‘Bystander’: Game Designer Ashlyn Sparrow on the Power of Intervention

Patrick Jagoda and Ashlyn Sparrow

Ashlyn Sparrow (L) with GCC Co-Founder Dr. Patrick Jagoda. Photo by Nabiha Khan.

This is the first of a series of posts on Bystander, Ci3 and Game Changer Chicago Design Lab‘s digital game and intervention. Now in development, Bystander seeks to empower youth to help end sexual violence. In the following post, GCC Lab Director Ashlyn Sparrow shares why Bystander, and bystander intervention, is important to her.

2012, my senior year in college. It was late at night and I was in my dorm’s lobby. I had just finished talking with my dad. He worked overseas at the time so I relished any chance to talk with him, even if it was 3 am.  As I stood up from my chair, a guy came around the corner.  He smelled of alcohol.

He started to touch me. I tried to escape but his grip was too strong.  A few moments later, his friend found us in the lobby and quickly pulled him away from me.  He asked if I was okay and the only thing I could say was “yeah…”

What’s stopped me from talking about this incident was my own definition of sexual assault.  If it’s not rape, there’s nothing to talk about, and it’s not harassment if it doesn’t continue over an extended period of time.  So where did that put me? Who do I talk to? What could I do? What was I supposed to do?

I went back to my room and I cried myself to sleep, careful not to disturb my roommate.  I didn’t cry because of what happened, but what could have happened.

Three years later, I’m now working on a game about sexual assault called Bystander. This is an interactive narrative that targets high school youth, helping to increase awareness, skills and attitudes needed to help end sexual violence just like my own bystander helped me. You might be thinking a bystander is a person who does not take part in certain situations. Technically, that is true. However, we want to empower youth to become “active bystanders,” those who speak up and act.

In Bystander, the player takes the role of Casey, a high school junior on his way to school. While Casey sends text messages to his friends, Kaleb and Amy, a weekend event triggers his memories of a school presentation on bystander intervention. As the presenter speaks, Casey vividly imagines four scenarios as interactive moments through which the player learns skills to be a successful bystander.

In the first scenario, players navigate a high school identifying instances of sexual harassment. As the player clicks through the game, they will interact with different moments that might be sexual harassment. A couple kissing is vastly different from grabbing a stranger’s butt. However, many youth do not realize that unwanted catcalling is also a form of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is simply defined as conduct that is sexual in nature, unwanted, and creates a hostile environment. Every school is required to follow reporting guidelines laid out by Title IX, a law requiring educational institutions to have policies and procedures against sexual harassment. With this knowledge at hand, players must work through each scenes and correctly ways to intervene, finally reporting all forms of sexual harassment to their guidance counselor.

The next scenario deals with partner sexual assault, as the player has a conversation with a young woman assaulted by her boyfriend. The player must deny rape myths as she tells her story by choosing the proper dialogue options. In this scenario we represent culturally accepted rape myths such as “she asked for it,” “she lied,” or “he didn’t mean to.” Here, we begin to model dialogue that affirms but does not place blame on the victim. It doesn’t matter what a one wears, or how one acts, sex without consent is wrong.

Our third scenario focuses on alcohol and sexual assault in a party. The player is at a party and witnesses an impending assault by a male friend. Alternating between two points of view, the player must interact with each scene finding ways to they could potentially intervene, however not every prop is a potential solution.

Finally, scenario four has players search for resources to help a male friend who has been sexually assaulted.  The friend asks a series of questions that will be displayed on screen (e.g. “Who could I report this to?”).  The player must type an answer into an empty text field. If the answer isn’t known they can use their phone, which allows players to explore in-game websites on sexual violence and assault. Here, the player can look for answers and find more information to the friend’s questions.

