, teaming with Yale University, has created a game that aims to teach at-risk teens about smart decision-making and wise behavior to reduce their chances of getting AIDS. The game, PlayForward: Elm City Stories, is now being tested by the Yale team on several hundred teens to see just how effective it can be, before it will likely be rolled out to schools, community groups and the public.
"If you get them to make better risk choices, across the board," says Sabrina Culyba, Schell senior game designer, about the game's intended players, ages 11-14, "you can influence their exposure to HIV."
The touch-enabled iPad game lets players create an aspirational avatar – a character they'd like to be – and build events into their young lives, such as a house, a job or travel opportunities. The avatars go through life experiences with their peers in grades seven through 12 and face branching choices that lead to different consequences.
The games within PlayForward include People Sense (in which players figure out how risky are different types of relationships); Refusal Power (about how people try to manipulate others into doing things, and the ability to say no to different kinds of peer pressure); Priority Sense (about the ability to make choices, including the levels of relationships with families and peers and the consequences of cumulative choices); and Know Power (which places players in a social conversation, during which peers express opinions while players learn how to defend their own stances).
Each player may end up picking an avatar of his or her own age and gender, but the goal of the game is to show stories of risk among a greater variety of people, both girls and boys. Each mini-game thus has 10 challenges for 10 types of character within the player's peer group.
The game, which won a 2013 DATA Award from the Pittsburgh Technology Council, was designed to be played over several weeks. "Completing those challenges and games allows you to find better paths and choices for your character," says Culyba. An epilogue shows what happens to each avatar in his or her twenties, using the player's aspirations and choices to show a welcome outcome of positive decisions or the health and income deficits of bad choices.
Yale's play2prevent team, led by Project Director Kimberly Hieftje, conceived the idea and got funding from the National Institutes of Health. They started a randomized, controlled trial of the game's effectiveness in February and have 115 kids enrolled, aiming for 330. They'll be measuring players' attitudes about and behavior toward drug and alcohol use as well as sex, before, during and as long as two years after the game.
Following the study, says Hieftje, they will talk to community members, parents and school directors "to see how can we get this game out there, who should be playing it and who can benefit?"
Was it tough to design a game that tries to change behavior and has a disease as its subject matter?
"Of course," Culyba says. "You have to walk the line. You're trying to talk about serious things. You have to be willing to talk about behavior in a very frank way.
"This game really wants to change behavior," she adds. "This is not really well understood in the game industry…. In real life, kids face emotional pressures that are different than when they are playing a game. That's a really tough challenge."
Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Sabrina Culyba, Schell Games; Kimberly Hieftje, Yale