Virtual game for teens created to help them say no to sex

NLIRH Executive Director Silvia Henriquez was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel regarding a computer simulation game that uses avatars to teach young Latinas how to make decisions regarding sex.
The all-too-common complaint is that sex and violence on television, computers and video games encourages risky behavior among teens.
But University of Central Florida professor Anne Norris, a social psychologist and nurse, thinks that virtual reality could be at least part of the solution in helping teens say no to sex.
Norris and a team of experts are developing a computer simulation game to teach young Latinas, who have a high rate of teen pregnancies, how to resist peer pressure in their middle school years.
Unlike other abstinence programs, this one won’t include adults giving awkward talks to bored teens. The game relies on preteen and teen students chatting with virtual characters — known as avatars — that will reinforce their self-esteem and guide them through the maze of relationships.
The project received a $434,800 grant last month from the National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health. Norris, who came up with the idea after seeing avatars used for teacher training at UCF, said this could be a new way to engage teens — before it’s too late.
“This would be great for working with kids and giving them a chance to practice all the skills that we know are really important to help them avoid early sexual experiences and unsafe sex,” Norris said.
The project’s goal is to reach Hispanic girls from 10 to 14, before they are exposed to difficult situations that surface in middle school. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Latina teens have the highest birth rate of all groups. Among all minors, 7 percent have sex, 24 percent try alcohol and 8 percent smoke marijuana before they turn 13.
Heidy Esquivel, 17, a senior at University High School, is one of two apprentices lending ideas to develop the virtual teens’ personalities — which during the game’s video chats will be animated by trained “interactors” wearing “motion capture suits.”
Heidy said she could have used the coping techniques when she was younger. She sometimes found herself hanging with the wrong crowd in middle school, after accepting invitations to unsupervised parties where there was smoking and drinking, and boys. She resisted peer pressure because she remembered her parents’ advice, but she felt unprepared for those situations.
“The cool people are basically the wrong people in middle school but everybody looks at them and tries to follow them,” says Heidy, who is of Salvadoran and Mexican heritages. “You have to stand for yourself and not … be a follower.”
The project has some critics. Some bloggers laughed at the idea of teens resisting fake advances from virtual boys, while others questioned such use of taxpayer dollars. One Latina blogger called it “bogus abstinence-only tactics” because it would not teach specific safe-sex approaches.

But Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, an advocacy group in New York City, said the game could be helpful.
“Role-playing exercises can be empowering, but only if they are paired with comprehensive sex education and other tools that help young teens overcome barriers to reproductive health,” Henriquez said. She hopes the program “avoids the pitfalls of abstinence-only programs that promote a religious and social agenda.”

The project is in its early stages, but Norris already has a team of professionals and students from UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training working with her. Besides the two apprentices, the team has gotten feedback from Hispanic middle school students from the summer After-School All-Stars Program at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in east Orlando.
The game will take shape over the next two years. The whole idea is to teach without preaching, said Jeff Wirth, director of the UCF Interactive Performance Lab.
“I believe in the power of play,” Wirth said. “That is how we learn as human beings, and this kind of experience allows someone to play, which is fun, and as a result to learn without feeling pressured.”
Twins Valentina and Veronica Eslava, both 11, whose parents are Colombian immigrants, are in the game’s target group. The sixth-graders at Jackson Middle School in east Orlando were among the girls in focus groups who got to see a test version. They think the game could be fun.
Veronica sums up what they got from the experience: “Think before you do something.”
Víctor Manuel Ramos can be reached at or 407-420-6186.
Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

Related News