After his daughter, Jennifer Ann, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 2006, Drew Crecente wondered what he could do to raise awareness about teen dating violence. He set up the Jennifer Ann Crecente Memorial Group, with a web site, and started distributing literature, bookmarks, and other material. But he wasn’t particularly happy with the result.
Apart from anything else, all the packing material started to dominate his living-room. "I figured I better start something a little less tangible," he says. So, eventually, he started a video game contest: the Life.Love. Game Design Challenge, which is now in its sixth year, and just announced its 2013 winners.
Crecente, who lives in Atlanta, says teen dating violence is an under-acknowledged problem (compared to, say, full-on domestic violence). Adults sometimes minimize teen relationships as "puppy love," and schools and parents don’t always discuss it openly, he argues.
Plus, it’s hard to communicate with teens in love, and for young people to know what is, and isn’t, an abusive relationship. "It may be the first relationship they’ve ever been in, and they might not know what is normal or healthy, or abnormal or unhealthy," Crecente says. "They might find themselves isolated from friends and family, because the partner says 'I care so much about you, I want to spend all our time together.' And they won’t know if that’s perfectly innocent, or possibly not as innocent."
The games—about 20 have been submitted so far—communicate with teens on their level. For example, one of this year’s winners is called "What Kind of Monster is Your Boyfriend?" It takes players through a serious of semi-humorous questions, asking them to describe their partner’s personality ("his eyes go yellow," "he transforms himself to a bat and flies away"). At the end, they get a sense of how bad the boyfriend is, rated as "zombie," "werewolf," or "vampire."
Previous winners have included games like "Grace’s Diary," where players go through an interactive story, trying to work out what happened to Grace, and "Finding Jane" where players go to Jane’s room and follow cues for actions they might take if they’re worried about a friend. Other games look like "Guitar Hero," or old-fashioned Atari games.
The games may not be too fancy, at least compared to today’s top game experiences. But Crecente says they’re more immersive than the average page of text, and they make a point with younger viewers who are wary, or bored, with top-down messages.
"It’s something they can explore on their own. If they are sitting in a class in high school, they might feel uncomfortable raising their hand, and asking about the specific effect of an abusive relationship. It carries more weight if they see the game through the eyes of the protagonist. They can identify with that person, and it’s a dynamic experience."