'An innovative approach': Avatar games used to teach sex-ed to tweens

Players can go back in time to see how different actions would have different consequences.

Courtesy Play to Prevent

What works to teach kids sex-ed? There’s the old condom-on-a-banana routine, some extremely gross photos of people suffering from STIs, and an awkward chat with the poor PE teacher about human reproduction.

But that’s the old way. The new way just might be iPad games, according to a new Yale University study of more than 300 adolescents. It found that a tablet game was able to educate minority youth aged 11 to 14 about sexual health and HIV prevention.

Compared to controls who played Angry Birds and other games with no educational redeeming qualities, boys who played PlayForward: Elm City Stories gained more knowledge about sexual health and showed improved attitudes. However, when follow-up was done after a year, rates of sexual activity were comparably low in both groups, and kids who played the game were just as likely to say they intended to start having sex soon.

In the game players make a little avatar that “travels through life, facing challenges and making decisions that bring different risks and benefits,” according to the developer’s website.

Then – in a feature that really should be available in real life – they can virtually go back in time and see how different actions would have led to better consequences.

Courtesy Play to Prevent

“It’s definitively an innovative approach,” said Kris Wells, an education professor at the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services. “If you want to engage young people you have to go where they live.”  

STIs are on the upswing among Canadian youth, Wells added, indicating that in sex-education, “Business as usual is not working.”

Wells said children tend to trust teachers over parents when it comes to getting accurate information about sex, so it would be ideal to introduce the game in a school setting. He said video games have great potential as a way to deliver standardized, accurate and LGBTQ-positive sex-ed.

Michael Kehler, who studies the efficacy of sex-ed at Western University’s faculty of education, is not as convinced.

By bringing a video game into a formal setting, “You’re co-opting an activity that youth enjoy and (making) it into an educational tool,” he said. Youth will see through that, and it’s no longer fun.”

Indeed, official screenshots from the game look a trifle like a teen party, as it exists in the mind of a public health researcher: Kids in oversized pants sitting around a coffee table surrounded by 6-packs of beer and a hookah, with a boom box and a flip phone clearly visible.

Not all boys, or all kids, are interested in playing video games, Kehler added, and besides, the results of the study were not "dramatic," and perhaps a even disappointing for researchers, he said.

"It’s difficult to say whether this exposure (to the game) is going to have long-term impact.”  

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