You can reach a huge audience of young gamers on mobile to sell them things, but one developer is using its iOS and Android game to address some of the problems young people face.
High School Story from developer Pixelberry Studios is introducing new quests to tackle body-image issues and eating disorders. The developer plans to provide information on the topic by telling an in-game story with characters who are dealing with these issues. To help players who may themselves suffer from these problems, Pixelberry is working with the National Eating Disorder Association to connect players with counselors, should they want help. The developer did the same thing for cyberbullying, and the company ended up pairing hundreds of players who had questions about online harassment or were dealing with suicidal thoughts with experts at the nonprofit group Cybersmile.
High School Story is a simulation that lets you run the “high school of your dreams.” You build the facility, fill it with friends, throw parties, go on dates, and more. The game also has quests where players meet characters that go on emotional arcs. That kind of writing required a certain level of authenticity, which eventually encouraged the studio to take on tough subject matter. That went well, and now Pixelberry is highlighting eating disorders.
“Cybersmile continues to send us examples of teens who were thinking about suicide or self-hurting and how they’ve been able to help,” Pixelberry chief executive officer Oliver Miao told GamesBeat.
The cyberbullying campaign didn’t end at informing and counseling. Pixelberry also sells in-game items in High School Story as part of that storyline, and it is donating the proceeds from that to Cybersmile. So far, players have helped Pixelberry raise $280,000 for the nonprofit.
“Now we’re tackling body-image issues and eating disorders,” said Miao. “We got interested in this issue because we had players, after our cyberbullying quest, tell us that this is something we should consider writing about. We have two writers on our time who they or their friends had body-image issues, so this issue really resonated with them. As we did more research, when it comes to body image, it affects such a larger number of teens.”
Miao said that the Pixelberry’s research showed that by age 17, almost four-out-of-five girls have had body-image issues. That number is one-in-five for boys.
That prompted Miao and his team to take action. High School Story will now feature two quest lines that deal with body image.
“The whole purpose is to make our players comfortable with discussing eating disorders or body image with their friends or family,” said Miao. “So if they have an issue or if they know someone who does, being able to share and talk about that is a great first step in getting help. The other thing we’re trying to do is to encourage kids to feel more comfortable with who they are.”
Reaching players where they already are is extraordinarily important in combating something as sensitive as eating disorders, according to Eating Recovery Center executive director Jennifer Lombardi.
“In order to be effective, you have to fully understand where to start,” Lombardi told GamesBeat. “And knowing where to start means understanding where people are in their thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. If you’re able to speak to them from this point of understanding, they’re much more likely to be receptive.”
The CEO said that his team noticed that High School Story was able to make its players feel more confident in a general sense.
Lombardi, an expert in helping people struggling with eating disorders, says that fictional characters can act as a powerful tool in the recovery process.
“If the fictional character has experiences and/or qualities that the reader or viewer can relate to, they can form a type of bond with that character,” she said. “This leads to greater self-reflection because they’re able to look at the character’s experiences from a different perspective, and then reflect back on their own thoughts and feelings.”
“After playing our game, some people have told us that they used to feel like they didn’t fit in, and now they are OK with being different,” he said. “They like who they are. We’re hoping to expand that to address how they feel about their bodies.”
While High School Story’s new quest will explore the emotions of an eating disorder, the game will also now include a FAQ that can quickly provide players with the hard facts about the issue.
It’s important for Pixelberry to include those kinds of resources in the game because that’s where these players feel comfortable. They’ve built up a relationship with High School Story, which is why it has an option to send an in-game message to the developers.
“So if someone sends us an in-game message about a problem they have, they’ll be put directly in touch with the counselors who can help them with that,” said Miao. “We have this platform that has a lot of reach with teens. We’re trying to leverage that platform so that non-profits can reach those teens where they feel comfortable and spend time.”
Pixelberry is doing this because it helps its players, but it is also finding that it makes its game better.
“As long as we’re honest with our storylines and we’re addressing issues that they really care about, we’ve seen these quests connect our players closer to our game,” said Miao. “It creates this virtuous cycle where people feel good about the game, they become more willing to learn about and discuss more serious topics, and it enables us to keep bringing more of these topics up.”
Pixelberry wants to continue tackling tough subjects. For now, it’s going to see how its fans respond to this before deciding on whether it’ll move on to another tough issue. The studio also plans to continue raising money for Cybersmile. The original plan was to raise a few thousand dollars and then move on, but the campaign is at $280,000, and Pixelberry isn’t done yet.
“In our culture, body image and eating-disorder issues are often viewed as taboo, either because they’re seen as shameful or because they elicit more morbid curiosity than genuine understanding,” said Lombardi. “Being able to create an environment in which thoughtful and honest discussion can occur provides the best chance for self-reflection and personal growth.”