Game to take on domestic violence

Students in Vermont work on the game for a UN project. Possible users? Cape Town youths.

Ann DeMarle/Champlain College
The project: Students from Champlain College in Vermont meet with youths in a township of Cape Town, South Africa.
Amanda Jones/Champlain College
Students Rob Whitbeck and Heather Conover enjoy a playful moment with a local child. Champlain College's Emergent Media Center students and staff went to the Langa Tonwship.

Creating a fun game may seem an unlikely way to tackle the serious problem of domestic violence. But that’s the task facing a team of college students in quaint Vermont. An added challenge: The digital game has to be appealing and accessible to young people half a world away, in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa.

As part of a broader campaign against gender violence, the United Nations wants to reach children, particularly boys, before stereotypes sink in. Seeing the global popularity of gaming, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) decided to partner with two media centers in Vermont. They hope to make a game available by the end of next year that can be adapted for various cultures.

“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 behaviors.”

Students travel to Cape Town
A team of 15 students from Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., was hired to work on the project with the school’s Emergent Media Center. The students include art and marketing majors as well as programmers and electronic game designers.

Along with faculty supervisors, they recently traveled to Cape Town to better understand what kind of game scenarios might help young people challenge the patterns that lead to abuse. They surveyed and interviewed teens on how they spend free time, what technology they use, and how they view gender and violence.

The students gain professional experience, and they are well positioned for this work because “they are more able to talk to [game] users on a peer-to-peer basis and they are more aware of the latest developments in the game industry,” says Aminata Toure, who’s overseeing the project as chief of UNFPA’s Gender, Human Rights and Culture Branch Technical Division. As she meets with the students at the Emergent Media Center, she looks at photos from their trip and probes for some of the insights they gained.

Interviews with the Cape Town boys revealed that they competed for girlfriends and believed many sexual myths.

“Some of the girls didn’t want to ever get married because of domestic violence,” says senior Amanda Jones. “When we asked them about the ideal husband, they used phrases like ‘won’t abandon the family,’ ‘respects me,’ etc. The boys say [the violence] is not right, but at the same time they’re like, ‘Well, a lot of times women run to the police when it’s not necessary.’ ”

The UN cites surveys showing that domestic violence affects between 10 percent and 69 percent of women around the world, depending on the country in which they live.

The other organization involved in the project, the international Population Media Center (PMC), is in nearby Shelburne, Vt. It conveys social messages through entertainment and has produced radio and TV dramas all over the world to promote family planning, health, and women’s rights. Now, for the first time, it’s working to adapt to an interactive-game format.

The dramas are based on the Sabido methodology – creating a story with characters that evolve to match positive role models.
Taking a cue from that method, “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.”

Impact of radio drama in Ethiopia
After a two-year radio drama by PMC ran in Ethiopia, demand for contraceptives rose 157 percent, and the portion of men who recognized the importance of girls’ education went up by 52 percentage points, according to an independent study by Birhan Research in Addis Ababa. The drama addressed the abduction of girls and resulted in more punishment of such crimes and a greater willingness to send daughters to school.

Among games with a social mission, there are success stories as well, says Ms. Seggerman of Games for Change. A Canadian game that helped children understand Internet dangers resulted in the arrests of at least five online predators, for instance.

But with new media, hitting on what’s effective isn’t easy. “It’s hard enough to make a good game. It’s doubly so to make a game about real-world issues,” Seggerman says. “We may be seeing a number of failures right now, but we’re also seeing ... [games that] foster real transformation in the players.”

The Champlain team has already realized some constraints. Cellphones appear to be the best way for the kids they met to access a game. They get online through their phones, but the more they download, the more it costs, so it “can’t be a very high-end, 3-D game,” says programmer Bryan Hare, a sophomore.

For all the poverty and matter-of-fact talk of violence that pervade their lives, the young South Africans were excited about the project and made the college students feel hopeful.

“Playing a video game is not going to save the world, but it’s a step in the right direction,” says Ms. Nishikawa, a senior who says she’s sad she’ll graduate before the game is completed. “We really feel the responsibility to make something powerful.”

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