Making a Video Game About HIV
An Interview With the Makers of the Game I'm Positive
I'm Positive, a video game, follows the life of a young male before and after his HIV diagnosis. At each step of the character's journey, the player gets to make different choices, while learning more about HIV along the way -- as was previously reported on TheBody.com. We spoke with two of the game's developers, Ilya Polyakov and Stephen Borden, to learn about the inspiration behind the game and the plans for its future.
Warren Tong: Where did the idea for I'm Positive come from?
Ilya Polyakov: The idea for a game on HIV education came from the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. They held a game jam, which is an event where you make a video game in a short period of time, in this case a weekend. We didn't know the theme would be HIV until the day of the event. At the event, subject matter experts gave a presentation on HIV and the current state of affairs in the United States.
We didn't know a lot about HIV before the event. From what we learned there and further research, we wanted to include what we thought was important in our game in an accessible and relatable way. That's why we chose to use an interactive story with easy-to-play mini games that reflect real life. The player plays from the perspective of someone who is potentially HIV positive, because we thought it would be a good way to make the player aware of what resources are available to them in real life.
Stephen Borden: One of the main goals the CDC presented at the game jam was for people to get tested. We hoped that an interactive narrative where you put yourself in the shoes of a character who finds out they might have HIV, and then goes through the process of getting tested (or chooses not to), would be more meaningful to players than just presenting a bunch of facts. There are still a lot of facts in the game, but the player only sees the things they care about by choosing the questions they are interested in. We wanted to show what it's like to get tested, and that it is easy and accessible.
Warren Tong: The CDC will be studying the game's efficacy this year. Who is sponsoring or funding this game?
Ilya Polyakov: From the game jam, the CDC chose five groups to continue working on their games for two months. Each of those groups received $4,000 and our group's game was the one chosen for the research study. All the groups own the rights to their respective games.
Stephen Borden: There really is no funding. It's a hobby/side project we've worked on in our free time. We were lucky to be selected as winners, and were awarded some prize money, which I suppose was a motivating factor. As Ilya said, we own the rights to the game, so we can do whatever we want with it. We hope the game will have a positive impact on public health, so we are releasing it for free. It is currently available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and we are also planning on releasing it on iOS and Android.
Warren Tong: Tell me about the choice to make it a female-to-male transmission.
Ilya Polyakov: We chose to make the main character heterosexual because I think a lot of people only view HIV as a gay man's or drug user's problem, when in reality, HIV affects everyone. It's true that HIV is disproportionately more likely to affect gay men in the United States, and that's discussed in the game. To reduce the stigma, as well as new HIV transmissions, everyone should get tested and be knowledgeable on HIV.
Stephen Borden: It was really about showing that anyone can get HIV, and not presenting the stereotypical HIV narrative. In the future, we may look into giving the player gender and sexuality options.
Warren Tong: Will you two be working on any other health-related educational games?
Ilya Polyakov: I'd love to work on more educational games. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of them in the future.
Stephen Borden: I make biology educational games at my day job. Most of them aren't explicitly health-related, but it's a definite possibility. I would love to make more health-related games! If we are lucky, the CDC will have another game jam next year and we'll see more great health games as a result.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenAtTheBody.