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How a soccer game taught boys about gender equality

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"[Violence against women and girls is] one of the most pervasive problems that faces our society, that cuts across all economies and cultures, and is highlighted today pretty much regularly," said Ann DeMarle during a Game Developers Conference talk.

In "A Narrative Game's Success Addressing Gender-based Violence," DeMarle — a professor, associate dean and director of the Champlain College Emergent Media Center — spoke about using a video game to educate boys on gender violence. According to DeMarle, it's a problem present today more than ever.

"There's been a lot about it lately, whether it's in Africa, the Middle East or sports teams or in our own industry where it's affecting both our players, our designers and our research communities," she said.

But video games can help mend this gap, as shown with narrative-driven soccer game Breakaway.

Breakaway got its start in 2009 as a project funded by the United Nations Population Fund and produced by students at Champlain College; by 2013, all 13 episodes of the episodic game were available. Its goals were to shift behaviors in male youth, raise awareness towards gender-based violence, and help players become advocates for change. But those came with their share of challenges as well — trying to accomplish those goals without stereotyping or portraying violent actions, but still keeping things fun. The team found the answer in soccer

"There's more national teams in FIFA than there are nations in the UN," DeMarle said. "We use soccer as that language to unify the story."

Breakaway's experience was framed around a single question, DeMarle explained: Do you have what it takes to be a champion? Players take on the role of a young boy trying to get on the soccer team and into the finals. But as you move through the game's story, conflict arises in the form of peer pressure and, eventually, the abduction of a female teammate.

The game has a branching narrative, and players can ultimately choose to either be for or go against gender equality by siding with specific characters or encouraging certain interactions. Even when players choose to be unfair, she said, there's something to be learned.

"I think that's great, to tell you the truth," she said. "That's how you get the story."

In DeMarle's findings, Breakaway was an effective teacher in educating kids about gender-based violence and even gender equality. Where simple questions like '"Can a girl play soccer?" seemed controversial at first to young boys, their ideas changed. The team used surveys to poll players about their views after trying Breakaway. The results? DeMarle said that 87.7 percent of study participants agreed that girls could play soccer.