by Fivel Rothberg
“Games can introduce a new paradigm of learning where students are producers, designers, innovators and masters of content to solve problems and deal with complexity.”
—James Gee, educator and game advocate
Can playing games help to prevent gender violence? They certainly have “significant potential” to do so, according to the Population Media Center, the UN Population Fund and the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College.
“When the GAME is your life, will you… BREAKAWAY?” is the opening title sequence to the educational game Breakaway which reveals little about the game’s intent. Part of a burgeoning trend in social issue games, Breakaway aims “to engage, educate, and change attitudes of boys between 8 and 15 to help end violence against girls and women” (www.breakawaygame.com). A worthwhile goal that misses the mark.
Players begin gameplay with about 20 minutes worth of strictly guided instruction “click this button or that one, move this way or that way” and make very basic A or B choices. The story line is clear—you, the player, are trying out for a local soccer team, and there are clues that your sister wants in on the action. Yet, there is no sense that this is a game geared for either fun or to address gender until the player is asked to make a decision regarding the younger sister—who wants to stay on the soccer field. The game feels a great deal like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, sans narrative intrigue. It’s difficult to envision pre-teens and adolescents turning to the game for play or even enjoying it in a facilitated workshop.
Most importantly, the game lacks flow due to choppy mechanics and amateurish Flash artwork, far behind the times in best practices in gameplay. It’s certainly true that it’s extraordinarily hard to produce compelling video games. Social issue video games are an even greater challenge. It can take a highly skilled team of writers, directors, programmers, artists, educators, and marketers years to produce and distribute a game like Breakaway. It’s a big disappointment when these kinds of investments fall short of their goals.
Breakaway was Population Media Center’s (PMC) first attempt at developing games for social change (www.populationmedia.org); let’s hope they keep at it. The international nonprofit is known for producing “education entertainment” that addresses public health issues like birth control, sexually transmitted infections, and substance abuse. PMC’s programs often take the form of serial radio dramas and interactive websites. They also partner with popular television producers. (PMC collaborated with some Brazilian telenovelas to incorporate discussion of teenage sexuality and pregnancy prevention in efforts PMC calls “social merchandising.”)
It certainly makes sense for there to be a game—or games—that address gender violence specifically targeted at boys. Teaching values through gameplay is nothing new, and utilizing games to address public health is a growing field. There are games for young people with cancer, like HopeLab’s Re-Mission where “players pilot a nanobot named Roxxi as she travels through the bodies of fictional cancer patients destroying cancer cells, battling bacterial infections, and managing side effects associated with cancer and cancer treatment” (www.re-mission.net). You Make Me Sick! is an educational health game where “students take on the role of a pathogen and custom design their disease to infiltrate a variety of unique target hosts… ultimately learning about the anatomy and function of bacteria and viruses and how they are spread” (www.filamentgames.com/projects/gils).
Although Breakaway fails to live up to its potential, promising endeavors to incorporate games and new technology in sexual violence prevention
work do exist. Quentin Walcott and Marlon Walker of CONNECT NYC, a social change organization in New York, are currently using the game design process in experimental workshops in a Bronx high school to make connections between masculinity, choices and gender violence (www.connectnyc.org). In addition, Deb Levine, Nancy Schwartzman, Christine Corbett Moran and Thomas Cabus collaborated on a design for a smartphone application called Circle of 6; it won a first place White House award for Apps Against Abuse (www.facebook.com/Circleof6). According to Schwartzman, “the app combines what we know about sexual violence and prevention to create a beautiful, usable piece of software. It harnesses the best part of college culture—tight knit groups—and combines that with mobile tech to prevent violence.” Users will be able to add six contacts to their app’s interface in order to quickly update them about their status—letting them know, for example, if they need a ride home or if help is needed getting out of a difficult situation.
Schwartzman says she has always wanted to create a videogame that addresses sex and consent. Let’s hope she does and that future games aimed at addressing gender violence learn from Breakaway’s oversights.
To learn more about social issue video games visit: www.gamesforchange.org, www.tiltfactor.org, and www.persuasivegames.com. For more information about learning and games visit: www.jamespaulgee.com, www.henryjenkins.org and www.instituteofplay.org.
Fivel Rothberg is a father, media maker, producer, educator and activist who received his MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College in New York. He is currently finishing a documentary short about being a father and addressing abuse in his family. To learn more go to www.housedevil-streetangel.com.