BREAKAWAY works against some of the worst trends in gamer culture
Kids in El Salvador playing BREAKAWAY (screenshot courtesy of )
If Gamergate taught us anything, it’s that mainstream gamer culture struggles with some deep-seated gender issues. Images of violence against women and girls has long been a scourge of popular games; merely image searching the words “video game” and “women” leads straight to over-sexualized, violent, and oftentimes disturbing photos.
Enter BREAKAWAY, a video game for kids ages 8-15, created by a large group of students and teachers at Champlain College (with the support of the Vermont-based Population Media Center (PMC) and the United Nations Population Fund). BREAKAWAY not only steers clear of violence against women—it actively promotes gender equality from within its storyline. And perhaps the most remarkable part about the game: it works.
UN stats show that about 35 percent of women experience some type of abuse within their lifetime. Despite the best efforts from activists like Emma Watson, there is clearly an urgent need for change. BREAKAWAY aims to be a part of the solution; specifically, it aims to “impact attitudes and behaviors regarding VAWG (violence against women and girls) in order to create environments of gender equity,” according to its mission statement. Grand Theft Auto, this is not.
The game revolves around soccer; in between traditional video game soccer drills, the player must make choices that determine the outcome of the story. These choices range from whether to answer politely to a female teammate to whether you should comfort your sister after the team captain has made a derogatory remark to her. The game uses positive reinforcement, encouraging the player to make choices that promote gender equity, explains EMC researcher Mahmoud Jabari. The game helps “players discover how personal choices affect themselves and others,” says Jabari.
BREAKAWAY makes it clear that there is a difference between the popular choices and the right ones. Your score in the game is not tallied solely on your soccer skills—it evaluates whether you’ve made sensible choices when confronted with a series of increasingly nuanced sexist behaviors. The game benefits from PMC’s extensive experience with Sabido Methodology, a complex type of psychology that revolves around how we interact with media.
BREAKAWAY is already available in four languages—they’re working on their fifth: Mandarin—and is easily accessible and free to play on a desktop. In addition to the game itself, BREAKAWAY has hosted a few summer camps for kids internationally. They hope this combination of the game and their camp can help change the attitudes of young people while their attitudes are still malleable. And some research suggests it’s working. Two studies, both conducted by the same team at SUNY Buffalo, found that the results of the camp were overwhelmingly positive. Most notably? After the camp, boys and girls played soccer together in the West Bank, a first for that community.
BREAKAWAY may not be the cure for VAWG, but it’s surely a step—or kick—in the right direction.