Editor's note: Inspired by a Gamasutra interview, Chas reports on an interesting game design challenge that uses the medium to educate rather than simply entertain. -Demian


Jennifer Ann’s Group, a charity dedicated to the prevention of dating violence, recently awarded prize money to the creators of four entries in the organization’s 2010 "Life. Love. Game Design Challenge," a contest to create free Flash games that help young adults identify the warning signs and dangers of dating abuse.

Drew Crecente, executive director of Jennifer Ann’s Group, conceived of the Life. Love. contest out of the desire to educate teenagers who may not have any previous dating experience to compare a current or future relationship with.

“When a 15-year-old is told to not spend as much time with their friends, he or she could be convinced that it’s because the person they’re dating just wants to spend more time with them; if a 30-something is told the same thing he or she would recognize it as controlling behavior,” Crecente told Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander. “Sharing these ‘warning sign’ behaviors is a key component of our efforts.”

Crecente said he chose video games to help deliver the group’s message because teenagers aren’t always receptive to authority figures when discussing relationships.

“Most people like to figure things out on their own instead of feeling ‘preached to,’ and I believe this is especially true of teens, tweens, and young adults,” Crecente said. “The opportunities presented through video game play are uniquely suited to this approach.”

 

Grace’s Diary, the contest's first-place winner, is a point-and-click adventure game about a teenager named Grace who is concerned that her best friend Natalie might be in an abusive relationship.

Players must search Grace’s room for information to use in a phone call confrontation with Natalie about her boyfriend. In doing so, players learn the warning signs of relationship abuse, the proper methods to deal with it, and where they can find more help.

Crecente said he was very pleased with Grace’s Diary. “The winning entry is a really beautiful game , very professionally done, with great real-world examples of situations that are warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship,” he told Gamasutra.

A Decision of Paramount Importance, one of the runner-up entries, uses the format of a basic side-scrolling game and puts players in the role of a young woman trying to decide whether or not she should stay with her boyfriend, based on his lifestyle and how its matches up with the warning signs of an abusive relationship.

While the boyfriend cooks dinner, the player observes his belongings, each of which reveals something about his lifestyle. For example, letters from his family in the living room suggest that he’s a good person, while excessive amounts of beer in the refrigerator could indicate that he’s abusive. After dinner, the player must decide to stay or leave based on the information they gather. Certain details change each time, to encourage replay. 

Both games feature unique visual styles and focus heavily on identifying the warning signs of abusive relationships, but they also present black-and-white scenarios where it’s immediately clear whether the relationship is abusive or not.

Jennifer Ann’s Group originally chose to focus on educating its audience about the warning signs of dating abuse because many people did not think or know it was a legitimate issue. “A 2004 survey indicated '81% of parents surveyed either believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it’s an issue,'” Crecente said.

Now that awareness is spreading, Crecente he is looking into how obvious the group’s message should be in future projects. “We are evaluating if we still need the brute force of an axe or if the precise nuance of a scalpel would be more effective; an ideal game would encompass both.”

Crecente said most entries also fail to acknowledge that relationship abuse isn’t always male-directed violence against females.

“While our group strives to make very clear that this is not a male-on-female problem, the games don’t necessarily reflect that,” Crecente said. “This sometimes has the unfortunate effect on some game players of them focusing more on this inequity than on the educational information that we’re trying to share.”

Crecente said the contest doesn’t just benefit teenagers but the game designers as well.

“I’ve received numerous emails over the years from developers who had no idea that this was such a serious issue,” Crecente said. “By going through the process of learning about the topic, they have become ‘issue evangelists’ in their own right.”

Crecente is working on new ways to promote the Jennifer Ann’s Group and the Life. Love contest entries, but the organization has a small promotional budget and has not received much media exposure.

“We do leverage the Internet as much as possible, however,” Crecente said. “In addition to our website, we’ve established a presence on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and several other social media venues. Our audience continues to grow as evidenced by one million+ views of our YouTube channel and 1,700 fans on Facebook, but this has not resulted in a great deal of discussion about our contest.”

Jennifer Ann’s Group depends entirely on donations. For more information on dating abuse and how to identify and prevent it, visit Jennifer Ann’s Group’s website.


Read more about how video games can be more than just entertainment at BOLDSTATE.