Can Serious Games Teach Kids About Life?

Can Serious Games Teach Kids About Life?

Video games present an array of objectives to achieve, many of which involve overcoming some creeping menace or another. Some of these are fictional: Slay a dragon, drive back a demon, stop the mad scientist jerk who’s turning your woodlands pals into robots. Some of these are more realistic: Fight in a fictional war, fight in any number of history’s past bloodbaths, raise a family, move up in the ranks of a mafia, tend to a farm.

Despite the problems that games invite you to overcome, and the consequences that occur if you neglect to to so, you can’t really say that video games paint a realistic portrait of life. The reality of war is far more brutal than anything on a screen, and acquiring a career as a fireman is not as easy as walking into a neighborhood firehouse a la The Sims and saying, “Give me a job.”

But video games are capable of offering true-to-life scenarios and solutions, or so Yale University hopes to prove. The University’s Play2Prevent initiative is teaming up with Schell games (the developer behind Disney’s MMO Pixie Hollow) to bring games a step closer to real life with a title that aims to educate at-risk teenagers on ways to reduce their risk of HIV exposure.

The yet-untitled game will be heading to mobile and tablet platforms in 2012, and will be tested in a random clinical trial involving 300 New Haven children. Play2Prevent is hoping that these after-school programs will prove efficient in preventing risky behavior amongst teens.

“Games are powerful tools in helping people explore roles and risks before life makes them all-too-real and risky,” said Play2Prevent director Dr. Lynn E. Fiellin in a statement. “The Play2Prevent initiative [is] focused on helping its players meet the challenges at-risk youth must face head on.”

Can a video game really help turn kids away from dire circumstances by letting them experience a preventable pitfall on a virtual level? It’s possible, but it also depends on how realistic Play2Prevent allows these “serious” games to become.

If, for instance, Play2Prevent’s game about contracting/managing/preventing HIV doesn’t shy away from the often grisly facts of dealing with the disease, teens might be frightened away from unprotected sex and intravenous drug use. More effective than a scare piece, however, would be a game that engaged its player with character depth and storytelling on par with an RPG. Most of us become attached to a game character at some point in our lives, and playing through the life of a protagonist as he or she deals with HIV would be unforgettable. Video game characters are capable of drawing out emotions that we wouldn’t experience if we were just watching a movie on a screen. Ideally, a playthrough of Play2Prevent’s game would also give the player an idea of the emotional turmoil that friends and family members endure when someone close to them is sick.

Finally, “serious” games in the vein of Play2Prevent’s project would be good for providing one more service: Education. It’s one thing to frighten players, and another to submerge them in drama, but if the player still has no idea about the steps they can take to protect themselves against disease, what’s the point?

Obviously, experiencing a life-changing event through a video game can never carry the weight of experiencing it in real life. But if “serious” games manage to impact players through storytelling and education, they might prove effective in reaching out and changing lives for the better.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Mario Kart helped me learn to drive. Lucky it wasn’t F-Zero, I suppose.

    A while back, there was a story of some schools using Mario Kart Wii for that same purpose.

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