University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation and Training has received a $434,800 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a game that teaches abstinence and peer-resistance skills to Latina girls still in middle school.

"Our ultimate goal is to reduce pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease among the young Latina population," says UCF nursing professor Anne Norris, who is working with the department and UCF computer science professor Charles Hughes (pictured) on the project.

Norris says UCF is focusing on low-income Latina adolescents, age 12 to 15 years old, because that group tends to have higher teen birth rates, as well as higher rates of HIV and other STDs compared to their Caucasian peers. She believes the best time to teach these skills is during middle school before they become sexually active.

"In lower-income communities, there is often a lack of clear role models for adolescents," Norris said. "Parents are concerned and want to help, and teachers try to intervene and make a difference, but there needs to be more for these girls."

In the game, which isn't slated to be completed for two years, players interact with characters that speak and respond to them in scenarios modeled after real-life. The avatars are controlled by a trained and unseen "interactor", possibly set up in a remote location, through motion-capture technology.

The project, which will be played in after-school and youth outreach programs run by teachers and counselors, looks to "improve girls' skills in responding to peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior" by teaching them how to handle sensitive situations and questions (e.g. characters asking why the play and her boyfriend aren't having sex.).

The UCF team is collecting data from focus groups of Latina students at local middle schools/programs in order to make sure the game's scenarios, words, phrases, and gestures are as realistic as possible. If the game is successful, Norris plans to work on a similar project for boys and girls of other ethnicities.

[Via UCF News, GamePolitics]