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Video Game Helps Kenyan Youth Avoid AIDS

Kenya has an HIV prevalence rate of about five percent, with young women among the most vulnerable to new infection. Now, the U.S. government and a private entertainment company have teamed up to produce and distribute a video game that teaches Kenyan youth how to avoid contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Sean the techie and others are sitting in a mini-bus, when along comes a hijacker.

This is a typical scenario in the video game Pamoja Mtaani, Swahili for Together in the Hood.

Young people who play the game assume the identity of one of five characters. They find themselves in many situations in which they have to make the best problem-solving choices to advance to the next level. The characters collaborate to solve puzzles and carry out specific missions.

While doing this, players are given information on HIV prevention.

University student Evelyne Mwandia is one of the game's facilitators and an avid player. She describes the advice the game's characters dispense regarding HIV, "They teach me about HIV prevention activities. I am told how to protect [myself]: have one partner, use a condom. At the end of it, I am enjoying my life. I have gone though all the stages and I am a winner," she said.

A games company called Virtual Heroes Inc. developed Pamoja Mtaani, which targets 15 to 19-year-olds.

Brad Wilson of Virtual Heroes explains that, during the course of the game, each of the five characters initially practices some type of behavior that puts them at risk of contracting HIV or other diseases.

"Through interactions with themselves and other characters, they learn that these behaviors they are doing are actually risky and there are ramifications for those," Wilson said. "They realistically - not a Disney-type movie change but realistic - change from the beginning to the end. What we are hoping is that a lot of that is going to sink in to the youth."

The video game simulates real life settings in Kenya's capital Nairobi, from downtown to the city's teeming slums.

Virtual Heroes' Wilson explains how this was done. "Our first trip here was in the middle of March[(2008]. We took roughly about 5,000 pictures of everything. When we came back to the States, the arts staff pretty-much deconstructed all that - here is this, how can we fit this in the level size that we want, what is going to be realistic," he explained.

Wilson says his team consulted widely with Kenyan youth during several visits to the East African country. They did this to find out what is important to young people in Kenya, what they wanted out of a game, ideas they had for the video, and other information.

Pamoja Mtaani is a partnership between Warner Brothers Entertainment and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. Warner Brothers had contracted Virtual Heroes to create Pamoja Mtaani.

They launched the video game last December at two sites in Nairobi's Mukuru slum, with a further two sites offering the game.

After evaluation of the pilot phase in June, PEPFAR officials plan to offer the video game in more sites in Nairobi and other parts of the country.