[Here's an interview by our own Leigh Alexander with Drew Crecente on the very worthy Jennifer Ann's Group, which just announced its competition winners for this year's 'serious games' contest on teen dating violence.]

A unique game design competition aimed at teen violence prevention has announced its winners, revealing that Grace's Diary is taking home the top prize.

The annual contest is sponsored by Jennifer Ann's Group, a non-profit organization focused on teen violence education and prevention since its founding in 2006. The game design competition, the "Life. Love. Game Design Contest," challenges entrants to design a game about the issue -- without using violence itself.

This year's competition saw 12 entrants, and it was Bangkok-based Hima's Grace's Diary, an animated interactive story-format title with beautiful watercolor pencil art, that took home the $2500 grand prize.

In second place was Thomas Liu's A Decision Of Paramount Importance, a sidescrolling and well-animated pixel adventure game, and in third, Batty Media's Jellia's Friends, a cute action title starring cartoon jellybeans. Both the second and third prize winners receive a $100 prize.

Judges included Judges included Dr. Ian Bogost (Co-Founder, Persuasive Games), Simon Carless (former IGF chairman and publisher of this website), Brian Crecente (Managing Editor, Kotaku), Dr. Elizabeth Richeson (Advisory Board Director, Jennifer Ann's Group), and me, Leigh Alexander, news director of Gamasutra.

I found the opportunity to be a judge both educational and touching, and decided to speak to Drew Crecente, founder of Jennifer Ann's Group, to learn more about the group's goals with the contest and the use of game design in social issues:

Can you give us some background on Jennifer Ann's Group and the work it does?

Jennifer Ann's Group is a non-profit charity that was formed in 2006 to address the issue of teen dating violence. As time has passed we've expanded the focus of our group from teenagers to also address dating violence in "tweens" (11 & 12 year-olds) as well as college-aged students (up to 25).

As seen by the recent tragedy at the University of Virginia, this is an issue that can affect almost anybody and we're hoping to educate everybody about the very real dangers of dating violence.

44 percent of all students will have been in an abusive relationship by the time they graduate from college (source: The Journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine - July, 2008).

What's the goal of the game design contest in particular?

The primary goal is to educate people about the issue of dating violence and associated warning signs that one may be in an unhealthy relationship. A fundamental issue affecting young people in dating relationships is that they often have no baseline with which to compare dating behavior.

When a 15-year-old is told to not spend as much time with their friends he or she could be convinced that it's because the person they're dating just wants to spend more time with them; if a 30-something is told the same thing he or she would recognize it as controlling behavior. Sharing these "warning sign" behaviors is a key component of our efforts.

Who can participate, and what are the requirements?

Anybody age 18 and up can enter. The entries cannot have a violent theme or content and should be age-appropriate for ages 13 and up. Contestants can be from anywhere -- last year one of our winners was from Mexico; this year our first-place winning entry is from Bangkok and another winning entry is from Belgium.

Why video games, specifically? What do you think it is about game design that is well-suited to address this issue and the group's goals?

When the contest was developed I was looking for alternative channels to reach the demographic of our primary focus and thought that online flash-based games would be a great fit. One of the great things about games (in general) is that they're a fantastic way to share information in a way that's enjoyable and therefore less likely to feel "preachy."

This is a topic that is unlikely to be received as well if the information is coming from somebody's parents (or other authority figures) so allowing the players to self-teach through games feels like a better approach. Originally I was thinking that I would create a game myself and then I remembered that I have no idea how -- so a contest seemed like a better idea.

While we've been very pleased with the response and the number of people who have learned from these games, a great ancillary benefit has been the impact on the game developers themselves. I've received numerous emails over the years from developers who had no idea that this was such a serious issue; by going through the process of learning about the topic they have become "issue evangelists" in their own right.

What do the games you've seen over the years do well, and what could they do better to be more effective?

The thing that I've most enjoyed (and was really hoping for) has been the incredible diversity. I knew that given the opportunity that game developers would come up with a variety of innovative approaches and they've not let me down. Winning entries have encompassed adventure, room escape, tower defense, platform, and more esoteric themes.

One thing that I've not seen addressed sufficiently is the fact that dating violence is not just an issue for females; males are abused as well both at the hands of females as well as by other males in same-sex relationships.

While our group strives to make very clear that this is not a male-on-female problem, the games don't necessarily reflect that. This sometimes has the unfortunate effect on some game players of them focusing more on this inequity than on the educational information that we're trying to share.

What are your thoughts on this year's winning title, and what traits put it ahead of its competition?

The judges really had their work cut out for them this year. Every year it seems that the entries are more and more impressive and this year is no exception. The winning entry is a really beautiful game -- very professionally done -- with great real-world examples of situations that are warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship.

It's really an honor that so many talented, creative developers have applied their considerable skills to this issue and we're so pleased that we have the opportunity to share their fantastic efforts.

Interested parties should visit the official website for Jennifer Ann's Group. The contest winners are currently playable here.