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We know that video games have been used in ways that better the world, despite claims by some that they only contribute to things like violence and laziness. In fact, schools have begun using video games in their curriculums. This has been helpful for students, enabling them to learn through experience and engaging them in ways that traditional teaching cannot.
But video games are also becoming an answer to serious issues, stepping into arenas that haven’t been tackled as efficiently as we would hope in the past. One subject, in particular, is considered taboo, but has had a major impact on many of us or our loved ones. It’s time to talk about the AIDS crisis and HIV prevention.
In 2017, 36.9 million people worldwide were living with the disease, according to HIV.gov. Furthermore, approximately 38,700 Americans were infected in just the year before that. Many of these instances lead to long-term disabilities, spurring hundreds of thousands of people to seek legal counsel and disability benefits. But how can video games help reduce these numbers? Well, it all starts with why they’re so high in the first place.
The Need for Education
You may have had someone tell you that AIDS comes from the LGBTQ+ community and imply that it’s simply a result of their sexual orientation. However, the facts reveal that speech like this is simply not grounded in reality. One’s sexual preferences aren’t causes of HIV, but a lack of safe sex practices can be. Education about safe sex starts with orientation.
Don’t get it wrong — safe sex education is lacking for straight people too. But it’s lacking much more for non-heteronormative communities. Lack of proper safe-sex education is a significant reason that some parts of the population are more at-risk than others for STDs — hence the higher rates of HIV in the LGBTQ+ community. The more awareness, the lower the STD rate.
Thus, video games are being created in order to educate those who haven’t had access to resources to teach them about safe sexual practices. For instance, a program called “Keep It Up!” uses video games as a way to teach men how to have safe sex with other men. Something like this in a public school could be extraordinary for reducing STI and STD rates in the gay community, though the program isn’t widely used yet.
Despite some of us not hearing about it until now, video games aimed at curbing the STD rate aren’t exactly the newest kid on the block. About 10 years ago, the U.S. government and Warner Bros collaborated on Pamoja Mtaani (aka “Together In the Hood”), a game that was (poorly) targeted at teens, complete with a hip hop soundtrack and street imagery, supposedly similar to Grand Theft Auto. However, the purpose was different than that of GTA, in that it was created to raise risk perception for teens about HIV. Back to our modern day, developers are working hard to create better games to further safe-sex awareness.
The thing that gives video games such great potential for sex education is their interactive components. Writing for Engadget, Timothy J. Seppala gave readers a great example in his coverage of a game called I’m Positive. This is a game that allows players to simulate the realities of living with HIV.
In Seppala’s opinion, video games are the perfect avenue for such an educational experience. “Video games have a way of reaching their audience on a level that no other medium can replicate,” he wrote. “You’re active and engaged, driving the action and narrative forward with your interactions.” Because of the interactive nature of video games, players are put in a situation in which they’re left to make wise choices for victory, which can translate to improved real-world skills and life choices.
The Aftereffects of Awareness
Education goes hand-in-hand with awareness. It makes people aware of the reality that is HIV, how easy it is to contract it, and how to avoid doing so. It also makes it a more pressing issue for those who are in positions to take action when the disease is being more widely talked about.
Because of general HIV awareness, professionals are putting effort into actually combating the disease instead of looking the other way. For instance, maybe you have heard of the drug Truvada, a prescription medication which significantly reduces viral levels and the chances of spreading it in those living with HIV. Well, as of last year it was the only FDA-approved medication for fighting HIV. Due to increased awareness, though, scientists have been hard at work and the FDA has been able to approve drugs like Juluca and Dovato as well.
So in short, when awareness spreads, things get done. And while HIV isn’t a comfortable subject for anyone, it’s well worth the conversation and the education put into stopping it. As it turns out, video games are an efficient means of doing so.
Hopefully games will soon be used more commonly as vehicles for treating the HIV crisis. I’m Positive was even put in the top 5 CDC- and HHS-sponsored Games for Health Game Jam in 2014 because of its potential! Video games are great teaching tools due to their interactive nature, and awareness spurs on change. The next time someone calls video games a waste of time, you can point to transformative games like this. They’re not all fun and games — they can potentially save lives.