In a scene that might have 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 continual bullying and abuse.
But the game is not glamorizing gangs, instead it’s trying to teach boys and girls between the ages of 9 and15 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. Funding came from the United Nations Development Programme and extra support from behaviour change experts, the Population Media Center.
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. Those who make the positive choices win the game.
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 also indicated behavioral change.
To grow the reach of the game, the team plans to work with international sport for development organization Grassroots 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 programs, using soccer-based behavior change activities and community soccer clubs.
The partnership hopes to win the Womanity Award 2016 – meaning a prize of US$300,000, to develop a mobile version of the game and a 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 modernize the technology used for a more tech-savvy generation.
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. This was double the rate of such murders in the United States according to the study.
Another study in 2010 by the same council saw 37% percent of men in the country’s Gauteng Province admit they had raped a woman.
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”.
BREAKAWAY and Grassroot Soccer believe they can play an important part in shifting the prevalent, harmful gender norms in South Africa among a new generation of young people. The task is urgent and we believe the universal language of soccer could play a vital role.