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 U.N. 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."
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 U.N. 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 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."
If only life also worked that way.