What Can a Mobile Game Teach Us About Sex Ed?
July 3, 2023 by Olivia Adams
Sex education in the U.S. leaves much to be desired. And because young people oftentimes cannot depend on formal education through school to learn about sex, they may stumble upon other sources (like porn) that frequently offer misleading, inaccurate, or plainly false information when consumed as education instead of entertainment.
Parents offer another potential educational resource, of course. However, when sex ed occurs at home, the results vary widely depending on parents’ communication style and level of sexual health knowledge, gender dynamics between parents and their children, the age of the child, and myriad other factors.
Outside of the U.S., access to comprehensive sex education aimed at youth faces similar struggles. In a review of sex education programming in the U.K., U.S., mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, researchers found that because governmental bodies typically allow local jurisdictions to decide what is or is not taught in sex ed seminars, what students actually receive varies widely in accuracy and comprehensiveness. Plus, poor training programs for teachers to deliver sex ed lessons oftentimes leads to awkward and ineffective discussions for students.
As a solution for this patchwork of sex ed recommendations, some school districts have looked to digitally mediated approaches that try to engage students more fully than traditional face-to-face methods. A 2015 report from the U.K.-based National Institute for Health Research explored such methods and found that websites, apps, and other technologically-minded approaches may be a step in the right direction for effective sex education programming.
Sex Education: It’s Broke, So Let’s Fix It!
In early 2021, an interdisciplinary development team including researchers from the University of Southampton launched a project to create a mobile game to address the difficulty of providing accessible, inclusive, engaging, and comprehensive sex education for youth. Rather than a traditional game that’s mainly designed for entertainment, Safe4Play falls into the “serious games” category, or a type of game that combines the interactive elements of traditional video games with education theory to help kids (and adults) learn. According to the project website, Safe4Play aims to “provide knowledge on sex and reproductive health, making use of adaptive learning features in order to tailor the material delivered based on the user.”
Last month, Safe4Play launched on the Google Play store (sorry Apple users!), so I decided to check it out. The only other serious game I’ve played in the past was a sexual consent and bystander intervention module that my college required for undergraduate orientation. That game relied heavily on narrative storytelling and not much else, so I was interested to see what kinds of interactive elements Safe4Play would use in a broader sex education context.
A (Serious) Sex Ed Adventure
When you first open the app, you are dropped into a house with various rooms you can explore. The sex education elements are not immediately clear, but a text box with a list of riddles will direct you to interact with objects throughout the house in a kind of scavenger hunt. When you hover your cursor over an object that matches one of the riddles, the game jumps into one of four different sex-ed themed minigames.
Side Scroller STD Catcher
In one game, you are plunged underwater and have to “catch” various (anatomically accurate) sexually transmitted critters while avoiding floating bombs. Whenever you catch something, like the mite that causes scabies, the game provides some information about it. This minigame was HARD — I couldn’t beat it!
Are You Smarter Than a Condom
This trivia-based game cycles through about twenty questions related to condoms (e.g., different types of condoms, what they are used for, and how to use them correctly). After answering each question, the game tells you if you’re correct or not and gives a little extra information about the topic. The questions can get a little cheeky as well. For the question “Which of these is not a real condom shape?” the correct answer was a certain billionaire’s spacecraft company as a reference to their apparent affinity for phallic-shaped rockets.
HPV Vaccine Simulation
For the more mathematically-oriented player, this minigame allows you to test different parameters for a population-level simulation of HPV infection to demonstrate the efficacy of HPV vaccination. Importantly, the simulation doesn’t just show what happens when HPV is spread among heterosexual people; it also allows the player to see what happens in a group of gay men.
The last minigame (or at least the last one I could find) is a myth-busting game that asks the player to determine whether various statements about sexual health are true or false. While it’s similar to the condom game, this one is unique because it covers a wider variety of issues (contraception, condoms, STDs, relationships, and more) and provides links to more resources if players are interested in learning more about a specific topic.
This game has some great features that could really help young people learn more about sex ed in a private environment and on their own time. I really enjoyed how many of the minigames provided additional information about various sex ed topics, therefore prompting youth using the game to either learn more about something on their own from reputable sources, start up a conversation with a trusted adult on a specific topic they want to know more about, or both.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of issues to note. It’s a little buggy — I had to reload it a few times due to freezing issues and some of the interface buttons did not work properly on my phone. Also, because it was developed by a UK/EU based team, some of the links and questions were specific to those regions and may not have been as relevant to another audience. For example, the Miss Conception minigame included great information about public health resources for youth that simply aren’t available in the U.S. due to differences in our healthcare systems. It could serve as a great model or template for developing games that have cultural or political relevance for different audiences — one game can’t possibly do it all for every audience!
Overall, Safe4Play is an engaging entry in the serious games genre that could fill a gap left behind by subpar sex education both at home and at school. Check it out for yourself!
What’s the best sex ed you’ve ever received? Have you ever learned about sex from a mobile game or other video game? Let us know in the comments below.
Banner Image Source: 123RF/Gustavo Frazao
Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >