We've been making newsgames with the aim of engaging people with real world issues such as the war in Syria and the War on Drugs in Mexico. But games have become a diverse tool that is impacting on more that just the political arena - they are also going for the personal too. Into this interesting space comes 'Love in the Dumpster' - a game billed as a 'serious game about teen dating violence'. This unusually titled game comes from a design challenge asking games developers; "Can you design a game about Teen Dating Violence without using violence itself?"
The challenge was issued by Jennifer Ann's Group, an organisation that aims to increase awareness about teen dating violence by encouraging video game developers to create games that will appeal to students for self-paced exploration of the issues surrounding dating abuse. The competition has been running since 2008 and the 2013 winner is a quirky narrative driven experience that has the player dealing with the ups and down of high school dating. While some games have tackled the issue of violence, notable examples include the recent Tomb Raider incarnation and the investigative thriller Heavy Rain, having to address it without using violence is a tough design challenge. This years winner has overcome the challenge where its charming lo-fi cut-out graphics meet the small dramas of everyday life. As a player, I found it an interesting emotional experience to be told off by the very character you're trying to attract in the game, for not being 'hot enough'. Your happiness suffers in the game-world as your confidence takes a dive. This is apparent in the motivation of the developer, Jean Hehn, who remarked, "Serious games can tend to be too preachy or too obviously trying to teach you something, I wanted to make sure 'Love in the Dumpster' would feel like a game while still delivering the message efficiently. I tried to write an engaging story and dialogues and included two main characters (of both genders) to try and have people relate to them, and also show that both genders can be victims."
So why is Jennifer Ann's Group, a non-profit charity based in Atlanta, Georgia taking on this issue? Its a very personal mission as the group was founded by Drew Crecente, father of Jennifer Ann Crecente, a high school senior murdered by her ex-boyfriend on February 15, 2006. If this or any other game even prevents a single death from domestic violence then all the development hours will have been more than worth it, as the developer remarks, "My only hope is that my game can someday somewhere help someone realize they might be in an abusive relationship and do something about it before it's too late." Love in the Dumpster is free to play and can be found here.