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In War Against AIDS, a New Potential Weapon: Video Games

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Players anonymously create a profile and select an avatar, which indicates sexual preferences and whether or not they're HIV-positive.

It's not something you'd immediately associate with staying healthy: video games. A professor at Quinnipiac University is exploring whether or not digital avatars can encourage gay men in Mexico City to get tested regularly for HIV. 

"There's really a lot of interest in these games right now,"  said Elena Bertozzi, associate professor at Quinnipiac University. "There's a Games for Health Conference in America and in Europe. There's more and more funding from various agencies -- government agencies and private agencies -- to build games like this."

Bertozzi has worked on lots of of health-centric games. "Flu Busters!" was for kids afraid of flu shots, and more recently, she worked on a game designed for rural midwives.

Now, with help from a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, Bertozzi is turning her attention to gay men in Mexico City. "Our target audience for this particular grant is young urban males who are negotiating anonymous sex acts [over] a telephone," she said. "This population doesn't listen to a lot of radio announcements. They don't watch a lot of television, but they do play a lot of video games."

Bertozzi said the game works like this: players anonymously create a profile and select an avatar, which indicates sexual preferences and whether or not they're HIV positive.

"The goal in the game is to have sex with as many people in the game as you can, while at the same negotiating condom use and asking about their HIV status," Bertozzi said. "At the moment, when these young urban males are having this anonymous sex, they're not doing these things. They don't know their own HIV status. They're not asking other men their status and they're not using condoms."

In other words, to do well in the game, players can't be afraid to talk about HIV or to practice safe sex. "The problem with many pro-social, or what are called 'educational' games, is that they're very preachy. It's obvious to you what you should be doing in the game and so it's boring," Bertozzi said. "So our goal is to communicate certain kinds of critical information and to make the experience of playing the game really compelling."

And that means "losing" is a crucial component of the gaming experience. "It's a challenge to figure out which way to go in the game. We don't make it easy for you," Bertozzi said. "There is no failure in the game, even if you die, you've learned something." 

Bertozzi will partner with the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico City to get the game into the hands of men with HIV. She hopes to have a playable game ready by next year. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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