Abstinence Gaming

Researchers at the University of Florida are working on an  video game that attempts to educate pre-teen Latina girls on how to resist peer pressure to have sex. Players will don motion capture suits to interact with the characters on the screen to practice proper social responses. Now, forget for a moment that it’s abstinence education. Forget that it’s the result of a $434,000 government grant. What we have here is a group of adults who have completely misunderstood children and video games.

The most obvious flaw in this project is the graphics. How is this game supposed to engage anyone if we’re scraping the bottom of the uncanny valley with these character designs? It seems like the researchers believe that realism is the most important aspect of engaging people through video games. Most best selling video games often feature cartoon avatars, or at the very least highly stylized human avatars. There is an entire genre of school simulation games like the Persona series that are based on simpler technology and would be way more entertaining and effective than this awkward monstrosity.

The game also seems to treat decision making as if it were some kind of pavlovian response. There are way more factors going into a child’s decision to use drugs or have sex than remembering to “just say no”. No matter how realistic the graphics might be, it’s much harder to model factors like the involvement of a parent, the availability of birth control, or the feelings you’ll have to manage when it’s a childhood friend applying the peer pressure. If you can express those concepts, your game might become entertaining, but then it’ll run the risk of being accused of glorification. Some parents think that just learning about a bad behaviour in an engaging way constitutes glorification. It’s a risk that educators run into more often than they should.

Dealing with peer pressure is an important part of being a child. The more education you have about peer pressure, the better equipped you’ll be to make good choices. However, if we design that education based only on adult assumptions about children and concepts adults are comfortable with,  all you’ll be left with is a half million dollars worth of creepy CGI corpse-children.