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Let’s talk about sex: using video games for learning

By Thalia Ortiz

With the transmission of AIDS/HIV on the rise in recent years, this week’s Brown Bag series focused on an unconventional way to foster sexual education. “Sex and Video Games: Promoting Health in a Fun Way” ran on Friday, Oct. 7. in Mayo Concert Hall.

Leslie Snyder, a professor and director of the Center for Health Communication and Marketing at the University of Connecticut, spoke about her time at the school working with colleagues studying AIDS and HIV in the United States. Snyder learned that poor African Americans are statistically at a greater risk for contracting AIDS/HIV. Teens and young adult men are at an even greater risk and typically transmit the virus to women through heterosexual contact, she said. “You grew up in an environment with AIDS,” Snyder said to the audience.

While information on AIDS and HIV prevention is readily available to students on college campuses, Snyder explained that it is unfortunately less readily available to people of lower economic standing. An important goal is to spread awareness of this health issue.

“Nobody is trying to do things with these men because it’s difficult to communicate with them,” she said.

Friday's Brown Bag got steamy as Leslie Snyder presented video games as sexual education tools. (Photo Courtesy of Lindsey Hardifer)

Snyder went on to explain that she and her colleagues asked themselves, “Where can we find a media channel that can reach a whole lot of people?” The answer, they found, was in video games.

Data showed that in this demographic of African-American men, three quarters of them played video games on a daily basis, while half of adult African-American men played games, Snyder said.

Projects like this always have leaders, but over 75 people had a hand in this one, she said.  Snyder and her team went to work asking people from what channel they would want to get their sexual education, and video games was the answer given by men across the board.

The advantage of video games is that it models and shows positive behaviors, she said. Snyder explained that players would learn by role-playing and problem solving within the game.

The issue with this, however, was that the game needed to have a specific goal. When referring to the target audience of campaigns like this, Snyder explained, “I always tell my clients, ‘What are your behavioral goals? What do you want (people) to do?’ ”  Snyder and her team then decided that they wanted their target audience to use condoms to reduce the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS and get tested for STI’s (sexually transmitted infections).

Developing the game became the next step, and Snyder and her team networked with leaders in the game industry. One requirement of the project was that the game had to be compatible to play on a computer that was seven years old in order for people from a lower economic background to be able to play, since they would likely own an outdated PC, she said.

Snyder then presented a preview of the actual game, called “Nightlife,” to the audience. Because it is geared toward men, “Nightlife” begins with a male avatar. This avatar is an aspiring DJ and the objective is to lead him through levels where he has an opportunity to have sex with one of three female characters in each level of the game.
Depending on what choices players make in the game, they may or may not have sex. If they choose to have sex with a condom, for instance, the avatar must go to a store and select the condom. If the wrong condom is selected, like lambskin (since it is not an effective material for protection), players do not get what Snyder calls the “benefits” of making progress in the game.

“We had guys motivated, saying, ‘Oh, oh, we gotta get some condoms to advance,’” she said.

According to Snyder, “Nightlife” was tested by an online panel of young African-American men who were given the game for three days, during which the game was played an average of two-and-a-half times. The panel showed even better results once they were asked to play the game again over a three-month span, where they played it between 10 and 100 times, she said.

Snyder explained that positive effects were seen, such as an increase in the number of people who wanted to get tested for STI’s and HIV and a rise in condom usage in the real world, she explained.

“We need to do more research … I would like to do a second round in the game,” she said. In terms of what can be expected in a possible subsequent version of this game, Snyder mentioned that she would like to release an edition of “Nightlife” targeted toward women.


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