Six to Start

Smokescreen: Why Interaction Matters

Parents, politicians, researchers and educators - they all recognise that online privacy is important, and that plenty of people (not just teens) need and want to know more.

Several bodies have been publishing advice about online privacy; there's the Information Commissioner's Office, Get Safe Online, WebWise, the police's Think U Know, and Bebo's online safety microsite. This advice isn't just online either - my Student Loans Company letters came with ICO leaflets.

This advice comes in different styles and designs (some good, some bad), but one thing in common is how they present their advice: it's either text or videos.

Text or Video?

Think U Know screenshot

The great thing about text is that you can be extremely clear about what you're talking about, and it's comparatively cheap to produce. This means that the quality and density of information in sites like Think U Know (e.g. on social networks) is fairly good. The problem is that a page full of text - even if it's surrounded by pretty graphics - is not an enticing prospect for most people. It's not clear who would want to read it, other than the extremely motivated.

Think U Know screenshot

On the other hand, videos are much easier and far less demanding for most people to consume, and they're the favoured option of Bebo's microsite. But video fails where text succeeds, in the quality and density of information - it's difficult to address the details and subtleties of online privacy without making a boring or long video. Videos can also be hard to quickly scan or check for precise details.

But where both approaches fail is that they usually result in very straight-laced and abstract advice, so even if you can convince anyone to read this stuff or watch the videos, it's questionable whether they learn anything useful or practical. For example, a Bebo video tells you that you're not anonymous online and can be traced via your IP address, which is all basically true. But what are you supposed to do with this information, other than worry about who might be watching you? There's no mention of using proxy services, let alone any links to more information.

Another video tells you that everything you post online can be seen by anyone (which isn't strictly true, but we'll let it go for now) and ends by saying "Think before you post." The only thing this video does is scare you. To their credit, some of the Bebo videos do provide practical (Bebo-specific) tips on how to change your privacy settings, but it's buried deep into the video and says offhandedly 'You might want to do this to avoid bullying'.

The dangers of abstract advice

There are two dangers in providing overly abstract advice about online privacy.

The first is that most people think "It can never happen to me", where 'it' includes everything from identity theft to bullying to insecure passwords. We've all been told many times that our passwords should be long, they shouldn't be real words or names, and they should include a mixture of numbers and letters - but most people still insist on keeping a single, unsafe password. Why? Because we just don't think of the serious consequences (e.g. loss of extremely personal data, theft of thousands of pounds, etc). Talking about online privacy in an abstract way doesn't solve this.

The second danger is that people don't learn about what practical steps they can take to change their online behaviour. It's difficult to do this because there are so many different social networks, browsers and tools out there, and they're always changing. However, you have to make the effort, and if you can at least get people addressing the issue a single time (e.g. changing their privacy settings), they might keep it in mind when they switch sites or browsers.

What's the solution?

Smokescreen, our new game for Channel 4, addresses both of these dangers. By concentrating on creating a fun game and a compelling story, people engage with our site not just because they want to learn about online security, but because they want to be entertained - and everyone wants to be entertained. It just so happens that players will encounter the real consequences of lax online security through that gameplay, in way that's woven seamlessly into the story, rather than being shoehorned in.

Of course, you could do a similar thing in a TV show or novel, but where games excel is in their potential for interaction, and their ability to perfectly mimic the online environment. Even a TV show with a great story about online privacy would be hampered by the fact that it couldn't simulate how social networks actually look and feel - and it certainly couldn't involve any kind of interaction.

Smokescreen screenshot

Interaction is incredibly important because it means that players can be directly involved in the gritty details of online security. Need to change your photo privacy settings? We'll show you how to navigate Facebook's privacy settings - and then you'll do it. Concerned about being tracked by IP? We tell you about proxy servers. Mistrustful of information that appears online? You, the player, will be tasked with spreading rumours and lies - and you'll see how easy it is to do.

Just as there is no better way to teach someone how to play the guitar than actually getting their hands on a guitar, there is no better way to inform and educate people about online security and privacy than through a web-based game.