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Gaming Against Sexual Violence

Melissa Gilliam explains her team’s novel approach to teaching teens social responsibility.

Gilliam, 49, cofounder of the University of Chicago’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab   Photo: Anna Knott

The newest video game created by the University of Chicago’s Game Changer program, which you helped found, is called Bystander. How does it work?

The experience frames sexual violence prevention as a community-wide responsibility. The game is laid out in a comic-book style, and the player has to take on interactive challenges and make decisions. We filmed youth from our communities on the South Side as the characters. Students will play [at the Game Changer lab] as a high school student facing a series of interactions linked to sexual violence and harassment. For example, one male student gathers resources for a friend who’s been sexually assaulted. It teaches behaviors you need to be a good intervener. It’s very real.

Why do this through video games?

Games allow safe risk taking. Teens expect to make mistakes in games and expect to lose. As a result, young people discover skills and abilities they did not know they had. We call this a high-tech, high-touch approach. Interaction is built in: Students and researchers have to work as a team. We find the game itself has given permission to talk about topics they haven’t been able to speak about before.

How do people get access to Bystander?

It’s being tested at King College Prep High School right now, and then the lab will do research [on its effectiveness] through June. After the research, we will work on ways to distribute it to the public. People can find out when it will be available at ci3.uchicago.edu.

How involved are students in creating the games?

Heavily. More than 300 students have participated in the past three years. In one workshop, we made an online interactive story that required a lot of tasks: storyboarding, coding, drawing, writing, photo editing, and taking photos.

The MacArthur Foundation awarded the lab $1 million in December. What are you doing with the money?

Next in our pipeline is a game called A Day in the Life. It is more of a social and emotional learning game that takes place in a high school. There is a false rumor about a high school football player’s sex life going around. You get to talk to different people in the school and learn about HIV, bullying, teen pregnancy, healthy relationships, and intersections between home and school life. Other games we are planning focus on addiction and diversity.

You’re a gynecologist by training who works with kids and adolescents. Why bring these lessons out of the hospital?

When you’re in medicine, you solve problems. But you have to hope the patient is also accountable outside the clinical setting. It can leave you feeling helpless. Game Changer Chicago allows me to empower kids around their abilities. If you do that rather than focus on their deficits, they are so much less likely to get into risky behaviors.

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