The Little-Known Field of Violence-Prevention Video Games

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Mid-way through your shift as a bartender, a patron asks for your help - their date is going sour, and they need help to get out safely. You're about to ask what they need, when their date approaches the bar and asks what's going on. How can you help the person in need without tipping off their date and putting them in more danger?

Determining the best way to help can be tricky. But in a new video game called It's Your Move, players must do exactly that: take on the role of a bartender to navigate situations of potential sexual violence. The game is based on the idea that empowering bystanders to intervene in sexual violence can reduce the number of sexual assaults and create safer communities.

Prior to beginning graduate studies, I was a social worker in domestic violence prevention. Alberta has the highest domestic violence rates in Canada, and our system is woefully unprepared to support survivors of domestic violence. For me, the most difficult part was seeing the systemic problems that stayed in place while I worked with individual survivors to build new, safe and happy lives for themselves and their families. There is still much work to do in developing social and government systems that are truly supportive of survivors.

It wasn't until I took the University of Alberta MOOC, Understanding Video Games, that I started connecting the dots on video games and gender-based violence. Games are amazing tools for learning. However, in the violence prevention field they are overwhelmingly viewed as negative (due to notoriously sexist games like Grand Theft Auto). I wondered whether games might be employed as violence prevention tools instead - and it led me to the Master's program in Humanities Computing.

My research explores video games as sexual violence prevention tools, but actually making a game about sexual violence turned out to be very different! This summer I received a student-community partnership project grant, and together with the U of A Sexual Assault Centre and the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, I built It's Your Move. Drawing from my experiences as a social worker and my knowledge of feminist theory, we developed a game that presented realistic situations of the threat of sexual violence, and the challenges bystanders face when intervening.

My community partners warned me that role-play participants sometimes choose intervention options that are too aggressive to work in the real world. We deliberately set out to give players some options that might not work in real life. Game scholars argue that truly ethical game design involves letting players make 'bad' choices so they can reflect on the consequences of their decisions - so that's exactly what we did! We were happily surprised to find that many of our play-testers wanted to play the game a second time to see how different choices might have influenced the outcome.

It was also important to us to have a broad range of representation in the game, and we tried to incorporate diverse genders, sexual orientations, and racial backgrounds from the outset. Broadening the representation subverted players' expectations; one scenario involves a male bartender being sexually harassed by a female patron. Many players were surprised to see a male victim of violence, which is a good sign that the game may be helping to widen people's understanding of what sexual violence is, and what violence prevention is all about!

Although there still isn't much research on developing games for sexual violence prevention, I hope It's Your Move will contribute to this body of literature. The translation from academic theory to a living, breathing, cultural object is a challenging one to make, and I can't wait to see how others might pick up the torch.

About Kenzie Gordon

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Kenzie is a Master's student in Humanities Computing; she completed a BA in Middle Eastern & African Studies and History at the University of Alberta, and a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She has worked in domestic violence prevention, and is an active volunteer with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.