NEW YORK - What if young boys were imbued with a sense of empathy and fair play to counteract a culture that victimizes women? Could they grow up to become part of a generation that renounces gender violence once and for all?
"Breakaway", an interactive video football game designed by students at the Emergent Media Center of Champlain College in the U.S. state of Vermont, hopes to be one small part of a larger movement to accomplish just that.
The game was released in June 2010 just in time for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Since its inception, it has been hailed by critics, fans and players as a masterly attempt to create new discourses and open doors around the contentious issues of gender violence, racial stereotyping and fair team play.
Endorsed by Cameroonian football star Samuel Eto'o, Breakaway is the first narrative-driven interactive online game of its kind and is currently being distributed free around the world via the internet and youth organizations.
"Most of our funding came from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) but we also raised over $50,000 dollars in gifts," Ann DeMarle, director of the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College, told IPS.
Breakaway is an attempt to build on the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals by engaging youth, particularly young boys within the age group of 8-15 years old, in questions of equality and fairness.
"We've done a couple of trips to New York City and worked closely with members of UNIFEM," Breakaway's manager and creative director Lauren Nishikawa told IPS. "The project is now under the secretary-general's UNiTE campaign. Our partner organisation outside of the U.N. is the Population Media Center."
Every one of the stakeholders have contributed significant funds and skills-sharing to the realization of Breakaway, but full creative credit goes to the team of designers who have worked industriously for over two years to bring the idea to fruition.
Nishikawa discussed at length the work that went into Breakaway before its release earlier this year.
Research included traveling abroad to learn how to target a truly global audience, and attending workshops on gender- sensitivity and methodology during which the team established a "value-script" for the game.
"We worked very closely with Upala Devi and other people from UNFPA," Nishikawa told IPS. "All our plot outlines were reviewed and approved and critiqued by them - excessively! - throughout the process."
Breakaway is premised on the ideal of 'fair play', and the player is forced to make choices based on a host of situations before he or she is allowed to advance in the game.
"Basically, you are the player and you have a little sister who is your number one fan," DeMarle told IPS. "There's a team captain who is abusive towards girls and doesn't allow girls anywhere near the football field. We profiled the captain around a certain type that is statistically higher in abuse towards women."
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"The type tends to be charming and attractive at first and then when they get women partnered or under their control, they isolate more and become more and more abusive," she added.
Heather Conover, one of the lead game designers, emphasized the importance of holding youth accountable for their actions.
"We didn't want this to be a game of witnessing violence and having to cope with it, without having any impact on the situation," Conover told IPS. "We wanted it to be more hands-on, so that the kids can really reflect on how they are treating their peers, especially the other girls in their age-group."
"According to our research and various studies, our target audience is already partaking in this media, so we are just building off of that by offering them something new and engaging," Conover stressed.
"One reason we strayed away from other media is the danger of it becoming something external in their minds: a boring lecture on violence against women. In our game, the players think they are just encountering football strategies, and then they later experience gender-based violence through an alternate persona, a different skin."
Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in Britain, has conducted extensive research on how children interact with technology. Even his highly critical approach to technology and 'learning' give a boost to the effectiveness of Breakaway.
"Children can and will pick up on moral messages, even with no adult supervision, as long as the game engages them," Mitra told IPS.
"Children don't like vague stuff though," he added. "The more explicit, the better."
Less than six months after its release, Breakaway is making monumental progress. The game's designers have already recorded over a thousand registered users from 95 different countries.
Further data shows that over half of players are males under the age of 18 years, proving that Breakaway is well on its way to reaching its target audience.
In addition, players come back on multiple occasions, a key component of the Sabido methodology on which the game is based.
Best of all is the fact that over 92 percent of users are making positive as opposed to negative choices during play. Breakaway has certainly given the virtual world a reason to celebrate.