Can you break the algorithm?

AlgorithmWatch releases an online game on algorithmic accountability journalism. Players act as a journalist who researches the details of a social network’s algorithm.

created with MidJourney under supervision of Alexandre Grilletta

AlgorithmWatch just published its first online game. Can you Break the Algorithm? takes players in the world of algorithmic accountability reporting, a new field that AlgorithmWatch, among others in Europe and beyond, pioneered in the last five years.

In the game, players are journalists in a large European newsroom. They are tasked by their editor-in-chief with investigating the algorithm of TikTube (a fictional app) which is rumored to make teenagers sad. As in real life, players have no way to peer into the black box. Instead, they have to navigate the regulators, the academics, the press officers and the app’s users to understand how the platform works.

Playing a game takes about 10 minutes. While the algorithm cannot be “broken”, players can pursue investigative leads that provide new information about the algorithm and the impacts of the app. In the process, they will certainly learn a lot about how we, journalists and civil society, can scrutinize large platforms.

Can you break the Algorithm? is available in English and German.

Systems, not software

Understanding how algorithms work is not an easy task, especially when we don't have access to the rules that create them or the data on which they are based. That is why we need to see an algorithm as a system and not just a technological tool or software made out of datasets and code. It's when we start to analyse broader parameters, such as who deploys them, for what purpose and which population groups they affect, that we can access more information about them.

This holistic approach to algorithmic investigation is considered by some researchers as the only way to understand how an automated system works as a whole, as not even developers themselves usually know how black-box algorithms operate.

With this game, AlgorithmWatch hopes to improve the “algorithmic literacy” of players, and show that, even if black boxes cannot be easily opened, civil society is far from powerless. It is also an attempt to reach out to newer audiences, for whom a game is a better storytelling format.

Can you break the Algorithm? builds on another game, The Good, the Bad and the Accountant, which explained the intricacies of corruption in local administrations. That project, published in 2017, was translated in multiple languages and reached over one million players.

The game is made possible by

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