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Yale professor uses video games as tool for sex ed.

By Cara Harvey
On November 17, 2011


Video games have been accused of inciting violence and shortening attention spans in youngsters, but now, a Yale professor is trying to use them to educate about sex.

The Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention hosted Lynn R. Fiellin, associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, Thursday, as part of its lecture series.

Fiellin gave a lecture titled "The Game of Science and the Science of the Game," which discussed the video game she is helping to develop, which helps inner city youth better understand the risks associated with sex.

A video game offers a unique vehicle through which professionals can educate inner-city youths about the risks of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies that result from unprotected sex.

Fiellin described the process she and her colleagues are using to develop this new type of video game. Fiellin explained how Farnam Neighborhood Help, which holds after school programs and weekend programs for inner-city youth in New Haven, had been the site of many of her studies and interviews. Fiellin met with many of the youths there and discussed what the youths considered normal sexual activity and risks of sexual activity.

One discovery Fiellin and her colleagues made was how many of the inner city youth understood that pregnancy was a risk, because they had peers who had become pregnant. 

"Pregnancy is much more proximal to them, so if we can demonstrate that there is a risk of HIV and STDs resulting from the same behavior that causes pregnancy, it may be easier for them to imagine," Fiellin said.

After conducting the interviews, Fiellin and her colleagues sought a game developer and came to an agreement with Schell Games. Jesse Schell, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and author of "Art of Game Design," had both an academic approach to the project and a knowledge of video games.

The video game, now in development, employs the use of what Fiellin calls an "aspirational avatar." This type of avatar goes beyond just giving the player a physical representation of himself or herself. It forces players to imagine what their end goal is, what they want in the future, and what the best way to negotiate that is.

"I used to love the game ‘Life.' Just like I was invested in those two little plastic playing pieces, players of this game will be invested in making good choices," Fiellin said.

The HIV prevention video game will target inner-city youth from ages 11 to 14. The goal of the game is to improve understanding of HIV and risky behaviors. Data will be gathered through game play, in order to give a better understanding of the players' choices.

Fiellin described how an appropriate place for the video game to debut may be in schools, where the students would feel that playing video games would be a respite from academia. Fiellin explained that if they felt it was relaxing, they might not notice that they were learning so much from the game.

Ultimately, the goal of producing the game is to delay the initiation of sexual activity, according to Fiellin.

"If it's effective or if components of it are effective, it can be models for other games, whether it be to educate about teen drinking, driving, smoking or something else," Fiellin said.

Though it seems a great deal of work and research has been put into the project, there is still one component missing.

"We don't have a name yet, so if anyone has a brilliant name, let me know," said Fiellin

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