The internet has changed how kids learn about sex, but sex ed in the classroom still sucks. In Sex Ed 2.0, Mashable explores the state of sex ed and imagines a future where digital innovations are used to teach consent, sex positivity, respect, and responsibility.
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Some say the best way to learn is to do. We learn math by doing math problems. We learn the complexities of chemistry by completing chemistry labs. We learn to write with purpose by writing academic arguments.
This presents a unique problem for sex education. A problem that video games may be able to solve.
Sex is a vital part of humanity, and sex ed is a vital part of a well-rounded education. But perhaps there’s a better method for educating grade schoolers about the birds, the bees, and everything in between than lectures, diagrams, and vocabulary quizzes (if they’re lucky enough to even get that).
There’s a strong case for integrating video games into sex ed, whether that’s supplementing sex ed classes with existing games that explore sex and sexuality, or developing new games for the purpose of sex education.
Given the interactive nature of video games, their capacity for privacy, and the familiarity that many adolescents already have with games, when used correctly, games could be an incredibly effective tool for students.
Interactivity can make a huge difference in learning. Sure, some people may do just fine with lectures and note-taking, but for some people (like me) it helps to actually visualize something and do it.
In sex ed, games would offer a way to get interactive with the subject without actually requiring students to get their hands dirty, so to speak.
“Games are uniquely better than other media at having people get into character.”
When thinking about sex ed, the classic scene that comes to mind is putting a condom on a banana, simulating safe sex practices, which Nina Freeman, a developer at indie game company Fullbright, brought up when asked about how video games could be a tool for sex ed.
Freeman, who created the acclaimed 2014 game how do you Do It?, said there’s a reason that banana/condom scene sticks out.
“Putting a condom on a banana, that’s like a stereotype of sex education, right? But that’s what everyone remembers,” Freeman said. “Because it’s the thing that you’re actually doing. You’re basically performing the act of putting a condom on a penis — it’s a performative thing.”
Freeman equated the act of putting a condom on a banana to a game-like experience, and in that sense it could be a very effective way of conveying information.
While that’s just one example of interactivity, when you involve video games the sky is the limit for interactive scenarios, allowing students (or players who just want to learn more) to learn about and work through different situations effectively.
Freeman’s approach to game design involves allowing players to embody another person and see the world from their perspective, kind of like a form of theater.
“I think player/character embodiment is really powerful and games are uniquely better than other media at having people get into character, almost like they’re in a play,” she said. “Games are really good at that because they’re actively having the player pull information instead of pushing it on them.”
And having students pull information for themselves could be a strong method of education.
Imagine a game where players navigate through a scene with two individuals and being able to witness, partake in, and examine what a conversation around consent might look like, and perhaps learn what doesn’t constitute as consent.
Of course, as Freeman noted, every student is different and could benefit from different methods of education.
Robert Yang, a game developer and professor at New York University, is a bit dubious on how educational a game by itself can be.
“It’s the reflection and discussion after the video game that makes it educational.”
“Video games are good at teaching you about video games, but do they really teach you about the world outside of games? Personally, on this issue, I’m in the more skeptical camp,” Yang said. “Video games are not automatically educational; it’s the reflection and discussion after the video game that makes it educational.”
Games by themselves can’t deliver a well-rounded education on a certain topic, just like simply reading a required book won’t necessarily allow you to understand its nuances. Discussions lead to deeper understanding, but games could certainly help in getting those conversations started.
Yang, who has developed games that center around sex and relationships like No Stars, Only Constellations, said he’s been told that his games are sometimes used in sex ed classes.
“My game Hurt Me Plenty is a pretty gentle introduction to BDSM/kink theory, and it’s easy to talk about it afterwards,” Yang said. “Maybe the game creates a comfortable distance. You still get to talk about your actions and experiences as a participant, but it’s not your personal real-life sex life being put on trial.”
Not only that, games can inspire reflection for students in how they relate to what they are being presented with.
“I think a well-designed sex education game would help students think critically about their ideas of sex and sexuality,” Yang said. “A game could help prepare students for conversations about sex, and help alleviate some of the emotional labor/awkwardness that teachers often face when presenting material.”
Sex, especially for adolescents, can be a very awkward topic, and perhaps even a bit horrifying for some. For those who aren’t comfortable in a group setting, a video game could be a helpful way to learn about sex and sexuality in private.
The game could be an app for smartphones — something that many students have — or available on computers, giving students the ability to learn about sex and sexuality from the privacy of their homes and in a way that they’re already comfortable with.
“Giving them more of a private space to explore some of this stuff is definitely helpful”
“Having [students] engage with the world in a way they’re more familiar with and feel more comfortable doing I’m sure makes a difference when you’re trying to get them to talk about issues that are really sensitive or maybe their parents haven’t talked to them about,” Freeman said. “I think giving them more of a private space to explore some of this stuff is definitely helpful.”
That added privacy may give students the ability to reflect on their own sexuality and explore their own feelings in an environment where they don’t feel like they’re being examined or judged.
Of course in education, as Freeman pointed out, there’s no one-size fits all solution to delivering information in a meaningful way, but being open to approaching topics like sex ed in different ways could lead to some really impactful lessons.
With something as ubiquitous and important to life as sex, receiving a thorough education and actually remembering what we’re taught can be life-altering. The medium of video games is there. We just need to tap into it.