Most of the time, video games are (rightly) named as distractions from work, life, and forming meaningful relationships. (What do you mean, you haven’t already spent hours on Pokémon Go?) But “Breakaway,” a free online video game developed by Vermont’s Champlain College and supported by the United Nations Population Fund, has a strong social message: To promote gender equality and end violence against women and girls.
So, how does one program gender-based acceptance and respect into a video game, and then how does one make said game appeal to the teen boys who most need to receive its messaging? “Breakaway” tackles this challenge by taking a universally-beloved sport (soccer) and infusing it with the kind of situation-based challenges that puzzle games in particular favor. In short: They demand that the player really think about their choices, and then change and explain the narrative based on those choices. And for “Breakaway,” the choices have to do with tone and intent toward girls and women.
“Breakaway” mixes digital soccer drills with interstitials that ask players how to speak to their female companions. Say a girl teammate asks you about something; how do you choose to respond to her? The boys who play “Breakaway” are given a few options, and if their knee-jerk response is to be rude or mean to her, then they’re asked to consider why they feel that way. It’s quite the simple concept — “Breakaway” gets inside the player’s brain by asking them to react to the “intrusion” of another gender into their boy sports game. Of course, this is a generalization, but one that plays out over and over again in the real world.
“Breakaway” launched a few years ago, but as the FIFA World Cup brings soccer to the global stage again, it’s worth revisiting, particularly because the sport itself has faced plenty of gender-based discrimination charges before. For most boys, “Breakaway” isn’t going to be their entry point into nuanced discussions on gender-based violence and discrimination. But, it sets the stage for more innovation in how and where we push these messages: To respect girls and women, even when they’re on the “boys’ turf.”