Serious Game Tackles Violent Behaviour Against Women

A South African StudentCan video games help prevent violent behaviour? A team of student developers at Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center in Vermont is counting on it. The group is currently working on a game with that mission in mind, which specifically aims to teach young boys ages 8-10 that violence towards women should not be tolerated. Though the game would ideally be transferable to other cultures its initial research focused on a South African audience.

The development team made up of art and marketing majors as well as programmers and electronic game designers from the college is working in partnership with the international Population Media Center. The project has received significant financial support from the United Nations Population Fund, with a $200,000 grant. Read More...

The whole idea is to set role models,” said Brian George, a student working on the game. These role models play a significant part in shaping behaviour, especially at an age where boys are still “impressionable when they’re making their own decisions,” said Amanda Jones, a marketing and graphic design student.

“That’s also the age when they start exploring,” George said. “They explore everything — including video games.”

So the group, armed with that knowledge in mind, began its work last August with a 10-day trip to South Africa. After numerous focus groups, interviews and site visits to impoverished Cape Town townships, the team set out to build the game, which is still in concept and development phases. They hope to deliver their game to the U.N. in two years. A preliminary version that might include storyboards is due in December.

Behind the actual technology lies a proven behaviour influencing system, the Sabido methodology. This method creates a story with characters that evolve to match positive role models.

The method used and promoted by the Population Media Center has already rendered positive results all over the world, through radio and TV dramas promoting family planning, health and women's rights. For example, a two-year radio drama by PMC ran in Ethiopia saw demand for contraceptives rise 157 per cent, while the portion of men who recognized the importance of girls' education went up by 52 percentage points.

"We're trying to create a new discourse with role models. The game would also present options. 'If I am facing violence, what would I do?' 'If I am provoked, what would I do?'," said Aminata Toure, the chief of the gender, human rights, and culture branch of the United Nations Population Fund – who helped the groups secure the grant.

But in order for the game to be successful, it is essential that it appeal to the targeted audience.

“Our first goal is to entertain people,” said Brian George. “If they’re not having fun playing a game, why would they continue to play it? (…) The goal is to make the game feel like it was made for that place.”

"We're really not preaching to them," says game-design student Lauren Nishikawa. "The issue [of gender violence] comes up as part of the story line. The important part is, if anything negative happens, there is a punishment ... and a solution offered."

But there also needs to be attention paid to the gaming platforms available to the boys, specifically in developing countries. Their research has found that usual U.S. platforms — personal computers or TV-console systems — were out of the question. Their target population didn’t have these things, nor did the schools, where libraries were often empty. However, they did find that many students had access to cell phones.

“The young people use the cell phones much like young people in American culture use computers,” wrote Ann DeMarle, a faculty member who accompanied the students on the trip. “They communicate, play games, conduct business and have work-arounds to avoid payments.”

The project “is really exciting because it’s taking a ubiquitous platform (cell phones) and trying to work in such a unique environment,” said Kurt Squire of University of Wisconsin, co-chairman of annual academic conference called Game, Learning & Society. “This kind of application and deployment is really smart and could be a huge success.”

"Games have evolved beyond entertainment and are a wonderful environment for exploring complex issues," says Suzanne Seggerman, president of Games for Change, a nonprofit in New York. "They let players try on new roles, new perspectives that they don't otherwise have access to. And for difficult subjects like domestic violence, there isn't a lot of opportunity for kids to explore other kinds of behaviours."

"Playing a video game is not going to save the world, but it's a step in the right direction," said Nishikawa. "We really feel the responsibility to make something powerful."