Oliver Miao, Winston She, and Keith Emnett, former game developers with Electronic Arts, weren't setting out to tackle a serious tech-age problem when they launched High School Story for iPhones three months ago. The simulation game, which has about half a million players, was meant to be about frivolous teenage fun: parties, dating, and spring break.
But creating a virtual space that's popular with real teens—their biggest demo is girls 14 to 24 years old—soon led to confronting bigger issues.
"We had a player contact us telling us she was planning to kill herself," says Miao. "We called the suicide prevention hotline ourselves and started exchanging messages with her, and a week later she told us she was getting help and told us it was because of our game that she was still here. It was a really powerful experience that showed us that we could make a difference."
Around that time Miao's company, Pixelberry, was working with a U.K.-based nonprofit called Cybersmile Foundation that provides both education and a support hotline, to create an anti-cyberbullying wrinkle in the game. Within a few weeks of adding the feature, about 400,000 of the game's weekly players have begun the quest. In doing so, players help a character named Hope who is being cyberbullied. Miao says the idea is for teens to be able to recognize cyberbullying when they see it, and to know how to ask for help.
Cases like that of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who committed suicide in September after complaining of cyberbullying, have made this a hot-button issue
Most research shows that almost one in four kids will be the victim of cyberbullying, which can come in the form of mean emails, compromising photos circulated by text, or fake profiles on social networks. Cyberbullying is related to a host of other problems like low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, anger and frustration, as well as problems in school and with substance abuse. In addition to raising awareness with the quest, Pixelberry has pledged a $100,000 donation to the CyberSmile Foundation through sales of in-app banners and t-shirts that characters can wear.
"I think one of the primary things we’re trying to get teens to understand is that it’s okay to reach out to get help," says Miao. "Going to an authority figure is important. We also teach steps like making sure you save old information, so there’s a history and a record of what’s going on."
The game's quest also shows the outcomes of what are considered common counter-productive responses to cyberbullying, such as hiding what's going on or trying to confront bullies directly.
To create the game, Miao drew on personal experience here. "A lot of people in our studio, including myself, were bullied growing up."
As a seventh grader in San Diego, he had to deal with an older kid in his Spanish class who would dangle him over a trash can. "This past Thanksgiving was the first time I talked to my mom about it and she didn’t realize that I had been bullied. It seems like really common sense for teens to reach out to get help, but when you’re actually in that situation you feel like adults wouldn’t get it or be able to help. We’re trying to show that it really can make a difference."