, it’s designed to highlight to younger teens the myriad weirdnesses that can go on within these spaces, including uglies like stalking, phishing and bullying. By playing the game, we hope they’ll learn how to watch out for that kind of stuff in the real world.”
According to my tester, Smokescreen is really "game like" rather than a game. At 24 he is well outside the target audience but the fact that having played through the first five episodes he is eager to get to the last one is a testament to its brilliant design and riveting storylines.