By: Kathleen Morrison

With rates of STDs on the rise in the US, education and prevention programs that target youth and high risk communities are more necessary than ever. Research shows that comprehensive sex education and knowledge about condoms help teens make healthier, more informed choices about their sexual health. However, not all youth have the same level of access to these more traditional forms of education. Researchers are beginning to explore alternative methods of reaching out to communities who may incur the highest amount of risk with the lowest number of resources.

Historically, media outlets have often criticized video games for glamorizing sex, violence, and drug use. This has created a cultural narrative that playing video games negatively impacts young people by having them virtually participate in violent and otherwise risky behavior. But what if video games could be used as an educational tool for engaging with adolescents? Could it be possible that playing a video game could help teens make better decisions in regards to their sexual health?

A team at Yale University led by Dr. Lynn Fiellin set out to answer this very question. PlayForward is a role-playing game (RPG) that engages the player in a variety of realistic challenges and choices that mimic real-world scenarios. A trailer for the game showcases a variety of scenarios related to dishonesty, relationships, sex, and education, as well as racially diverse and relatable characters. Teens can play out the consequences of each choice they make, for better or worse, and learn from their virtual mistakes.

Knowing that adolescents from marginalized communities are at high risk for HIV and STI infection, the team recruited over 300 students, aged 11-14, from after school and summer programs in the New Haven area. For six weeks, the youth either played the team’s intervention game, PlayForward: Elm City Stories, or one of several unrelated games. The students spent up to 75 minutes twice a week playing the games.

Following the players for one year, the Yale research team assessed the students for specific health outcomes including sexual health attitudes and knowledge, sexual activity, and intention to initiate sex. When compared to the students who did not play PlayForward, the students who did show improvements in both sexual health attitudes and knowledge at the end of twelve months. While there was no difference in outcomes between the groups in intention to initiate sex or to be sexually active, these results show that video games can be a useful educational tool that adolescents are willing to engage with and learn from.

Further testing and development may lead to other beneficial outcomes in sexual health education, as well as in other areas like drug abuse prevention. Perhaps most importantly, the game is geared towards underserved communities and communities of color where students are at the highest risk for contracting HIV and STIs and often have the least access to sexual health resources and preventative care. Supporting and promoting these types of unconventional educational methods may be a first step in getting these students the education and knowledge to better navigate their sexual health.

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