High School Story developer Pixelberry Studios speaks with Dave Cook about how the real-world suicide of two cyberbullying victims inspired the team to offer in-game support to victimised teens, and the steps it has taken to help those in need come forward.
”The game promotes acceptance of other cliques and attempts to show that pre-conceived stereotypes like ‘jocks’ or ‘nerds’ swing both ways, while addressing real issues faced by scholars on a daily basis. It has since been downloaded over four million times across all formats.”
Online trolling is too-readily shrugged off as a harmless joke these days, but when attacks become so personal and unrelenting that the receiver considers ending their own life, it's perhaps time to look again at the negative impact of social channels among youths.
Such attacks are no longer about being beaten up after the last bell rings, they're focused, public attempts to undermine and abuse others at a distance, away from the watchful eyes of disconnected teachers or parents. Bully 2.0 is a more capable and ruthless threat, it seems.
Consider that progressing through school can be a tough, savage and emotionally testing time in a person's life, thanks to immense peer scrutiny and pressure to conform to popular trends. Failure to abide by what is deemed acceptable by the majority can often lead to bullying and isolation that can prove damaging to young minds, but where adults develop a thick skin in response to the trials of their daily lives, children are often ill-prepared for such brutality.
The Pott and Sedwick cases are unfortunate, yet prime examples of this harsh reality, and served as the basis for a charitable movement within mobile sim High School Story. The game released on Kindle earlier this month, and its developers reached out to us over email to discuss its success so far.
”We always knew that we wanted to use High School story to teach players, but the stories of Rebecca Sedwick and Audrie Pott were the motivation for us to address cyberbullying in particular.”
With the game's launch in August 2013, developer Pixelberry Studios sought to offer young people a platform to talk openly about the ills of bullying, and to show that any students - regardless of creed, orientation or interests - can in actual fact, be friends.
It promotes acceptance of other cliques and attempts to show that pre-conceived stereotypes like 'jocks' or 'nerds' swing both ways, while addressing real issues faced by scholars on a daily basis. It has since been downloaded over four million times across all formats.
It's a sandbox title at its core, similar to The Sims. You play as the new kid in town, who has become fed up with the pigeon-holing and victimisation of those labelled as different. In an attempt to create a fair, level playing field, you must work with characters from other social groups and backgrounds to build a new school steeped in tolerance. You'll build the institute over time, recruit new students and tackle a variety of problems along the way, always working towards that friendly utopia.
"We always knew that we wanted to use High School story to teach players," Pixelberry Studios CEO Oliver Miao tells me over email, "but the stories of Rebecca Sedwick and Audrie Pott were the motivation for us to address cyberbullying in particular. My colleagues and I talked a lot about the articles covering their stories, and thinking about them made a lot of us start reflecting on the times we’d been bullied – and been bullies ourselves.
"I was bullied very badly in middle school, when a bigger kid would put me in a headlock and dangle me over a trashcan whenever our teacher was late. During this reflection, we realized that we had a perfect platform to educate teens about cyber-bullying, since our game was popular among teens, and since it’s helpful to engage with teens about topics like this in places and situations where they’re relaxed and comfortable."
”Two statistics that motivated us while designing this campaign are: according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], one in six American teens is cyberbullied every year, and one in seven teens seriously considers suicide every year. We knew if we could help even a fraction of those teens, then our campaign would be a success.”
Formally Studio Manager of EA Redwood Shores team Centerscore, Miao has worked within the mobile space for years now, and has enjoyed considerable success in Pixelberry's marquee release High School Story. The game launched recently on Kindle, but has been available on Android and iOS for some time, and has since partnered with anti-cyberbullying charity Cybersmile to offer increased support or even just a friendly ear to those who need it.
Through its Stop Cyberbullying! in-app purchasing bundle, Pixelberry has also raised some $200,000 for the charity. High School Story's revenue stream, which largely includes booster items that speed up the development of a player's campus, coins to buy new items and books to level up characters, perhaps feels a little blatant given the game's use of deliberately slow build times. However, it can be argued at the very least, that a percentage of that pot is going to a worthy cause.
"The campaign is based around a series of cyberbullying-themed quests that we’ve woven into the game’s storyline," Miao says of the mission arc. "In the quests, you help a character who is being cyberbullied deal with harassment and get help. Those quests include real cyberbullying situations and prevention strategies, so by playing the quests, players get to practice the strategies."
"Also, at the end of the quest," he adds, "we give players instructions on how to reach out to Cybersmile’s experts online or over the phone. Since the campaign started, over 100 teens per week have reached out after playing our game. And whenever someone writes to us through existing in-game support system about being bullied, they’re automatically connected to a Cybersmile counsellor."
”Our studio feels very strongly that games can have a very positive influence on young minds. One thing we’re hoping to do with this campaign is show other game developers that addressing important social issues can have a really positive effect on a game’s community and make players much more excited about it.”
The episode in question is called Hope's Story, and sees the player consoling new student Hope after she kisses a seemingly single boy at a party, only to suffer at the hands of his girlfriend Chelsea.
It's not long before a torrent of abusive text messages from peers find their way into Hope's inbox, and it falls on the player to diffuse the situation. Once the missions are completed, players are then given Cybersmile's contact information, should they wish to discuss the issues within.
Miao reveals that while writing and structuring Hope's cyber-bullying episode, Pixelberry was contacted by a young player who was wrestling with suicidal thoughts as a result of peer abuse. Shocked by the girl's story, the team reached out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to get some advice.
"They helped us talk to the player and encourage her to get help," Miao recalls. "After a week, she told us she was getting help, and that if it wasn’t for our game, she wouldn’t be here. That experience showed us that we needed an expert’s help if we were going to educate teens in a meaningful way. That’s what eventually led us to partner with Cybersmile. They advised us on all of the bullying prevention strategies we teach, and provide counseling when our players reach out to about bullying in their own lives.
"Two statistics that motivated us while designing this campaign are: according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], one in six American teens is cyberbullied every year, and one in seven teens seriously considers suicide every year. We knew if we could help even a fraction of those teens, then our campaign would be a success."
Pixelberry eventually found and partnered with Cybersmile with the assistance of Playmob, an organisation founded to help pair companies with suitable charities. Miao feels that this is an important cause and a message that should be discussed openly because thanks to the transparent and public nature of cyberbullying, he feels it is no longer a personal, isolated issue.
It recalls the tragic suicide of Nova Scotia school student Rehtaeh Parsons, who was driven to death after evidence of her own sexual assault became publicly exposed by bullies online. What was a shrouded - yet no less damaging - campaign of abuse suddenly became visible to the Internet at large, and with it, saw Parson's peers and complete strangers jumping on the issue to make her life unbearable still. It was a horrific, senseless tirade that goes hand in hand with the feeling of unaccountability that comes with speaking through an internet handle or online profile.
The sad reality is that social media users are, in fact, always accountable in these instances, and that's why it falls on people like Miao, together with companies like Cybersmile to flag such issues and provide a channel for victims to come forward and seek advice. Pixelberry hopes to expand High School Story's cyberbullying campaign arc with new plot points, along with exploration into other areas young people often struggle with, such as struggling with education.
"Our studio feels very strongly that games can have a very positive influence on young minds," Miao concludes. "One thing we’re hoping to do with this campaign is show other game developers that addressing important social issues can have a really positive effect on a game’s community and make players much more excited about it. If more developers start using their own games to as platforms for similar campaigns, conversations around video games will become a lot more accurate and productive.
"Teens are spending countless hours on smart devices. Rather than say this cultural shift is bad, we’re trying to connect with teens where they spend their time and provide them with experiences that are fun, engaging, and positive."