A scene from Bystander (Credit: Game Changer Design Lab)

A University of Chicago developed video game scene isn’t too out of the ordinary for any high school student. It’s a weekend night, someone’s parents are out of town, and there’s a party. A man and a woman flirt on a couch.

The man goes to the kitchen to pour extra alcohol in the woman’s drink, walks back into the living room, and starts to lead the woman to a nearby bedroom.

Anyone watching the scene unfold has a choice to make: do they intervene to talk to the man or woman? Do they get the woman’s friends or her coat? Or do they ignore the interaction and continue with the party?

If they choose the last option it’s game over. Literally.

The scenario is one of four mini games in Bystander, a video game created by UChicago’s Game Changer Design Lab, an organization developing video games to educate high school students about health and social issues. In a year where sexual assault among young adults has gained extra attention (a recent poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found 25 percent of young women and 7 percent of young men were victims of unwanted sexual incidents while in college), prevention efforts become increasingly important. Researchers at Game Changer are betting that video games are the way to walk students through these tricky situations in a safe, virtual setting, before a situation in the real world gets out of hand.

Game Changer was co-founded by Dr. Melissa Gilliam and Patrick Jagoda (as part of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health, Ci3, at UChicago) who saw the connection between storytelling, gaming, and safe health practices. The aim of Ci3 is to develop youth-created games to that guide students through tough issues. So far Game Changer has developed projects that address tobacco use, teen pregnancy, and access to medical care. In March they received a $1 million grant to further develop Bystander, which focuses entirely on preventing sexual assault, harassment, and rape.

The game utilizes the bystander framework of sexual assault prevention, which means students recognize a risky situation and know how to intervene before anything happens. “We’re making it a community responsibility, and trying to increase empathy for victims of sexual assault,” said Ashlyn Sparrow, lab director at Game Changer Chicago.

It’s a topic that hits close to home for Sparrow. While up late in a common room in college, a drunk man came back to the dormitory and grabbed her. She told him to stop; he wouldn’t. Luckily, a friend came by and pulled the man away, who fled. It wasn’t until she started working with youth to develop this game that she recognized that what happened would be categorized as assault, and that bystander intervention helped her out of a potentially dangerous situation.

“Because I was not raped, I thought this was normal, that someone trying to touch me was okay,” she said. “Doing research and working on this game has broadened my mind…I want to prevent that from happening again.”

Bystander runs through four scenarios that train students to intervene in situations just like Sparrow’s.

In this scenario, players must choose their response. (Credit: Game Changer Design Lab)

In one setting, students have to balance having fun at the party (eating popcorn, dancing with a friend) while keeping an eye on two people flirting on the couch. In another scenario, students counsel a friend who was pressured to have sex with her boyfriend after he took her on a nice date.

A third scenario walks students down a high school hallway and they have to decide whether certain interactions qualify as sexual harassment or not, such as putting someone’s phone number on a bathroom stall. (This scenario is designed so that students can better understand that harassment is any unwanted sexual attention). The last scenario helps students recognize and navigate male-on-male sexual assault following an incident in the men’s locker room.

In all these mini games, if they make the wrong decision twice, the game restarts.

“It teaches pattern recognition and problem solving,” said Sparrow, who pointed out the game will continue to restart until students correctly identify the situation and intervene, an opportunity for second chance learning that doesn’t happen in the real world. “When you fail in a game, it is game over. Then what do you do? You start again.”

The game, which Game Changer Lab started on last October, still needs about two months of development, but they started testing at UChicago’s Woodlawn Charter and King College Prep this spring. Research to measure the effectiveness of the games will be next. “It is starting the conversation,” Sparrow said. “People are questioning, what is consent? What is sexual assault? There is a lot of peer to peer education.”

Sparrow admitted that women tended to get through the games a bit faster than men do, something that she points out may come from the larger video game environment.”A lot of these youth are echoing a lot of the things [seen] in these games that reinforce stereotypes of women–that they are sexual objects.”

But given video games are over a $100 billion industry and over 90 percent of all kids ages 2-17 play video games, the opportunity to disrupt an old narrative was never better.

“We want to create games where kids can see themselves in a game, see themselves in a position of power, and think of themselves in new interesting ways as opposed to stereotypes,” said Sparrow.