(NOT) Playing Games with Sexual Health

By Dianna Douglas

Maybe you’re the type of person to see a tiny nonsensical phrase in the credits of a movie and actually dig into it online. Be careful—you might find yourself sucked into a mystery story. Over the course of a week, you get a text message from someone you’ve been mindlessly Googling, you get an email with a riddle, and you find a chatroom with hundreds of people asking questions about clues they’ve found. You pick up more hints in this puzzle—on your phone, from YouTube, in your inbox, on a major website like Amazon. By the time you have solved the mystery, you know that the entire cloak-and-dagger game was orchestrated by the movie studio to create buzz. And it worked.

Instead of marketing the next summer blockbuster, Melissa Gilliam, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine, wants to deploy these tools to keep urban kids from getting pregnant or contracting infections. If this goal hardly distinguishes her from a million other people working with disadvantaged youth, her methodology certainly does: she is inviting them to play a secretive, science-fiction transmedia game on their computers to get them to rethink contraception, STIs and the cycle of poverty.

“Playing games can shape social attitudes and transform behaviors,” Gilliam said. “But I am not certain if anyone has tried to use a transmedia game in this context with urban youth.”

First, an explanation: A transmedia game is a story that unfolds across multiple digital technologies. It is usually designed by a video game, movie, or television show creator for that subset of the audience who wants to take the experience out of the screen and into everyday life.

This transmedia game is being orchestrated by Gilliam and her colleague Patrick Jagoda, PhD, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of New Media in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. It will launch on March 12th, and will be live for two weeks. They and their team of game developers will drop clues online and in the real world during that time, leading young players on a scavenger hunt for health and science knowledge and letting the players create content for each other.

The first hint in the game is already being planted at various places across Chicago. The developers are also drawing players into the game with Facebook and Google advertisements. The ads will direct these curious people to a website. Right now, the website is just a countdown clock to March 12. When the game starts, it will be a hub of clues.

(The plot and characters are under wraps until it’s over, so don’t look here for spoilers.)

“We don’t know who will play the game,” said Ainsley Sutherland, the research coordinator for the project. “But it was designed by 14 to 17 year olds, for their friends and peers.”

The research group plans to collect demographic information, to survey the people who play, and to monitor the online forum to see what they learn by playing. Gilliam is hopeful that the game will reach the target audience of poor, urban young people of color.

“I hope they realize that their course doesn’t have to be determined for them,” Gilliam said. By helping the young players think critically about health disparities and increase their health literacy in an augmented reality game, Gilliam hopes they’ll feel empowered to choose their sexual path in real life.

“Sexual and reproductive health is about your sense of relationships, and where you fit in the world. Young people who reach their full potential know what dangers they face and what hinders them. And they learn to reach beyond it.”

Will they play? Will they run away at the faintest whiff of being educated by an academic medical center? Will they think more critically about their social and cultural pressures to make poor reproductive choices?

And the million dollar question: Will their sexual behaviors change?

“Telling their stories and gaining technology and research skills can help these young people decide that they have agency over their lives,” Gilliam said. “Unfortunately, many of these kids have a dismal vision of their own future, and think that their path is determined for them. Games demand that we take risks, fail, examine the outcome and try again. Games are a safe way to learn about consequences.”

While we wait for the clock to countdown to zero, there’s at least one group of South Side teenagers that has already been highly influenced by this game: the high schoolers who designed it.

Last fall, Gilliam, Jagoda and their research team brought in eight kids from the neighborhood for an afterschool workshop with the goal of learning the language of game design. “No one wanted to talk about health,” Gilliam said, “but everyone wanted to be a game designer.” The students worked with one of the team’s project coordinators, Stephen Healthcock, who has expertise in storytelling and theater. Together they created characters and stories based on events from their own lives, interviews with their peers, and from the news. They learned how to create content on the internet with Photoshop, Dreamweaver, 3D modeling programs and video editors.

“The internet stopped being something that was programmed for them. Now they don’t just look at it and surf it—they add to it,” Gilliam said. This is a big part of the empowerment and agency she’s trying to teach. “Once someone can see the HTML behind the websites and know how to add to it, they have tremendous power.”

Sutherland has been working madly since the after-school program ended to get this game ready for launch. Now that it’s about to be played, she’s starting to look ahead to getting survey information back from all the players. “This is the first transmedia game that a hospital has ever made,” she said. “We hope it isn’t the last.”

There are certainly easier ways to teach kids about sex. But Gilliam knows that empowering them to change their behaviors is an entirely different game.

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