Get eight teenagers and young adults together and ask them to come up with a Flash-based game based on safe sex – what do you expect will happen?
If you guess an over-the-top game that had no boundaries in its satirical treatment of the topic and head-on tackling of the facts, then you were right. When eight youth between the ages of 15 and 21 were asked to create a game that would engage youth in London, Ont., they came up with Adventures in Sex City.
The game is a parody of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels, but feels more like an X-rated episode of Family Guy missed with an after-school special gone wrong.
Mind Your Mind, a part of the Family Services Thames Valley, focuses on youth mental health promotion and is the group behind the game’s development. The group of youth worked over a period of 12 weeks to develop the game’s creative concept, says MariaLuisa Contursi, program director with Mind Your Mind.
“They entirely created the game,” she says. “We have a developer on staff that executed their vision.”
The Middlesex-London Health Unit is looking to stop the steady climb of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in the region since 2000. As an example, gonorrhea alone has increased 115 per cent in that period.
“So obviously what we’re doing isn’t working,” says Shaya Dhinsa, manager of sexual health at the health unit. “We always make assumptions about what youth should like, and what they should see… so we thought why not work with youth instead.”
The health unit participated in the youth focus groups to share information they wanted to get across in the game. They didn’t steer the creative course of the project, but did clarify what facts they wanted to communicate.
In the end, the micro-site getitonlondon.com was launched Feb. 11.
Since then, the game has gone viral and Web traffic to the health unit’s site has exploded. The site received 41,480 visitors in one day, on Feb. 17, when it typically sees about 800 to 900 visitors a day. That’s an increase of 4,600 per cent.
“It’s more popular than we ever thought,” Dhinsa says. “It is a bit controversial. Sex is generally controversial.”
The graphic nature of the game and its unabashed language might leave an adult feeling queasy. The characters are given names like “Captain Condom” and the main villain’s arms have been replaced with giant organs specific to the male anatomy. It’s a game you probably wouldn’t want to play while you’re at work.
But where some adults may look on this as immaturity, Contursi sees that the youth were savvy about catching the attention of their peer group.
“It is outrageous … it’s not meant for 12-year-olds, it’s meant for older teens and young adults,” she explains. “If you get beyond that you’ll find some excellent and credible information.”
In the game, players vanquish the villain by correctly answering questions about sexual health. There are 25 questions in all and it takes about 15 minutes to play through. Measuring site engagement with Google Analytics, the health unit says that the average user is staying on the site for about eight minutes.
The site’s use of irreverence and humour works, says Amanda Alvaro, managing director at Toronto-based Narrative Advocacy Media. It helps keep youth interested and they actually absorb the facts put forward. Alvaro has engaged with youth in the past to develop campaigns, such as an organ donation awareness project.
“With kids bombarded with 3,000 to 5,000 messages a day, this is one way to cut through the clutter,” she says. “If you’re going to attract the attention of a youth group, you need to involve them in what you’re trying to create. It’s critical.”
Mind Your Mind considers the micro-site a success. Youth can feel good about their involvement in a local project that has enjoyed much wider coverage, Contursi says. Even if not everyone is saying good things about the game.
“It represents something that’s honest and true, and it resonates with their peers,” she says. “The youth didn’t think it was outrageous at all, they just thought it was funny.”
The micro-site is embedded inside Middlesex-London Health Unit’s Web site, which offers navigation links to dig deeper about serous topics raised by the game. There are also downloadable posters and some related YouTube videos on the site.
While Web traffic has shown good and fast results, time will tell if the game helps with the health unit’s greater goal of stopping youth from getting STIs. The hope is the steady rise in infection rates will level off and then drop, Dhinsa says.
“We know they’re having sex,” she says. “We’re hoping this is another resource people will use – maybe some people would rather play this game than talk with their parents.”
But one thing is for sure – this health unit has changed their approach to engaging with youth for good, Contursi says. New technology will be the medium of choice from here on out.
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