Over the past decade, technology has wildly shifted the average American's relationship to the media. Since the mid-2000s, social media went from a nascent phenomenon to a billion-dollar industry and informational juggernaut. Earlier this year, a study by the Pew Research Center reported that 71% of American adults get at least some of their news from social media. Since the algorithms built into websites like Facebook tend to favor more divisive, sensational news, this has had a negative effect on media literacy. Social media posts aren't held to journalistic standards, so any information with the right hook can go viral. The results of this effect include skewed elections, widespread exposure to traumatic photos and videos, and heightened political rifts within communities.
This barrage of confusing information has intensified the already present strain of adolescence and young adulthood. While today's kids and teens form their opinions and identities, their access to smartphones and social media mean they're bound to interact with a wide range of messages they don't understand.
"In the pre-teen years, children begin to understand abstract concepts like causation and fairness," said a statement by Seattle design firm Artefact. "With the average American pre-teen consuming more than four and a half hours of screen media per day, it's crucial that this age group develop the critical analysis and Internet literacy needed to navigate the digital world responsibly."
Artefact hopes to empower young people with their online game The Most Likely Machine, a free educational tool perfect for remote learning. This program teaches users about the basics of creating an algorithm before illustrating the biases programmed into them. In the Most Likely Machine, a user is tasked with creating yearbook superlatives for historical figures. After assigning a person to each superlative, the user must illustrate what informed that choice. Users then assign a handful of traits that describe a person more likely to win the superlatives, creating an algorithm that will pick a winner for each. The results come with fun facts about why the algorithm selected each winner, likely contradicting a user's original assumptions. Players might be shocked to learn that Albert Einstein was a high school dropout, or that Cleopatra loved to play pranks on strangers.
In less than 15 minutes, this game helps young people make sense of the world by inviting them to challenge their own assumptions. These assumptions often show up within algorithms as biases, which can have devastating real-life consequences. The game briefly summarizes the negative effects of poorly designed algorithms, like a government-designed grading tool that judged students more harshly than their teachers. The Artefact team hopes this encourages students to be more critical of the information they receive.
"With so much content at our fingertips, digital literacy is proving to be one of the most essential pillars of an engaged and informed civil society," said the Artefact team. "But digital literacy is only one element of being a savvy digital citizen…Algorithms are the key building blocks of the digital world, and the foundation for many of its greatest capabilities – and worst consequences."
Accessible educational software becomes more and more essential as increasing stress weighs on educators, families, and young individuals. After a year of remote learning, kids are looking for stimulation, while adults are looking for educational videos and games that make it easier to nourish developing minds. With its fun, intuitive gameplay and socially responsible messaging, the Most Likely Machine makes it easy for kids and teens to learn media literacy while also giving tired teachers or parents an opportunity for a break. While they enjoy a moment of downtime, they can rest assured that their student or child is learning more about how to consciously navigate a confusing world.
"We hope the Most Likely Machine prototype serves as inspiration and a step toward a future where digital learning experiences are not only engaging and meaningful, but support students and teachers as they navigate remote education," said the Artefact team.