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Video Games Designed To Address Sexual Assault on Campus

NIJ-funded research assessing video games designed to reduce sexual assault on campus yielded some positive results, but showed a lack of sustained benefits on key metrics.
Date Published
June 29, 2020

Can video games sensitize college students to the problem of sexual assault on campus and elevate their willingness to intervene appropriately when they observe an actual or potential sexual assault?

A team of researchers at the University of New Hampshire developed and pilot tested trivia- and adventure-based games[1] to try to answer that question. In two rounds of testing, the research team measured the impact of playing the games on male and female student volunteers’ views of sexual violence and their willingness and perceived ability to intervene as a bystander.

Game testing involving a total of 738 undergraduate participants included focus group feedback that shaped the game designs and participation in pilot studies of the games to gauge how well they could work. The pilots consisted of game participation with pre-game and post-game testing and follow-up surveys. Those tests and surveys measured participants’ “bystander attitude” — willingness to intervene as a bystander in a witnessed sexual assault scenario — and “bystander efficacy” — confidence in their ability to intervene in such a scenario. 

The research was designed to address and reduce sexual assault, the most common violent crime on college campuses. In a report to NIJ, the researchers noted that another study found that 7% of first-year college women experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in the first semester of college, 28% of first-year women experienced unwanted sexual contact, and 7% of college men reported an attempted or completed assault during their college years.[2] The researchers noted also that online tools and video games had proven effective in advancing health intervention and education goals, and saw a need and an opportunity to apply them to sexual violence prevention, an area where few digital strategies had been applied.[3]

The research yielded mixed results. The research team tested the effect of the separate trivia and adventure video games on female and male student volunteers and found that few significant positive impacts from playing the games were sustained over time on a number of key measures — where the final measurement occurred four weeks after the game-playing phase ended.

Both the trivia and adventure video games were pilots — their use confined to research — but the researchers viewed the trivia game as a precursor to the adventure game. 

Initial testing of changes in both the participants’ bystander attitude and their bystander efficacy found no lasting overall benefit for those students assigned to play both games.  But on some measures of subjects who played only a single game, a sustained positive impact was found for men and women participants. A more detailed description of these results appears in the next section of this article.

Students participated in a second round of testing, playing refined video games reflecting lessons learned from the first round of testing. Again, general beneficial impacts of the games on the students were shown not to be sustained over time. More than the first round of testing, the researchers said, the second round “suggested that changes are not always sustained in the long-term.”

The researchers concluded that online educational video games might be one component of a comprehensive sexual violence prevention plan. They also noted that the project had faced challenges in recruiting test volunteers among first-year college students, as program participation was not mandated by the institution, and that some results may have been influenced by student volunteers’ frustration with the early version of the games.

First Round of Testing

In the first round of testing, 305 first-year student volunteers were randomly divided into four groups: one each to be administered only the trivia game or only the adventure game, a third group to be administered both games, and a fourth to serve as a control. Control group members played a version of the trivia game containing no sexual assault or bystander intervention content.

Volunteers’ perceptions relevant to attitude and efficacy values were measured at three stages: before they played the games, just after they played the games, and four weeks later. Attitude was determined using a 16-item scale indicating a participant’s intent to intervene in a sexual assault situation. Efficacy was determined using an 18-item scale measuring participants’ level of confidence that they would intervene.

Measures of bystander attitude among male students showed no significant change over time in three of the four conditions tested — playing only the trivia game, playing both games, and the control condition. Only for those playing just the adventure game did bystander attitude significantly increase after playing the game. The measure of female participants’ bystander attitude significantly increased between pre-test and follow-up only in the group that played both games. Females in the other three game conditions — trivia, adventure, and control — showed no significant attitude benefit over time.

When it came to bystander efficacy — as distinct from attitude — male participants’ scores increased significantly between pre-test and follow-up for those who played only the adventure game or only the trivia game. But for males playing both games, efficacy fell between pre-test and follow-up, although not significantly.

In contrast to the males, female participants saw no statistically significant changes in their pre-test to follow-up efficacy scores for those who played either only the adventure game or only the trivia game. Moreover, for women playing both games, there was an unexpected statistically significant decrease in intervention efficacy from pre-test to follow-up.

The decline in efficacy — the opposite of the intended effect — in the group that played both video games in this first round of testing prompted the research team to drop that condition in the second study. The net decline in efficacy for females playing both games, the research team reasoned, was “likely the result of a lengthy testing session that frustrated participants.”

Second Round of Testing

For the second round of testing, the games were made “more user-friendly,” the researchers said, with elimination of questions that students said were boring or too difficult, and with shorter, faster-paced game rounds. Other changes included additional interactive elements for the adventure game. Based on student preferences, subtler intervention options were added to the adventure game.

In the second round, 303 students took part. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: playing only the trivia game, playing only the adventure game, and a control group that again played a version of the adventure game with no sexual assault or intervention content.

For those playing only the trivia game, neither men nor women showed any significant changes in attitude just after playing the game and in the four-month follow-up.

In a notable development, men in the control group showed significant increases in bystander attitude just after playing the game and in the four-month follow-up. Thus, the researchers noted, “These differences indicate that men’s bystander attitudes within the control condition not only increased, despite receiving no intervention, but were sustained over time.”

For both men and women playing only the adventure game, there were no significant changes in bystander attitude between pre-test and follow-up scores. Although both men and women had significant increases in bystander attitude between pre-test and post-test, scores decreased for both between post-test and follow-up, with men’s scores decreasing significantly.

Increased bystander efficacy also was not sustained. “Bystander efficacy means were also significantly lower at follow-up . . . than they were at post-test across conditions,” the report said.

For men playing only the trivia game, the benefit in efficacy was not sustained, as scores rose from pre-test to post-test but dropped back down at follow-up. For women, the increase in efficacy between pre-test and post-test was also significant, but the subsequent drop in efficacy for women between post-test and follow-up again resulted in no sustained effect.

Those playing the adventure game only showed significant increases in bystander efficacy from pre-test to post-test, regardless of gender. But males playing only the adventure game, while showing a significant increase in efficacy from pre-test to post-test, experienced a significant decrease from post-test to follow-up, suggesting that beneficial changes attributable to the adventure video game experience were not sustained for them. Women, however, exhibited the only sustained effect over time, as their efficacy scores significantly increased in the adventure condition from pre-test to follow-up.


The goal of this research was to make a game that was both educational and fun for college students. The findings did identify some benefits over time in terms of bystander attitude and efficacy, limited by game condition and gender, but those benefits are to be weighed against findings of no significant, sustained educational benefits reflected in other broad measures of impact. Moreover, findings of significant impact on the control group that played a game with no sexual assault or intervention content suggest that factors other than the intended treatment doses may have affected outcomes on those measures.

On balance, the researchers concluded from their preliminary results that video games have the potential to deliver information about sexual violence to students and to increase their knowledge about ways to intervene. As noted, they further concluded that video games may be one component of a comprehensive prevention plan for combating sexual assault on campus. However, they also remarked that more work was needed to figure out how the intervention benefits could be sustained over time and how gender can best be connected to successful games as part of prevention programming.  

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2014-VA-CX-0012, awarded to the University of New Hampshire. This article relates to information in the grantee Final Report on the project, “Adaptation and Evaluation of Video Games to Reduce Sexual Violence on Campus,” Sharyn J. Potter, principal investigator.

Date Published: June 29, 2020