By Claudia Cahalane.
In a scenario which sounds like it’s been plucked straight out of Grand Theft Auto, the online game BREAKAWAY culminates with a girl being abducted, forced into a locker and left there after persistent bullying and abuse. The game is not glamourizing gangs, however, but rather is teaching boys and girls ages nine to 15 what constitutes – or doesn’t constitute – a healthy, equal attitude towards girls and women. The game has been played in 185 countries since it was created by students and staff at the Emergent Media Center (EMC) at Champlain College, USA, six years ago. It has also led to real life football camps promoting women’s rights in places including El Salvador and the Palestinian territories. The latter location is especially boundary-pushing as it saw boys and girls playing soccer together for the first time in Hebron, challenging social norms in the West Bank. Throughout the game the player is asked to make positive or negative choices around sexist behaviors via a series of soccer and cultural challenges. Their actions have impact and affect how well they score in the game.
The development of BREAKAWAY was a huge team effort, with over 150 US and international students shaping it following funding from the United Nations Development Programme and support from behavior change experts, the Population Media Center.
“EMC students have also been at the forefront of driving the game into new territories both online and offline,” says Sarah Jerger, director of operations and communications at the EMC based in Champlain College,Vermont.
“It’s empowering them to make a change in the world, and being able to use media and tech as that conduit is a really amazing experience for them. They’re having this international impact and making true change happen,” she adds.
The BREAKAWAY database so far shows that 86% of people playing the game end up making more positive than negative choices around how to treat girls and women. “And, those who make the positive choices win the game,” says Jerger.
The online game has only been downloaded 5,000 times, in most countries of the world. EMC knows that, with more resources, there is great potential to positively affect young boys and girls globally. Research in 2013 and 2014 by Dr Hua Wang, from the Buffalo State University of New York, demonstrated that the game had a profound impact on participants’ awareness and attitudes, and some also indicated their behavioral change.
To grow the reach of the game, the team plans to work with international sport for development organization Grassroot Soccer (GRS) – set up by four professional soccer players in 2002. GRS has reached more than one million young people around the world with its HIV and gender-based violence prevention programmes, using soccer-based behavior change activities and community soccer clubs.
In South Africa, the organization recognizes that the deeper roots of the country’s HIV epidemic lie in cultural attitudes towards girls and women and the prevalence of gender-based violence.
The partnership hopes to win the coveted, annual Womanity Award 2016 – meaning a prize of CHF 300,000, along with Womanity’s expertise, to develop a mobile version of the game and localized narrative, specifically for South African townships. As well as running camps, it hopes to offer tablets and equipment for locals to experience the game, and to modernise the technology used for a new tech-savvy generation.
Camps will be led by women and men mentors in their late teens and early twenties, so that young people can learn positive behaviors from those close to them in age and culture.
Calming levels of gender-based violence in a hugely patriarchal society such as South Africa is a big task. A woman is killed by an intimate partner at least every eight hours in the country, according to a 2013 study co-authored by Professor Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council. This was double the rate of such murders in the United States according to the study.
Shockingly, interviews with 511 women and 487 men for the study, also saw 87% of men and 58% of women agree that “a woman should obey her husband”.
The language of football is universal, and is a perfect spring board for engaging with tomorrow’s young adults.
Together, the BREAKAWAY and Grassroot Soccer South Africa teams can play an important part in shifting the prevalent, harmful gender norms in South Africa, among a new generation of youths.
Buzz around the game is already starting to build in South Africa, and the challenge to what is currently considered culturally normally, is sure to be worth witnessing.