If Your Teen Feels Depressed, Alone, And Desperate, This Game Might Be Able To Help
If your teenager is feeling upset, depressed, or alone, indie developer PixelBerry Studios wants to help. Conscious of the fact that teens and tweens are shaped a great deal by the sort of media they consume, the developer created the game High School Story. It's a role-playing game with an incredibly positive message, and one that PixelBerry hopes will help lower the suicide rate among teens.
High School Story puts players into the role of a student tasked with building their own dream school. On the surface, that sounds a little shallow - cartoonish, even. The game, however, is anything but. See, PixelBerry could very easily have populated the title with a host of two-dimensional characters. They didn't, though - instead, each and every character has depth and agency; each character has their own cultural background, sexuality, and nationality.
The result was everything they could have hoped for - and then some.
"When we launched the game, we started seeing reviews where people were talking about the storyline, and we had one girl from Singapore email us and said that she'd never felt comfortable with who she was, that she felt like she didn't belong in her class, and now that she'd played our game she felt OK," explained Pixelberry Studios CEO Oliver Miao. "The more we saw stories like that, the more we realized we could have an impact."
More recently, PixelBerry teamed with non-profit Cybersmile to release a new chapter in the game geared towards cyberbullying. Once again, their efforts met with great success - hundreds of players came to them to voice their gratitude, many of which were even going so far as to contemplate suicide before playing High School Story. Because of the game, they sought help.
"[High school] is a place where people are forming their values and learning a lot about themselves and kind of evolving and transforming," continued Miao. "We wanted to make sure we were putting the right values in there."
Curiously enough, the game wasn't originally designed as a tool for edutainment - evne though it eventually ended up growing into the role. According to Miao, it was supposed to be a game first and foremost, with messages on acceptance and diversity layered in as an undercurrent. The developer, he continued, set out to create a fun and engaging experience which also did the teenage experience justice; mixing light and dark content.
That this also vastly improves the narrative is a happy accident.
"By having a lot of light and fun elements, when you go to something more serious, it's more impactful. Likewise, when you have a period where things are darker, you can lighten things up by throwing in a joke. Having both the highs and lows balances it out really well."
This presentation of "highs and lows" means that High School Story also doesn't pull any punches concerning its portrayal of bullying. The title paints a shockingly real, stark picture of bullying - both online and off - which ultimately makes it feel all the more relatable and real. According to Miao, this was something they absolutely had to do - watering down the subject would have done all the victims of real-world bullying a gross disservice.
The real brilliance of the game becomes clear when one realizes that every single character is a stereotype...but only on the surface. Interacting with the seemingly stock characters will break down the stereotypes around them, revealing hidden depths which were not at first evident. It's ultimately an exercise in empathy - and something Miao feels that more games should start doing.
"[Hearing from our players] has been really energizing for the team," said Miao. "I'm hoping that as our company and other companies make these types of games, more and more game companies will consider a more integrated approach to making games, whether it's educational or to do with social issues.
"I think there's a lot of room for games to make a difference, and I hope other people do it."
Currently, PixelBerry is working on a new update which is expected to be out by early June. There's no indication what the update will address yet - only that it'll be another issue common to teenagers.
You can purchase the latest version of High School Story here and at other video game stores.