Mason climate communication researcher’s smartphone game helps combat misinformation

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Cranky Uncle

A George Mason University scientist has developed a smartphone game that uses critical thinking and cartoons in the fight against dangerous climate change misinformation. 

John Cook, a research assistant professor at Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, launches his “Cranky Uncle” game on Dec. 15 after spending over a decade studying different ways to counter misinformation. The game is available for free on iPhone and Android. 

“Misinformation does great damage to society,” Cook said. “An essential solution is making the public more resilient against fake news. But how? Gamification is a powerful approach that can potentially reach many millions of people.” 

The game uses a resilience-building technique known as active inoculation. In the game, players are mentored by a cartoon Cranky Uncle, who is dismissive of scientific evidence on climate change, vaccines, COVID-19 and other issues. As players learn the techniques used to deny science, they gain points on their quest to become a cranky uncle.

“If you want to learn how to spot someone cheating at cards, first, you have to learn how to cheat at cards,” explained Cook.

Cook, who used to draw cartoons for a living before becoming a scientist, illustrated many of the cartoon depictions of logical fallacies. He called the cumulative impact of humor, cartoons and games a powerful one that compels players into critical thinking through gameplay.

“The deeper a player gets into the game, the more resilient they become against misinformation,” he said.  

Cook teamed up with creative agency Autonomy Co-op to develop the game.

“The issue of science misinformation is more critical than ever before,” said Autonomy CEO Jay McDowell. “We're honored to be part of such a unique and innovative approach to fighting it.”

Cook is the founder of the Skeptical Science website and the lead author of a study that found 97% scientific consensus on climate change. He spent the last decade examining how to best counter climate science denial. His research, which focused on the responses of high school seniors and college students, is designed to explain the techniques of denial to make the public more resilient against climate change misinformation.

Learn more about the game at crankyuncle.com