Thursday, December 04, 2014

In impoverished rural Alabama, officials hoping to educate teens about HIV through video games

In one of the poorest regions of the country, where African American males have significantly higher rates of contracting HIV and schools do little to nothing to educate about safe sex, one health official is turning to video games in an attempt to teach about the virus, Dan Carsen reports for NPR. The hope is that video games can be used to reach teenage boys who might not be interested in learning through other mediums.

Civil Rights Movement Veterans graphic
The 18-counties of Alabama's "Black Belt" region "is predominantly African American, the poorest part of a poor state and home to underfunded, segregated schools, a weak health care system and an alarming number of new HIV cases," Carsen writes. "Here, young black men are at least 10 times likelier than the state average to contract the virus. But with talk of HIV still largely taboo in rural Alabama, one nursing professor has turned to an unlikely technology in hopes of changing things: video games."

Comfort Enah of the University of Alabama at Birmingham came up with the idea. She told Carsen, "Gaming is particularly appropriate for adolescents because of where their brains are. We have a scenario where we have hormones, but they don't have the brain capacity to anticipate long-term consequences. So gaming can tap into that mismatch and kind of force them to see consequences right now."

As part of the game, "players build avatars, customizing their appearance, hobbies and personality," Carsen writes. "Then they respond to age-tailored but potentially risky situations any way they want. In the do-over world of the game, consequences include points, praise, good health and money . . . or embarrassment, unemployment, HIV and even death."

The game is still in its infancy, and teens have responded that it's boring or has out-dated graphics, but those are the kind of responses officials are looking for in an attempt to continue tweaking the game until it is one that teens can be drawn to, because teens—especially males—tend to identify more with games than with reality, Carsen writes. And in this case, that could be a good thing.

Debra Lieberman, director of the University of California Santa Barbara's Center for Digital Games Research, told Carsen, "Avatars that the player identifies with are especially powerful. You'll hear players saying, 'Oh, I did this' or 'Oh, look what happened to me.' They are just totally transported into the game, and that avatar is them. There have been studies that have found that when your avatar engages in health behaviors, then you are more likely to go out into your daily life and adopt those behaviors." (Read more)

No comments: