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A Video Game That Wants to Stop Sexual Harassment

Educators say a virtual world creates a comfortable zone for teenagers to learn about assault.

Courtesy of Ci3 Game Changer Chicago Design Lab

Two years ago, nine students at an alternative school on the north side of Chicago spent part of their summer playing a video game named Bystander. It begins on the day of an important assembly at a Chicago high school. “No one deserves to be harassed,” says Virgil, the virtual faculty member who guides players through the game. “Unfortunately, around half of all students grades seven through twelve reported experiencing some type of sexual harassment in the past year.” 

From there, students move through four scenarios: One is devoted to teaching players to correctly identify instances of sexual harassment during a normal school day. In another, the player intervenes in a situation involving consent and alcohol. The most nuanced modules, however, are the two that take place after a traumatic situation has already occurred. It’s up to the player to steer his or her peers away from blaming themselves, to affirm their experiences, and to guide them towards help. 

Bystander was officially launched in classrooms across three Chicago charter schools in October 2016. At the time, college campuses—and to some extent, high schools—were in the midst of an awakening about sexual misconduct. In 2014, President Obama’s Department of Education had created the “It’s On Us” campaign, a nationwide initiative led by Vice President Joe Biden to end sexual assault on college campuses. What followed was a slew of letters and newspaper columns laying out the toll sexual harassment takes on young people. Perhaps most powerfully, in 2016, BuzzFeed published an anonymous survivor’s letter to her rapist, who was then a freshman at Stanford. Some 11 million people would read the letter over the course of four days. 

This was before the #MeToo moment mobilized American women to take action against harassment in the workplace. But the activism on college campuses laid important groundwork for a national dialogue about the issue. With varying degrees of success, individuals and institutions searched for ways to address the problem. College administrations hired Title IX coordinators, created new policies, and publicized avenues to report assaults. Meanwhile, hundreds of campuses adopted bystander intervention training—seminars designed to teach students how to safely intervene when they see a situation that might lead to assault, an approach that has been shown, in one study, to decrease the likelihood of sexual violence by nearly half. 

Melissa Gilliam, a doctor and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, believed that wasn’t enough. Bystander intervention, she thought, needed to start earlier, before kids had even started college. But building an effective model for violence prevention and education is difficult in U.S. high schools, where even basic sex education is often controversial (and poorly funded), and educators can be unprepared or ill equipped to handle sensitive material. Plus, the obvious: how to make high school students pay attention. 

Bystander was the result—a video game that aims not just to disrupt and prevent sexual violence, but also shift the social norms around it. Created by Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (GCC), an initiative within the University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3), which Gilliam founded, the game falls somewhere between crisis simulation and educational programming. And by giving students the space to learn how to safely intervene in a virtual realm before encountering analogous situations in their lived reality, Bystander lets players try, fail, and try again—the building blocks of a more informed and empowered community.

Before I played Bystander, I envisioned what a “social justice game” would look like—something minimalist, a vaguely tech-y aesthetic; lots of white space and clean lines. Instead, Bystander is designed to look like a graphic novel, the color palette all greens and reds and blues, grand Hyde Park buildings serving as the backdrop. Though Bystander is the result of the collaboration of faculty members, game designers, public health researchers, and high school students, the result really looks like it’s made for young people. The design also centers around students of color, a conscious choice made by Gilliam and her team—which works out of UChicago’s GCC—to ensure that the game reflected the South and West Side high school students they were collaborating with and learning from.

Bystander isn’t the first time educators thought to combine video game technology with high school curricula. Cashing in on the cool factor and on students’ familiarity with the format, teachers have used video games to teach calculus; relied on MinecraftEdu, the educational arm of the beloved computer game, to supplement math and reading lessons; and found other ways to “harness the excitement” of video games, as Sara Richards, an instructional technology specialist, told The Atlantic. Almost 75 percent of teachers for grades K-8 have used digital games as a tool for learning, according to a 2014 study

But gaming isn’t just a way to hack curricula for students more comfortable with screens than scantrons. It’s increasingly being used as a tool to instill better, “socially just” values in young players—and sometimes, even their teachers. Games for Change, an organization created in 2004 to develop social impact games, created At-Risk, a game aimed towards university faculty members that helps them unlearn common stigmas about students struggling with mental health problems and learn to guide those students towards help. Another, called “A Closed World,” allows you to play as a nonbinary character on a journey to protect your village against encroaching “demons.”

UChicago’s GCC has led the way in building games that deal with health and social issues. Before Bystander, it developed a whole arsenal of games at the intersection of sexual health and education, from Stork, an alternate reality game about health and inequality, which sent players running around Hyde Park deciphering cryptographic codes, to Lucidity, GCC’s first attempt to address sexual harassment and assault. The game hit a nerve; according to Gilliam, after students left the summer program where it was created, they participated in focus groups and filled out surveys—and consistently, they kept saying the same thing: This is supposed to be this really important issue, but no one really talks to us about it. In order to make the lessons more widely accessible, the team created Bystander.

Education about sexual harassment, they found, was especially well-suited to the narrative structures of a video game. The game proved a useful way to generate conversations, and students were able to use the game to get answers to their own personal questions. Video games are built to let their players make mistakes. In a virtual world, players can mess up in a way that they can’t in classroom conversations or guided group exercises, of the sort many college freshmen now undergo their first week on campus. By working through these conversations in a safe, constructive, virtual zone, topics like harassment, which need to be treated carefully, but often come burdened with stigma and shame, can become easier to talk about. 

“There’s such an emphasis on young people being right, and not being ignorant or saying something that might be insensitive,” Gilliam said. Through a video game like Bystander, students can ask questions that might be “wrong,” testing the boundaries of their own beliefs. “I really see games as a place of safe failure,” said Patrick Jagoda, a cinema and media studies faculty member at UChicago and the co-founder of GCC. “You can make mistakes, replay, and experiment with different possibilities.” 

This isn’t the case in all video games. A free online game called Decisions That Matter, which was developed by a team of graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University, features a narrative in which, as in Bystander, you choose whether and how to intervene in potentially dangerous situations. In Decisions, however, an intervention could spur a friend to snap at you for not minding your own business. Likewise, neglecting to intervene results in that same friend’s assault—a disturbing narrative sequence, made even more jarring by the game’s suggestion that you were complicit. By contrast, Bystander explains your missteps. You aren’t penalized for making the wrong choice, and you don’t accrue demerits or lose lives. Instead, unlike in real life, you’re given a chance to try again.

Its approach seems to be working. According to the pilot research, the kids who played Bystander were “significantly more likely to support a survivor” and “engage in sexual assault prevention.” Of the 46 students who completed the game, 97.6 percent of students believed the program to be “valuable.” In other words: a promising start. Now that nearly 750 Chicago students have participated in the program, the GCC team is next looking to scale Bystander’s impact, seeking sponsorships that will let the team adapt the game for mobile and web platforms in an effort to reach a wider audience. 

That a video game could help solve sexual harassment is perhaps a counterintuitive idea. The gaming world is rife with sexism. Big-budget video games still frequently objectify and sexualize their female characters; damaging sexist—and sometimes racist—tropes can reinforce negative stereotypes. A recent study from the University of Iowa, for example, established a link between sexism and exposure to video games; another, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in 2016, showed that men who played violent and sexist video games were less empathetic when they see a women undergo violence, sexual or otherwise. But that’s what makes Bystander so revelatory: Along with the other social justice video games that have emerged in recent years, it takes a troubled medium and turns it on its head, charting a different course—one in which gaming is valuable tool to stop violence, even before it starts.