Researchers at the University of Texas have been looking at the use of gamification to address critical public health and social issues among young people and have published a report detailing the challenges that need to be met if this approach to social education is to work properly.

Risk Prevention Education: the Challenges of Gamification

For some years now educators have been using games to raise young people’s awareness of various social issues. The Yale School of Medicine created a video game to help educate 9-14 year-olds about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drugs and how to prevent them. Called Play2Prevent, the venture cost close to $4 million dollars, but it has not proved problem-free. Against this general background, Dick Shoech and other faculty members at the University of Texas decided to look deeper into the subject in order to try and grasp the issues and understand the challenges of using games techniques to engage with a school-age audience. They have created a web-tablet game called Choices & Consequences, which is designed to teach youngsters how to avoid substance abuse and relationship violence problems. It has been tested in a school in the United States and the creators have analysed the challenges it threw up. It seems clear that using games techniques – including rewards for making correct choices – can be an excellent way of getting adolescents to engage with the issues and encouraging them to take their own decisions. Nevertheless, creating and implementing this type of game is not without its difficulties.

Designing a long-running game

Given that the basic aim of this type of game is risk prevention, it cannot be a one-off exercise but must be based on a programme that is repeatable long term. The Texas researchers stress in their conclusions that such a game must be designed to support young people for a number of weeks or months rather than engaging their attention for a matter of hours and then being quickly forgotten. The basic challenge is therefore to come up with a scenario that can stay the course and continue to be fun to play and not become boring or seem unrealistic. In the same vein, the researchers wanted to create a game that could be adapted to the various needs of different schools and parents, who do not all share the same goals or take the same view of such sensitive social issues as drug use, unprotected sex and violence/bullying in relationships.  The Choices & Consequences developers therefore set out to create a game which did not impose a monolithic view of things but could be adapted according to the demands of particular schools or parents.

Interaction through social networking and feedback

The second major challenge facing Professor Dick Shoech and his team was how to set up highly realistic scenarios so as to really encourage the young players to interact with the game. To obtain some background, they worked with a panel of college and high school students who were involved with drugs or experiencing relationship violence in order to get a handle on the language and expressions they were actually using and bring this realistic dialogue into the game. They then created a platform to channel all feedback from the players – from score statistics to comments on the game, which the users can post at any time during the game. In addition they provided the players with the option of discussing the game on Facebook. A coordinator runs the discussions, with the aim of creating a real discussion community. It became clear however that while setting up a game in a single school and putting in place a discussion mechanism and coordinator is not too difficult, a much larger programme requires staff and considerable resources. A major conclusion is that no matter how much fun the game is to play, if the youngsters soon forget all about it, the endeavour will have been wasted.  Nowadays gamification is becoming popular in such serious fields as healthcare and sustainable development, but the specific key challenge for games developers when it comes to addressing risk prevention among teenagers seems to be follow-up and continuity.

By Guillaume Scifo