At the recent Game Developers Conference, I saw a strange little game. Lily has just a single character, who doesn't speak a word. There's very little action and no strategy. There are no puzzles, no stories and no locations.
But I like Lily very much. It has something important to say on an individual level. But it also suggests new ways to impart complex layers of information that might otherwise seem hard to digest.
Players of this mobile game — due out on iOS and Android in the summer — inspect a flower, peeling apart her petals. Lily is representative of human beings. Sometimes, insects emerge from the petals and from other parts of the flower. The insects represent human illnesses and ailments.
The conditions include heart disease, alcoholism, depression, diabetes, cancer and obesity. They are not uncommon. But they are significantly more common among adults who suffered abuse as children.
Lily is being created by Netherlands-based artist and game developer Charlotte Madelon. She says creating a way for people to explore information in a way that is graphic and interactive is a good way to get a complicated message across.
"Lily aims to bring awareness about childhood trauma as a public health problem," she says. "It's a poetic and playful infographic that wants to show the impact of childhood trauma on the body, based on scientific studies."
Madelon adds that her motivation for making Lily comes from personal experiences, which led her to investigate the long term health effects of childhood abuse. "Just like many other people I can feel the consequences of trauma every day and I would like to contribute to a solution."
Her source material includes a 1990s research program commissioned by Kaiser Permanente called About Adverse Childhood Experiences . The report asked 17,000 people from all walks of life about their childhood experiences and about their health history. It categorized emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect and other challenges, like spousal abuse of a parent, a parent who abused substances and parental separation.
The report found that a person who had experienced six or more adverse categories is likely to die 20 years younger than someone without any ACEs. The debate about how much of this is socio-economic, psychological or physical is still going on.
"Simply put, our childhood experiences have a tremendous, lifelong impact on our health and the quality of our lives," states the report, adding that it has shown "dramatic links between adverse childhood experiences and risky behavior, psychological issues, serious illness and the leading causes of death.”
In a TED talk that’s also worth a look, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris speaks about how abuse and neglect has tangible effects on the development of the brain as well as “toxic stress” that can cause serious health problems.
In Lily, each insect reveals information about ACEs, and the specific illnesses suffered disproportionately by people who were abused or neglected as children. "By documenting these insects, players learn about how humans convert emotional traumatic experiences into organic diseases later in life," says Madelon. "Almost like a doctor, the player needs to examine these unfamiliar diseases Lily is suffering from."
She points out that her game is not about alleviating childhood trauma. It's educational rather than therapeutic. She wants to place more focus on screening children for abuse, instead of waiting for its effects to manifest later in life.
"Screening every child for trauma isn’t the norm, but argued from this science, it becomes very important to start intervening early," she says. "Waiting for people to grow up and then trying to heal them is inefficient health care.
"I used this research to design my game because I didn’t want to ask for sympathy, but for common sense. When people know about this research, they want to invent solutions. The only problem is that statistics and childhood trauma just aren’t the most appealing topics for people, and as an artist I’m trying to make information as beautiful and accessible as possible, namely through a flower game."