Interview: Dan Marshall, Zombie Cow (creator of Privates)
Cast your mind back: you’re 14 years old. All you think about is sex. All you talk about is sex. All you want to do is have sex.
The rumours are rife: you’re convinced that everyone is doing it - omigod, even that? - except for you. You are stranded in a crazy chaotic world of conflicting information and you have no idea what’s true and what isn’t. Thank goodness you have access to the biggest library about sex that’s ever been available, right?
The Web is a nonsensical mess of sexual disinformation and content. Anyone with authority trying to explain what people do (and what that… thing is) does it in such a DULLLLL and UNCOOOL way that there’s no point in bothering. So how on earth are kids, who are exposed to more sexual content than previous generations, going to get the facts straight?
Dan Marshall is an independent developer who’s Zombie Cow Studios produced the award-winning Web and Xbox Live game Privates for Channel 4 Education. It’s aimed at helping teenagers navigate their fraught and intense sexual evolution with as much real and useful information about STIs and contraception as possible, in a way that engages them.
I spoke with Dan about the game, and about what decisions he and his team at made in its design that best communicate some pretty serious messages to its target audience.
What are today’s 14-19 year olds’ attitudes to sex?
Pretty much the same as they were when we grown-ups were 14-19, to be honest; a bewildering cocktail of fear, awkwardness and pressing desire to desperately, desperately have some. I think the only thing that’s changed is that they’re a lot more media-savvy now, and have a lot more imagery to contend with/live up to than previous generations.
How has the Web changed attitudes and behaviours to sex?
Oh, all sorts of brilliant and horrible ways. Everything from easy, solid, anonymous advice on forums to easily-accessible porn: the web’s made finding out about sex a wildly different job for teenagers. Quite whether all those images are helping or hindering isn’t my position to say, but I’m pretty sure being open and frank about squishy, sensible sex, which is what Privates does, is a fairly-healthy thing.
What did you have to do to accommodate for that in the design decisions you made for the game?
From the start, we wanted to make sure Privates didn’t talk down to anyone – it wanted to be a game you’d enjoy and get a laugh from whether you were 13 or 30, so there are some quite (admittedly immature) mature jokes and language in there.
My opinion was that if you want to appeal to a teen age group, you basically need to make something that’s essentially for adults – ‘teen’ material tends to get lapped up by pre-teens, and teenagers are in a position to absorb more risqué, grown-up material. So we made sure we didn’t pander to the age group, and instead made all our design decisions on the assumption that everyone playing is just a gamer of indeterminate age.
Why is a Web game the best way to communicate information about sex to this target audience?
You can get so much across in such a small amount of time with a game, because gamers are used to being bombarded with a whole bunch of information at once – baddies, bullets, controls, text, voice, [Heads-Up Displays], all there in your way trying to tell you things; gamers pick up on that very astutely, and absorb every little bit of it.
What’s more, there’s a level of abstraction to it – while you’re playing the game and concentrating on not dying or getting a high score, all this educational information you’re picking up is sort of seeping into your brain without realising it. I bet if you asked the majority of people who played Privates whether Herpes was a bacteria or a virus before playing, they’d be a bit iffy on the answer. After playing it’s somehow magically second nature, and there’s no question.
What evidence do you have that the game has made a difference in their attitudes and behaviours?
I get a steady stream of emails thanking me for the game and telling me they learned something. Quite how that’s permeated through to society as a whole, I’ve absolutely no idea at this time, but if even one teenager with Chlamydia has thought twice before having unprotected sex as a result of playing Privates, I can be pretty smugly pleased with myself.