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On Feb. 15, 2006, Drew Crecente’s high school-aged daughter, Jennifer Ann, was killed by an ex-boyfriend. Shortly after her death, Crecente started a nonprofit charity organization focused on preventing abusive behavior among teenagers.
“I really had no idea that teen dating violence was the issue that it is; it wasn’t on my radar,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. The goal of Jennifer Ann’s Group, at the time, was to increase awareness about potentially dangerous situations and provide educational resources so that other parents could recognize red flags and get help.
Crecente created a website to share warning signs of abusive relationships. He held T-shirt and poster design contests, eventually trying most “traditional outreach methods.” Then in 2008, Crecente zeroed in on video games as a means to educate because they offered a totally different medium with sounds, lights and a certain “sparkly” appeal that he thought might attract younger crowds. In a video game, sensitive concepts such as consent can be expressed visually in a playable experience with choices that can be replayed with different outcomes.
In 2010, the organization produced an educational adventure game called Grace’s Diary, from developer GP Touch. After it received a positive response, Crecente found himself “hooked” on games for the messages they can extend through playable experiences. “This is more powerful than I really anticipated. I hadn’t considered the persuasive power of video games,” he says. “I realized we can go beyond just increasing awareness and just merely engaging and educating, we can actually change somebody’s unhealthy attitudes or beliefs through these games.” He continued to focus the group on exploring sensitive issues through video games, awareness, advocacy and education.
These days, Jennifer Ann’s Group runs an annual video game challenge where developers compete for cash prizes to create games with different themes. The group has published games from developers and designers in 15 countries and five continents.
There are games about consent, abuse prevention, healthy relationships and more. Finalist entries are judged by a group of critics, developers and other gaming professionals, along with those engaged on the side of domestic violence and psychology. The contest’s only rule is that none of the games can have any on-screen depiction of violence. “We’ve seen tower defense games, art games, walking simulator type games, trivia games — most common are RPG,” says Crecente, explaining that the narrative format fits well with the topic.
The theme of “culture” was picked for this year because Crecente knows that many young people turn to their culture to understand sensitive issues that they might not feel comfortable speaking to their parents or teachers about. “I love the idea of using a video game to explore the impact of culture,” he says, adding that when he was a child, conversations about consent or unhealthy relationships certainly weren’t household topics.
Round two entries for the game challenge were due Aug. 1, so Crecente is currently deep in source code and original IP. The first place winner will be awarded $10,000. On Aug. 12 during the Play NYC game convention, — held virtually this year — he spoke about the gaming against violence initiative and how Jennifer Ann’s Group is using video games as an educational and social tool.
Throughout this process, Crecente is trying to connect with young people to learn what resonates with them. But not everybody immediately understands his mission. “So much of the public has been trained to believe video games equal some kind of anti-social behavior,” says Crecente. (Since their inception, video games — especially violent first-person shooters like Call of Duty — have been criticized for encouraging actual violence. In 2018, Trump blamed video games as possible causes for real-life violence in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. He condemned them again in 2019 following multiple mass shootings.)
“When I tell them, actually we’re using them to try and prevent violence, there’s a lot of skepticism involved,” says Crecente. “And so, when I do see that it really does connect with young people, if they write a review and then they say, ‘wow, at the end of the game I realized there was actually this important message behind it and I see how it all fits together, and that really mattered to me’ — there we go.”
For Crecente, the interactive nature of video games is what makes them especially compelling, as opposed to other mediums such as film and television, especially when they utilize very nuanced, difficult to approach topics. “I don’t want to patronize these young people, I really want to speak to them where they’re at.”
Learn more about Jennifer Ann’s Group and its games here.
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