The game design process has not been terribly difficult. But it does help that we’ve solidified our educational game design process that includes:

  • Extensive literature review
  • Set learning objectives
  • Find a basic game mechanic
  • Prototype and test

Bystander is the first Game Changer project to go through this pipeline from start to finish.  Researchers and game designers are slowly becoming more accustomed to working with each other—emphasis on slowly. It’s hard to work across disciplines but ultimately allows us to create new and innovative ways to engage youth in sexual reproductive health.

We are putting the final touches on the narrative script, and securing actors to portray the main characters. By late January, Bystander will be ready to play test with youth.  Hopefully, we’ll see some attitudes change but our research phase will not begin until April.

Working on this game has opened my eyes and releasing this to high schools is giving back the only way I know how. I never really thought of myself as an activist, just a humble game designer. However, like a bystander, there are multiple ways to intervene.

GCC Seeks Actor for 2/7 Video Shoot – PAID

Bystander header v2

Ci3 and Game Changer Chicago Design Lab are seeking a Latino actor to pose as a main character in their new digital game, Bystander. Bystander is a narrative-based computer game designed to be a novel, engaging, and informative way to discuss sexual violence with high school teens, which will be used in schools and youth serving organizations.

The actor should be between 14 and 22 years of age (playing a 17-year-old high school student). He will be compensated $15/hr for 2-3 hours, receive mention in the game credits, a still professional photograph of their game character [expected delivery: April 2015], and two single-ride Ventra cards for travel.

The shoot will be held on the University of Chicago on Saturday, February 7th. If interested, please send a photo and contact information to Erin Jaworski at ejaworski@uchicago.edu or call 773-834-9965 for more information.

Game Changer Chicago Design Lab Still Seeking Youth for “Bystander” Photo Shoot Jan. 24

Now in development, “Bystander” is a digital game that also serves as an intervention to increase the skills, attitudes, and awareness to empower youth to help end sexual violence.

(Note: please consider submitting even if you have a conflict with the January 24 shoot date, as additional shoots may be scheduled as needed.)

Information below. Interested youth can send name, age, school and photo to Ci3 Research Specialist Erin Jaworski at ejaworski@uchicago.edu.


Game Changer Chicago Seeks Youth Ages 14-18 for “Bystander” Characters

Now in development, “Bystander” is a digital game that also serves as an intervention to increase the skills, attitudes, and awareness to empower youth to help end sexual violence.

Information below. Interested youth can send name, age, school and photo to Ci3 Research Specialist Erin Jaworski at ejaworski@uchicago.edu.

Bystander - January Flyer

Dr. Melissa Gilliam to Present at Discover UChicago Seattle

Dr. Melissa Gilliam. Photo: Associated Press

Dr. Melissa Gilliam. Photo: Associated Press

Dr. Melissa Gilliam will present as part of Discover UChicago Seattle on Tuesday, January 13. The event will take place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle from 6:30-8:30 p.m., and is part of the University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact.

Click here for details and to RSVP.

Dr. Gilliam is Chief of the University of Chicago Section of Family Planning & Contraceptive Research, Founder and Director of Ci3, and Co-founder of Game Changer Chicago Design Lab.

Inquiry and Impact is the most ambitious and comprehensive campaign in the University of Chicago’s history. The Campaign will raise $4.5 billion to support faculty and researchers, practitioners and patients, and students and programs across the University. Over the next several months, the campaign will hold events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Hong Kong, New York and London.

GCC’s Ashlyn Sparrow on Educational Game Design for Hive Chicago

Ashlyn at CCOL

Photo courtesy of the Chicago City of Learning

Ashlyn Sparrow, Lab Director for Game Changer Chicago (pictured above, center), blogged about educational game design for GCC partner Hive Chicago.

Sparrow discusses the design of the Hexacago game board and the development of Smoke Stacks, an anti-tobacco board game for teens.

Like Game Changer Chicago Design Lab on Facebook and follow them on Twitter for continued updates.


Game Changer Chicago Seeks Teens for Paid Research Study

GCC Seed boys

Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab  is looking for high school students ages 14 – 18 to participate in a paid research study. The time commitment would be roughly 75 minutes during which participants would play the Hexacago board game with peers and complete two short surveys. Participants would be compensated $15 for the session. If eligible, you will receive an email from our research coordinator with information on the game and goal of the study. Note: written parental consent will be required for all participants under 18.

Learn more and sign up here.

Game Changer Chicago Seeking 2014-15 Youth Fellows

Khan_The S.E.E.D. Aug 8th_ 8

Ci3’s design lab, Game Changer Chicago, is seeking Chicago-area high school students to serve as Youth Fellows for the 2014-15 school year. Youth Fellows will be part of a design team, along with Chicago area undergraduate and graduate students, University of Chicago staff and professors who will collaborate to design projects using stories, art, games and technology.

Youth interested in art, design, research, public health, technology, games and more are welcome and encouraged to apply. The time commitment is 4 hours per week from October to June. Fellows will receive a small stipend.

Those interested can click here for more information and the application, due October 3 (no late applications will be accepted). Questions may be directed to GCC Lab Director Ashlyn Sparrow at asparrow@bsd.uchicago.edu.

Growing Up As a Girl Gamer

The final post in our International Women’s Week series comes from Ashlyn Sparrow of Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab.

As a kid, my favorite color was blue and I had an intense aversion to dresses, as they were too “windy”.  My toy chest consisted of action figures, Barbies, Legos (that glow in the dark!) and an Easy Bake Oven. However, the best toy was my police car. With its flashing red and blue lights, the car was constantly on the look out for Barbie who had a mild case of kleptomania. How else was she getting all those clothes?


Ken: “This is the last time I’m bailing you out, B.”

My dad built computers.  I would always watch him and eventually we started building them together.  Ever since, I’ve always enjoyed technology.  I remember my eleventh birthday; he bought me a PlayStation and three games: Tomb Raiders, Spice World and Final Fantasy VIII (FFVIII). The latter sounded cooler, so I connected the PlayStation to my TV and inserted disc one; the opening cut scene changed my life, forever. The graphics were beautiful; the music was amazing; I had never seen anything like it. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I ran to the living room where my parents were watching TV and I said in a loud voice, “Mommy, Daddy, I know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to create video games!”

Thus, began my journey into video games, nerd culture…and gender roles!

As you have probably gathered, I was pretty gender neutral.  Growing up, I never heard “Girls don’t build computers or girls don’t play with Legos”. I was just a nerdy little kid who constantly shared her excitement about video games, “pokemans” and other things my parents didn’t understand.  So you can imagine my surprise when all the boys in my class would say:

“You play games? But you’re…a girl.”

“Girls don’t play games.”

“Girls aren’t good at games.”

I was utterly confused. Especially since I was living proof that girls play games and are, in fact, good at them. Interestingly enough, this was around Christmas time and my school had a large party. We could watch movies, or even play video games.  Of course I brought in my PlayStation and commenced to dominate in Tekken, SoulCalibur, and Dead or Alive for the entire day. These boys never bothered me again. But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a little weird.

Was it wrong for me to play video games?  Was it wrong for me to hate romance? Was it wrong for to study martial arts?


What does my gender have to do with my interests and hobbies?

Not a damn thing.   

Why can’t I be a warrior and a princess?

Sounds epic.

Girls play games.  Girls program computers. Girls write epic sci-fi fantasies. Girls can do whatever interests them.  

And guess what?

Boys like pink. Boys bake cookies.  Boys wear make up. Boys can do whatever interests them.

Gender roles are nothing more than a societal construct of to put people in boxes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with breaking out of the norm; don’t be embarrassed, embrace it. Never let anyone dictate who you are and what you like based on your gender.  Do what makes you happy and live life to the fullest!

Ashlyn with storm trooper

Ashlyn Sparrow is a Learning Design Specialist at Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. Follow her on Twitter and check out her Tumblr at ashlynsparrow.tumblr.com