Smokescreen: introducing the game that’s making teens safer

A feature profiling SixtoStart’s innovative online game Smokescreen, which is designed to educate teens about safety and security online, as part of Channel 4’s digital education strategy; first published in the Observer, March 2010

When 17-year-old Jo Parsons blagged her way into a local nightclub for an evening out, she was flattered when a man she’d never met came over and offered to buy her a drink. But pleasure soon turned to anxiety. He refused to stop talking and she gradually realised that he knew much too much about her: what her friends were called, where she lived, her birthday, even her favourite music. He had been stalking her online. In fact, it was still going on: one of his mates was reading her social networking pages and send him phone updates about interests he could pretend to share with her. Furious, she threw her drink in his face and stormed off.

This isn’t a true story: it’s fiction. But it’s part of a fiction that has been experienced more than 260,000 times by online users – mostly teenagers – over the past six months. That’s because this scenario is one of 13 that together comprise Smokescreen, a free-to-play “alternate reality game” commissioned by Channel 4 Education that is intended to give teenage players a personal encounter with everything from identity theft to cyber stalking.

In recent weeks, moral panic over the safety of social networks has been everywhere in the media, sparked by the Daily Mail’s account of a man posing as a girl of 14 on a “well known social networking site” and being approached by sexually interested males within minutes. Smokescreen is a far cry from that kind of frenzy. Yet what it represents might just be a lot more significant; both in terms of understanding young people’s behaviour online and – most importantly – changing it.

This month, Smokescreen won the best game award at the US conference South by Southwest, one of the biggest annual events in the global gaming industry. Its success – not to mention the experiences and reactions of its tens of thousands of players – paints a rather different picture of the realm of online social networking than is usually seen in the mainstream media. Smokescreen’s website simulates the experience of being out in the web at large: players navigate their way through fake sites with names such as “Gaggle,” “Tweetr” and (my favourite) “Fakebook,” viewing the personal pages of a cast of five core characters, watching them swap information and instant messages, and even getting “phonecalls”: messages playing over their computer’s speakers, with the player selecting from a variety of responses to move the story forward.

“Almost every teen we’ve talked to feels that they know everything about issues like online privacy, identity and security,” explains Adrian Hon, co-founder and chief creative officer at the British company that created Smokescreen, Six to Start, “and the fact that most adults they’ve heard from insist on scaremongering about paedophiles means they’re no longer interested in what adults have to say.” But there’s a lot, he adds, that teens don’t know they don’t know. And this is usually where the real dangers lie: not in up-front sexual approaches, but in the mire of privacy settings, tagged photographs, mobile phone numbers and dates of birth.

In Smokescreen, you live these intricacies from the inside. In the mission where Jo Parsons faces her cyber stalker at the club, it’s you who takes on the role of his mate on the phone; it’s you looking through Jo’s Fakebook page and Tweetr feed, choosing what information to send. Just as intended, it makes you think twice about the public information on your own page in real life. Helen Farrall, Smokescreen’s creator and co-writer, talked me through her experiences writing that particular mission. “We did a lot of research, and I was incredibly surprised by how lax people are with information. I started looking on my friends’ pages online and seeing what they put out there; we went into schools and spoke to our target audience about what they did, and none of them had really thought about putting their emails and phone numbers on sites. It never crossed their minds that anyone would do anything nasty to them.”

Another mission, also involving the character of Jo, shows the dangers of photo-tagging online: an image of her bunking off school is tagged with her name by a friend, and suddenly starts appearing in search results before she has a chance to take it down. The lesson, and the remedy, seem simple enough – de-tag the image in question – until you realise that, with the image out in the public domain on pages that you don’t control, you’ve suddenly lost the ability to stop people sharing and labelling a personal picture. Playing this mission was enough to make me check my own privacy settings – and to realise that I needed to change who I permit to view images with me in them.

As Hon explains, what his company’s research has shown is that kids are willing and even passionately interested in learning more about the dangers of the digital world: the problem is that the way these discussions are usually delivered to them are “just not credible”. Sex claims the headlines – and becomes a running joke in classrooms – while less sensational concerns go unaddressed: about bullying online, teenagers’ place in the social order and “a hard-to-articulate unease about what other people might know about them online”. This is partly because such issues are genuinely tricky: “Many social networks’ privacy settings seem to change every few months,” Hon notes. “It was hard even for our company to figure out what they all meant. So it’s not going to be easy for teens. And the issue is that they feel they can’t talk to their parents and teachers about this stuff.”

It’s a situation that Alice Taylor, commissioning editor for education at Channel 4, hopes to change. “Originally,” she explains, “we were looking to commission a project about traditional privacy – CCTV, government ID plans, that sort of thing – to coincide with the 25th year since 1984, the totem year representing privacy issues. But as we looked around, stories of teen behaviour on social networks stood out as an immediately visible form of loss of privacy: some young people learning the hardest way that posting pictures of drunken behaviour or body parts is a really, permanently bad idea.” So, in late 2007, she started talking to Six to Start about something that would “show, not tell” its way through these issues: getting people to “play through such behaviours, learning as they go about things like what happens when you post public details of your house party online.” The result, Smokescreen shows, can be pretty chaotic. In mission seven, 9,821 people sign up for an 18th birthday that someone has decided to advertise online as a free music festival – and it becomes your job to handle the fallout. It’s enough to make you think twice about getting involved in something similar yourself.

For Taylor, Smokescreen is just the beginning: her future lineup includes a game about civil liberties and citizenship (The Curfew), and a game about self-esteem and media literacy (Cover Girl). Still, for many observers, the word “game” can seem like an increasingly misleading one when it comes to such projects. Adrian Hon isn’t too bothered by splitting this particular hair. “Young people,” he argues, “don’t make the same distinctions between different media and devices that older users do. They play games, watch videos and surf the web on every device they can get their hands on. But they are also comfortable with entertainment that doesn’t fit into easy categories.” He’s happy for people to think of Smokescreen as a highly interactive multimedia story – or as a lightly interactive game with a great story. Either way, it represents an important shift in the ground on which educators are attempting to engage with teens and students: and a recognition that new media can best be debated from the inside, through engagement rather than demonisation. Fire can be fought with fire: if it’s fun and engaging, so much the better.

David Smith, director of ICT at the private sector St Paul’s school in London, is one of a number of teachers whose pupils took part in testing Smokescreen before its public release – and a man with strong feelings about the best way of dealing with these issues in schools. “I think what Smokescreen was doing was really interesting,” he told me, “but I think schools should be dealing with social software anyway. It shouldn’t be banned. It’s just another part of what we use to communicate and live by, and it’s very important that we learn how to use it well.” If the experience of Smokescreen tells us anything, it’s that this means meeting teens on a common ground – and listening to, as well as telling, stories about the digital world as they are living it.