At the community centre in Mukuru, a slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, teenagers spend hours engrossed in a video game, but they are not battling other-worldly forces with super-human weapons; instead, they are finding their way through a familiar-looking city, trying to negotiate real-life situations and learn how to avoid HIV infection.
"Pamoja Mtaani", Swahili for "Together in the Hood", is the first multi-player PC video game to try to teach young people how to avoid HIV infection. Players assume the identity of one of five characters who find themselves car-jacked in a matatu (minibus taxi) and attempt to recover their stolen goods and save an injured woman. Through a series of sub-plots, the players are put into positions where the decisions they make can put them at risk of contracting or preventing HIV infection.
"You are able to relate to the behaviour of any one of the characters in the video game and you are able to discard bad behaviour … [such as] using drugs because you can actually see drug abuse leads that particular character into acquiring HIV due to recklessness," said Perpetua Nduku, one of the young people at the Mukuru community centre, which is visited by about 35 teens a day - 50 a day at the weekend.
The game targets young people aged between 15 and 19 and focuses on five key behaviours that can reduce HIV infections among youth: delaying the onset of sexual activity, abstinence, avoiding multiple sex partners, correct and consistent condom use, and uptake of voluntary counselling and testing services.
Local hip-hop artists provide the authentically local, urban soundtrack, and the characters in the game speak Sheng, a mix of Swahili and English commonly used by urban youth.
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"I can now negotiate condom use with my boyfriend and I can tell any other girl who has never been here how to do it because the language used [in the video game] is the same language I would normally use with my boyfriend or with any other person," said 20-year-old Grace Wangeci.
The game was developed by Warner Bros Entertainment in partnership with the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria recently gave Warner Bros Entertainment a business excellence award for Pamoja Mtaani.
Launched in December 2008, the game is available at four sites in Nairobi; following a review in June 2009, PEPFAR and its local partners now plan to extend the game around the capital and country-wide.
Job Akuno, technical adviser for comprehensive prevention programmes at Hope Worldwide Kenya, which runs the community centre in Mukuru, says young people in the area have embraced the game and learned from it, underlining the need to find more engaging ways to inform the youth about HIV.
"Using the video games provides a platform for reaching out to the youth in a creative way and which is enjoyable to them," he said, adding that the game's features had broader messages, such as teaching young women to stand up for their rights and improve their self-esteem.
Kenya's national HIV/AIDS strategy considers youth aged between 15 and 24 "most-at-risk"; young women have an HIV prevalence of 6.1 percent, four times higher than their male counterparts. Studies have shown that although knowledge of HIV/AIDS among the youth is high, many young people continue to engage in risky behaviour, such as having multiple sexual partners and inconsistent condom use.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions