‘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.