Yale researchers develop video game to help Black teenage girls make healthy dating decisions
A team of researchers from Yale’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health have created a video game to help Black teenage girls make healthy choices when it comes to dating and sex.
A group of Yale researchers at the Schools of Medicine and Public Health are creating a video game to educate Black teenage girls navigate the modern and technological world of dating, and, if sexually active, avoid sexually transmitted infections.
The game, called InvestiDate, is being created by the play4REAL XR Lab at Yale, a group dedicated to making behavior-altering games. The game has received grant funding from the National Institute of Health and is going through a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the game’s capacity for positive behavioral change.
“I was a Black teenage girl growing up in a society where I was often viewed as inferior just for being a Black teen girl, living in communities where we’re typically over-sexualized, we’re expected to engage in behaviors that we may or may not even be comfortable with,” Ijeoma Opara, assistant professor of public health and collaborator on the project, told the News. “And then we’re also dealing with outside forces that are being sexist towards us, even dealing with colorism and all these things that impact who we are on top of decisions that we make in relationships and decisions that we make involved in sex.”
The game was originally developed as a card game targeting Black adult women through a Women’s Health Research at Yale grant awarded to Kimberly Hieftje, assistant professor of pediatrics, director of the play4REAL XR Lab and leader of the project, and Lynn Fiellin, director of the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games.
But the card game eventually evolved into a prototype web-based multiplayer game, conceptualized by the play4REAL XR Lab and programmed by PreviewLabs.
“With a card game, sometimes it can seem like there are winners and there are losers, but that’s not really the messaging that we wanted for this type of game,” Brandon Sands, a former research assistant for play4REAL XR Lab, said. “We want it to be win-win for everyone, so instead we changed it to this idea of it’s not a zero-sum game, where everyone is able to make a decision that they’re happy with from the choices they are presented.”
InvestiDate uses a point system to look at “red flags” and “green flags” to help girls decide who is worth pursuing, and also to help them learn about STI prevention. Starting to date someone earns 50 points, “unfollowing” a character with two or more red flags is 80 points and getting tested by a doctor for HIV merits 120 points.
Becoming more collaborative in nature, the game now is modeled after social media apps, designed to foster discussion about topics that might not otherwise be addressed in classrooms or at home.
“I think we have to be realistic that teachers and school administrators are not HIV prevention experts,” Opara said. “You have to think about racism, sexism, the environments in which Black teen girls may live and receive certain messages that encourage sexual behavior and encourage behaviors that may impact them, and how they feel about themselves and also how they view how society views them. So that’s a big task for teachers to take on.”
The game is grounded in research that proves video games are a viable method of teaching behavioral change, but is also heavily reliant on the experiences of its target audience.
The researchers spent significant time shaping the game’s cultural experience, including using focus groups to test the game. They also had an advisory group of Black teenage girls help provide insight on the game and help interpret the focus group’s result.
“I looked over the profiles they had made and some of the questions and essentially all of the content of the game, to make sure that it really captured the Black experience but also a youthful experience,” Sydney Hussett-Richardson SPH ’23, a collaborator on the project, said. “I threw in things that from my experience where I was like, ‘You know, this would have been really cool to know back in high school.’”
Opara said that centering Black female experiences and representation is not just important in education, but also important in video games, as few video games provide Black girls with representative characters.
A 2021 study by gaming website Diamond Lobby found that only 8.3 percent of video games in the prior five years feature a main character that is a woman of color.
“I’m really excited about the representation of Black girls and women in the video game,” Oparah said. “In one of the scenes of the video game, one of the physicians that’s providing educational material is a Black woman. Just thinking about me growing up and thinking about video games that I’ve seen, and graphics that I’ve seen, it was very rare for me to ever see the image of a Black woman as a physician in a fictional video game. Representation, to me, is so important.”
After proving its effectiveness, the Yale researchers plan on offering the InvestiDate game to schools and community programs.