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On the Role of Health in The Source: Dr. Melissa Gilliam

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Today’s post comes from Dr. Melissa Gilliam, co-founder of Game Changer Chicago and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health.  

My name is Melissa Gilliam; I am a doctor at the University of Chicago. I direct the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3) and Co-direct the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab with Patrick Jagoda, PhD. One of the core areas of my research and clinical work has been preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in young people. A sexually transmitted infection or a mistimed pregnancy can be a life-changing event. Luckily the rate of teen pregnancy continues to decline, but teen pregnancy is still very common and can lead to school drop out and worse outcomes for the teenager and her child. On the other hand, sexually transmitted infections are not declining, are most common among young adults, and can lead to chronic pain, chronic illness, and infertility.  These preventable problems can alter a young person’s future and they disproportionately affect communities such as those surrounding the University of Chicago.  Yet, as a doctor, I noticed that the young women I was seeing in my office knew very little about their personal health. Also, young women tend to access the healthcare system while young men rarely see a doctor. It seemed that our youth society uses a very narrow definition of education—don’t youth need to be prepared for all aspects of adulthood?   In 2011, my colleague Patrick Jagoda and I started Game Changer Chicago as an initiative to explore how games, digital media, and storytelling could be used to advance the health and well being of young people as they transition to adulthood.

This summer, we are running an alternate reality game called The Source, at the University of Chicago and online,which exposes over 140 Chicago youth to digital media and STEAM learning. During the upcoming week’s activities, links between games and health, in particular, will be easy to detect. The overarching theme is science and through this lens, players will engage in a variety of games designed to deepen their knowledge about infections. They will learn about HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea and the roles they play in our lives and communities. They will learn about the health care system and play games created by our Lab designed to help them gain new skills in developing and testing hypotheses. At the end of the week we hope that players understand infections from biologic, health, social, and political perspectives.

Yet, I would argue that the entire experience of The Source is about improving health outcomes. Here is why. An important body of research led by places such as the Search Institute demonstrates that helping youth develop external assets (community support, empowerment to act in their communities, clear boundaries, and a constructive use of time) and internal assets (commitment to learning, positive values, positive self identity, social competency) can result in academic success, a healthy transition to adulthood, and many healthy outcomes including those related to sexual and reproductive health. These observations connect family, school, and community as the pillars for supporting youth development. When I first read about Developmental Assets, I was thrilled. I felt that reproductive health was often taught by blaming and shaming young people, withholding information, and trying to make them afraid so they will not take risks.  Yet, adolescence is about risks as they search for the tools and relationships they need as they transition to adulthood.  Cognitively and developmentally, youth are “hardwired” to take risks, thus they need as many tools and resources as possible. Our goal is to use games to build those assets. The Source has a rich formula for doing just this. Indeed, our team looked at the list of assets that youth should build and mapped them into the Source through mentorship, civic engagement, digital badging, working with professionals in STEM and art, and working in collaborative teams.

Over the next weeks, we will study many aspects of playing The Source; we hope to see that games enable youth to adopt STEM skills, think critically, hone leadership skills, develop caring relationships, and engage more deeply in their school work.  When youth are empowered, engaged, and planning for their future, they are far less likely to have poor reproductive health outcomes. Thus, The Source is a reproductive health intervention.