The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March, 2020. It was the day after Activision released its free-to-play battle royale game Call Of Duty: Warzone and a little over a week before Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons. One year later, these two games have essentially reshaped our lives over the pandemic, providing comforts of escapism and helping build socially-distanced friendships via multiplayer. But what if such gamification models could redefine today’s digital-first education system, particularly for those subjects which require ‘interactive tools’ for better understanding? What if contemporary sex education was meant to be taught through video games?
In an era where mornings have become synonymous with Zoom links and clean backgrounds for students, schools are increasingly prioritising what gets taught online. As subjects like physics and physical education go online, much of the curriculum is getting lost in translation from the real to the virtual world. And sex education is no exception.
“There’s already lots of cultural stigma around something like saying the word ‘penis’ in a room full of people who are under 18,” said Karen Rayne, the executive director of UNHUSHED, a non-profit that offers sex education for schools with the aims to remove the stigma surrounding them. In an interview with US News, she illustrated the challenges of teaching homebound teenagers and college students who are “attending classes from their childhood bedrooms” about the birds and the bees.
Not long after the pandemic hit, Rayne, who also teaches human sexuality at the University of Texas at Austin, created a manifesto outlining 10 tips for teaching online sex ed. These tips include being mindful of students’ developmental stages, expecting some awkwardness and looping in parents.
Despite her efforts, however, she admitted that some students were in fact being left behind in classes. “After so many months online, we were beginning to lose some kids in a way that I wasn’t really concerned about in March or April (2020),” she said. “It might be that for some kids, sex ed is not where they need to spend their limited online learning hours.”
A paper published by Leslie Kantor, chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers University School of Public Health, further spelled out why teaching reproductive health during a pandemic is critical and how schools should prioritise the same. “Even when in-person schooling resumes, missed sex education is unlikely to be made up, given the modest attention it received prior to the pandemic,” the paper concluded, which has essentially hatched a sense of urgency at the educational forefront.
As teachers scramble to come up with innovative ways to “translate what we learned about effective, in-person sex education into the digital environment,” some sex education game developers think this could be their moment.
Gamification can be summed up as the use of game design elements like avatars, scores, leaderboards and virtual rewards in non-game contexts such as apps for learning a skill or tracking one’s progress. With the growing use of computer-based therapy in mental health and promising results seen in the use of gamification in psychotherapy, the push to gamify sex education is part of a broader movement—deploying video games to target health issues ranging from depression to tobacco use.
So how does game design and principles help tackle a social stigma? Three major factors come into play here: interactivity, privacy and familiarity. Interactivity is a huge influence on a person’s learning capacity, especially in a digital age saturated with online lectures and note-taking. What this means in terms of sex education is that these games could essentially offer a way to interact with the subject at hand without getting ‘down and dirty’.
“Putting a condom on a banana, that’s like a stereotype of sex education, right? But that’s what everyone remembers,” said Nina Freeman, the developer behind the acclaimed sex education game how do you Do It? “It’s the thing that you’re actually doing. You’re basically performing the act of putting a condom on a penis—it is performative.” In an interview with Mashable, the developer equated the act of putting a condom on a banana to a game-like experience and how in that sense such games could be a very effective way of conveying information.
Freeman’s approach to game design involves role-plays and simulations which gives players a different perspective on the whole sex education front. “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.”
Another example of interactivity in gamified sex education is the smartphone app Tap That where players are responsible for taking care of different characters navigating their sexual relationships. If one of them has an STI, the players have to diagnose and determine how to cure or treat it. Virtual condoms are also offered in player toolkits to prevent the infections from spreading. “Sex should be a positive experience, so why shouldn’t sex ed be too?” a video explaining the game reads.
This brings us to the next two factors pushing these video games into the mainstream: privacy and familiarity. Such games have the potential to filter out all of the awkwardness surrounding the topic. It gives players the ability to learn about sex and sexuality from the privacy of their homes in a way that they’re familiar and comfortable with.
“Having students engage with the world in a way they’re more familiar with and feel more comfortable doing 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 mentioned. “I think giving them more of a private space to explore some of this stuff is definitely helpful.” The added privacy also fosters a safe space for players. One where they can reflect on their own sexuality and explore their feelings without being judged.
