Toronto outfit bags Max 2009 award for video game on violence against women

It’s interactive, fun, challenging, incorporates some cool Flash tools and has all the elements of a great video game. But those aren’t the only reasons why Finding Zoe snagged the Adobe Max 2009 award in the social responsibility category last week. The video game was an effective channel for its Toronto-based producer, METRAC, to get across a critical message about violence against women. Andrea Gunraj, METRAC’s outreach manager, spoke about the making of Finding Zoe to senior online editor, Joaquim P. Menezes at the 2009 Adobe Max Conference in Los Angeles.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Andrea why select a video game as the vehicle to generate awareness about a serious issue like “violence against women”?

Youth are hugely interested in video games and already play such games. So when our organization, METRAC — or Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children — wanted to focus their attention on the issue of violence against women we decided to use a framework youth would understand.

We went to a conference in New York [organized by] Games for Change. It’s a body that looks at social issue-based games. There we learned a lot about how games can be used educationally, to challenge the way the world is right now.

Today in North America, one in two women experience some form or sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes. We’re interested in challenging that reality, as well as iits root causes. Funding received from the Ontario government enabled us to produce this game Replay: Finding Zoe or ReJouer: Où es Zoé (in French). The project took two years to complete.

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Yours is a social organization, so I’m guessing you had to partner with experts is game design and development.

Yes. We worked with a group called Take Action Games. They’re based here in Los Angeles, but have designers and developers across the world that they access.

They’re well known for their work on the online game Darfur is dying. The game was submitted to MTV and got 800,000 hits in a very short time. This highly successful game was also based on a very serious issue – the crisis in the Darfur. So we felt it would make sense to partner with this group.

What was your target group for Finding Zoe and how did you ensure the content was suitable for this group? 

The target age range was youth betwee 8 and 14 years. The government funding we received was to promote healthy, equal relationships among youth in this age range.

For starters we did quite a bit of research, interviewing some 250 youth across the province of Ontario to discover what games they play, how they play them, and why … and if they don’t play games, why not.

We found the vast majority do play video games, and that they like action in the game more than violence. This was a very important finding because the goal of the game is to challenge violence, and gender stereotypes.

Research shows that during these years we assimilate most of our ideas of what it means to be a man and a woman. We also internalize “gender role stereotypes” that could lead to violence at a later age. That’s a perfect time to disrupt and challenge those ideas. It was important for us to target youth in that age range.

Also when we say “youth” – in our social imagination we may conjure up images of stereotypical middle class youth, which don’t accurately reflect the realities in this province today.

Ontario is incredibly diverse, and it was important for us to target as wide a range of youth as possible, to speak to youth of colour, youth living in poverty, aboriginal youth — all these kinds of youth who aren’t targeted by other games.

How do you access this game – and what’s been the uptake among your target group?

It’s a casual online game that you can access at METRAC’s Web site. The response so far has been great considering that we haven’t had a huge PR budget.

Over the two years the game has been out, we’ve received more than 9,000 hits, and more than 8,000 unique visitors. This is proof that youth are interested in social issues games.

Elements such as interactivity and collaboration often determine the popularity of a video game. Are these features present in Finding Zoe — could you cite examples?

Yes, and they fit this game and its target age group.  

Take collaboration. Research we’ve seen shows that youth don’t go to parents and guardians when trying to deal with violence. They often rely on one another. And they often provide far better support to one another than what we adults could offer by going in. What’s lovely about the game is it fosters that kind of dynamic, it encourages people to know about issues, about their rights and responsibilities and turn to one another help.

So we’re actually tapping into what youth are doing – not just in terms of playing games, but also in terms of supporting one another to prevent violence against women. I’m a total believer that games can be used for anything – you just have to ground it in the community.

You said your organization interviewed 250 youth. How did material from these interviews help you design the game?

We did focus groups with the youth and much of the content emerged from these focus groups and on what they told us that they wanted.

For instance, it was important for them to choose and to customize a character – to give it a name, and be able to change the hair colour, skin colour, facial features and so on. The art work of the game is quite unique and varied. It allows for a great deal of character customization that you don’t often see in free online video games. You can make the skin dark, you can make the hair African-American, you can have someonr who is differently abled. It was important for us to include those features because the kids told us they wanted that.

We couldn’t have done that by ourselves at METRAC, as we didn’t have that expertise internally.

Tell us more about the game itself, and the techniques used to communicate values you want to get across.

The game revolves around the players’ search for this character called Zoe, who is in a violent relationship. They have to navigate through their community to find her. We had to talk to youth about the situation in their community. And it varies among rural youth, suburban youth, and those living in cities – what they see in their communities is so different from area to area.

We allowed flexibility so players could skip some of the mini games they came across and were able to push people aside when they didn’t want to talk to them walking around their community.

This was important as it showed the consequences of pushing someone aside. In the game it’s one of the rules that if you push people aside their hurt faces come up at the bottom of the window and you have to go and apologize to them and get them to help you find Zoe along the way. It was one way this game taught both rights and responsibilities.

Along the way the players can look at Zoe’s journal, see what she’s going through and certain things that led up to violence, some of those warning signs. It’s a narrative.  Having a narrative that helps you connect to the person is an important part of the game. This is because the person experiencing violence isn’t a stranger. She is your friend, your neighbour.

What are some your key learnings around social issue games – what works and what doesn’t?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of research on social issue gaming. But what’s available shows that — regardless of the issue — the “gaminess” of games should never be lost. It doesn’t matter how serious the issue is. If the game isn’t fun, it won’t do what it’s supposed to.

Another learning was about choices. It’s important for players to have choices, even in a straightforward game with no complex mechanics. Players still need to have some ability to choose … They could choose to play it in the “right” or “wrong” way.

Finally, the process of creating the game also taught us how to effectively partner with a non-local group to get a project done. We (METRAC) are in Toronto, while Take Action Games is based in L.A.

It was a challenge to work across borders and there was a lot of back and forth over e-mail and the phone trying to get the concept realized.

But the alliance did have unique benefits because at the time we didn’t see anything coming out of Canada that was based on social issues – certainly not a simple Flash game that we were trying to do.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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