Video Game to Help Urban Teens Avoid HIV Infection Focus of Nearly $4 Million Grant To Yale

Creating a video game to help teens avoid sex, drugs and alcohol use—behaviors that could lead to HIV infection—is the aim of a five-year, $3.9 million research grant to Yale from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The grant, to be paid out over five years, will fund work by Lynn Fiellin, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine.

Fiellin’s study is designed to develop and test an interactive virtual reality-based video game called “Retro-Warriors” that will teach ethnically diverse adolescents how to make healthier choices. The research goes beyond the use of a game for education and proposes to create a world in which the game players can engage in role-playing to learn to avoid risky behaviors that could lead to HIV infection.

The study has far-reaching implications including the potential for this technology to become portable and global.

“The game could travel with the player—it could be used at home, on a console, a cell phone or a personal digital assistant,” said Fiellin, who also points to international implications. “Access to the Internet is growing in developing countries and these technologies could be transferred to adolescents in countries experiencing a growing HIV epidemic but which have limited access to targeted risk-reduction strategies.”

The game will be adapted with input from both adolescents in the study group and collaborators with expertise in positive youth development, social cognitive theory, artificial intelligence development and commercial game design. Fiellin and her team will evaluate the efficacy of the game by conducting a randomized clinical trial in 330 ethnically diverse children between 11 and 14 years old attending an after-school and/or weekend youth program at a New Haven community center. They will be randomly assigned to either play the HIV prevention video game “Retro-Warriors,” or a commercial video game. Researchers will then study the game’s impact on the age of initial sexual activity.

“If we are successful, the results of this research will produce video game technology that can improve individual and public health and decrease HIV transmission,” said Fiellin.

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