In a recent report by Censuswide, the agency surveyed 500 teachers who used video games in their classrooms over the pandemic. 89 per cent of them highlighted the fact that the tool has proved beneficial for engaging students with their subjects. 69 per cent stated that their students are more likely to do their homework when gaming is involved. And 68 per cent swore that gaming would become an important resource in education moving forward.
As comprehensive sex education becomes essential for today’s ‘digital native’ youth—with means of sexting, online dating and VR sex literally available at their fingertips—video games along with the transferrable skills they offer might just help safeguard education in the COVID-19 generation and beyond.
The first season was great: a refreshingly original coming-of-age drama, centred around Otis (Asa Butterfield), son of a sex therapist, Jean (the formidable Gillian Anderson), who starts dispensing sex advice to his classmates for a small fee. He’s helped out by social-outcast Maeve (Emma Mackey) and his out, gay best friend Eric (the scene-stealing Ncuti Gatwa).
The supporting cast is thoroughly talented, with even minor characters fleshed out to an extent that few such dramas manage. Head boy Jackson struggles with the endless expectations put upon him. Adam, the headmaster’s son, is more than just a bully and is given a redemption arc through this season. Formerly a member of the elite clique known as “the untouchables,” Aimee isn’t to be dismissed as a ditsy blonde—in dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault on the bus to school, she comes into her own as a character.
The show doesn’t shy away from difficult topics: unprotected sex and abortion, both sexual and physical assault; all these issues are dealt with astutely, sensitively. The representation is practically unparalleled, yet manages not to feel contrived: characters are from a variety of social, economic and religious backgrounds yet they coexist, united by school—and by sex.
The show feels emphatically queer. What I mean by that is that it feels like a queer energy pervades the show. Jackson, for instance, has two mums, which some shows might dwell on but here it’s mentioned off-hand, a part of his character. Several characters discover their queerness over the course of the season: we watch them go on an intensely personal journey and are taken along for the ride. “Sexuality informs these characters as who they are as people,” summarises Gabe Bergado in Teen Vogue, “but doesn’t define them.” Show-runners could learn a lot from this.
The setting is deliberately generic: although filmed in south Wales, it feels very rural and very British, yet many of the details feel thoroughly American. The school, for instance, feels much more like a New England High School than an English Sixth Form; I don’t know of a state school here that has its own pool, with a swim team and uniform, as well. This, of course, speaks to Netflix’s international audience—and has helped the show go down a storm on both sides of the Atlantic, including a glowing write-up in The New Yorker.
The show feels at once very contemporary—text conversations are brought alive onscreen, Sherlock-style—and somehow timeless, with no mention of politics. Yet sex education, what can and can’t be taught in schools, particularly in America, is fundamentally political.
Sex is at the core of the show, but it’s never just teens having endless, romanticised sex. Instead, sex is messy and complicated, funny and confusing, all at once; different people want different things, they have different expectations. Often, people don’t know what they want. In this respect, Sex Education is far superior to any formal sex education that I received at school. And, speaking to friends, I had it relatively good: we discussed sexuality, consent, various forms of contraception, where others did little more than put condoms on cucumbers. Such disparity is itself a significant part of the problem.
The show also demonstrates why such education is lacking: the squeamishness and conservatism of those in charge. Alternatives fill this gap: here, it’s Otis, but elsewhere, people look to the internet and, all too often, pornography or other similarly unreliable sources. We’ve now reached a point where comedy-dramas on Netflix are doing a better job than many schools. The show contains practical advice on several issues, from anal douching to how chlamydia is spread.
Netflix is stepping up elsewhere, too. The show Sex, Explained, narrated by Janelle Monae, offers straightforward and nonjudgmental advice about a variety of topics, from fertility to BDSM. The short films are aimed at an adult audience, either supplementing or making up for knowledge taught at school or learned in life.
Sex Education’s season finale centres around a musical production of Romeo and Juliet, and is as delightful as it is ridiculous: the stage is shaped like a penis, the audience enters the school hall through a paper-mâché vagina. It’s one of the wildest, funniest things I’ve seen in ages. I’m not sure I can do it justice here—I urge you to watch for yourself.