How Video Games Are Shedding Light On The Reality Of Living With HIV/AIDS

By Magnolia Potter

In 2015, writer Katie Peoples wrote a piece for HIV Plus Magazine’s digital publication about a game entitled I’m Positive. According to Peoples’ review, the game takes its player through the reality of what it is like to live with HIV, starting from the very point at which its protagonist discovers he has the virus. While the game graphics were less-than-prestigious (“the text screens did give me flashbacks to my Oregon Trail days” Peoples pseudo joked), she found that the game had serious potential in de-stigmatizing HIV and encouraging education and action on the matter.

You can read another review of the game over at Engadget, but the consensus was the same: a video game could be used to change how people think about HIV.  This hasn’t stopped with I’m Positive, either. In fact, there are other video games that have been created since that serve similar purposes. While video games are a broad, vast canvas for game developers to paint their interactive creative visions, they have unfortunately garnished a reputation for being counter-productive to society. 

Games like those in question could change that reputation, though. Could it really be that the video game medium is one of the most effective tools in teaching the world about the realities of HIV and AIDs?

Stepping in Where Educators Haven’t

Not only are video games being used in this way, but they’re filling education gaps that have been left wide open, creating room for lethal error. The demographics that see more breakouts of HIV and AIDS are the groups prevalent in low-income communities, and these communities often don’t have access to a good education. This has led to a serious lack of knowledge about HIV. 

Where knowledge is not present, risk increases, and education on the matter as a whole has not been efficient enough — and this lack of formal education on the matter is a major reason the disease continues to spread so much. The difference between HIV and AIDs, how easily it’s contracted, its association with different communities and why — these are things that contribute to the growing rate of those who contract it. 

Obviously, this can make for some serious problems regarding sexual health, and that can affect communities at large. Imagine if video games like I’m Positive were introduced to classrooms — not only would teens be able to think about safe sex and the risks of not be cautious, but they would know what to do in the case that they are confronted with the possibility that they contracted it.

Reaching out to at-risk Communities

You’ve probably heard that LGBTQ+ groups are more prone to the disease, but this is typically due to lack of resources and, of course, lack of education — on both sides. Had people, both homosexual and heterosexual, understood where the spread of HIV really stemmed from since the beginning, the spread might have been slowed or even stopped before getting out of hand

While HIV is most prevalent amongst gay and bisexual men, it doesn’t stem from their sexuality — simply, many aren’t given the proper education to take better care of themselves and their partners, and to prepare in advance. What’s more, a large percentage of LGBTQ+ youth are homeless or distrusting of systems that have hurt them, leading to a hesitancy to seek help or medical advice in the first place.

The hope with implementing games like I’m Positive into schools would be that students who are a part of traditionally at-risk communities are able to better prepare for that risk. Rather than focusing our sexual education efforts on heterosexuals, those who are under the LGBTQ+ umbrella could learn how to handle situations such as the one Tim (the protagonist in the game) finds himself in.

Notably, there are improvements that could be made, especially if educators and health professionals want to capitalize on the interactive learning experience. Being able to choose your appearance, gender, sex, and orientation in a game like this could make it more personable to those playing, and the relatability could spur positive consequences in a young person’s life. 

Reducing the Taboos

If health professionals and educators want to reach at-risk communities, they cannot let their efforts be demographically homogeneous. Remember, it’s the combination of a lack of education and a lack of resources that put different communities at risk. If we plan on eliminating the high risks of HIV in different communities, then we need to make sure they are represented in our efforts and that negative stigmas about them are decreased.

The gaming community has never been a beacon of progressivism, even though they have often been ahead of the cut with technology. But, in recent years, we are starting to see changes made. For instance, sites like Twitch are taking action against the use of homophobic and prejudiced language, a pattern that’s manifested in the gaming community for too long. And games like The Last of Us 2 have worked to decrease homosexuality stigmas by featuring same-sex kisses. 

An HIV-education game entitled Playforward took this a step further. Created by researchers at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale, they used research on risk factors to teens to reach minority populations with health education, as well as decrease stigmas around minority communities. It’s a simple matter of representation. As researcher Kimberly Hieftje explained to HuffPost, the game follows the course of an adolescent’s life and gives them the opportunity to make wise choices and not-so-wise choices, and ultimately the goal is to combat the prevalence of HIV. As HuffPost explained,

The goal of the game is not necessarily for the player to make the “correct” decisions, but rather to learn the cognitive processes and behavioral skills to negotiate similar scenarios. The game also allows players to go back and change their decisions to see how the outcomes may have differed.

Games like Play It Forward have been put in place to make up for sexual education efforts failing. There is a serious potential with video games to reach at-risk youth and help in the fight to decrease HIV, as we’ve seen particularly in I’m Positive. And hopefully, game developers will continue using their skills to raise HIV awareness and improve education on the matter.

Magnolia Potter is a muggle from the Pacific Northwest who writes from time to time and covers a variety of topics. When Magnolia’s not writing, you can find her curled up with a good book

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  1. Pingback: Where Are All The Gaming Industry’s Powerful Women? - GirlTalkHQ

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