MANILA, Philippines — Technology can be a double-edged sword.
The advent of the information age has enabled billions of people to enjoy the benefits of a more connected world. Unfortunately, it also exposed many to the risks that come with it.
The rise of technology, particularly of the internet and social media, has changed the landscape of the fight against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Studies show that increased connectivity has enabled the infection to spread faster among the youth.
Statistics released by the Department of Health (DOH) reveal that HIV infections are highest among young Filipinos between 15 to 30 years old. The increasing number of cases in the country, which is an exception to the downward trend worldwide, has prompted the National Youth Commission to declare an epidemic of HIV among young Filipinos.
The picture is bleak, but the fight is far from over.
Recently, a group of scientists have decided to address the matter head-on. A mobile game, called Battle in the Blood or #BitB, was developed with the purpose of increasing awareness and mainstreaming discussion about HIV, particularly among the youth.
The game was released in time for the commemoration of World AIDS Day last Dec. 1.
“More young Filipinos are engaging in sexual activity partly because there are more ways for them to communicate,” Dr. Emmanuel Baja of the University of the Philippines-Manila tells STARweek. “The popularity of smartphones led to the rise of what are known as dating or hook-up (mobile) applications.”
Baja is the head of the HIV Gaming, Engaging and Testing (HIV GET Tested) Project that developed #BitB.
He says the project takes advantage of technology to address a problem that it may have inadvertently exacerbated.
“This gaming app is a very powerful communication tool to address the stigma of HIV, especially among young men who have sex with men and transgender women who are at a higher risk for HIV infection,” he adds.
“The app, designed specifically for the Philippine context, is the first game to address barriers to HIV treatment and counseling services in the country,” adds Baja.
#BitB allows users to access additional information about HIV, including treatment and testing centers and a link to an online community where they can discuss the illness.
“HIV is no longer a death sentence. It is not yet curable, but it can be treated using ARVs (antiretroviral medication) that lower the viral load (to reduce the risk of passing the virus),” Baja points out. “What is important is that the infection is detected as early as possible.”
Game with a purpose
Like other mobile games, the overall game design of #BitB is simple yet engaging. Its gameplay is reminiscent of a popular mobile application game that requires users to match candies to clear a puzzle and advance to the next level.
But instead of candies, #BitB players are required to match icons that educate users about HIV. The icons include ARVs, health care, healthy living, condoms and time.
A dedicated page within the game explains the significance of the icons in preventing and treating the disease.
A unique element of the game design involves the incorporation of a turn-based battle system that enables the players to fight the virus.
The character gains attack and defense powers every time the player connects the icons on the lower part of the screen.
The player’s character (known as avatar) is gender-fluid and can be styled using a wide range of outfits and hairstyles.
#BitB players journey across 90 levels, battling HIV and other infection armies. Throughout the game, short stories about persons living with the disease are featured using a 2D comic book Manga-style animation.
The stories aim to mainstream the illness by showing that those infected by the virus can lead normal lives, with Baja stressing that removing stigma is a crucial first step in addressing the spread of the virus.
Users can also gain extra lives by answering questions about HIV.
#BitB is funded through the Newton-Agham Grant of the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council and the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Council for Health Research and Development.
Baja says the idea behind the project started when a local city health official of Tagum City in Davao approached their team and sought their help in addressing the rising number of HIV cases in the city.
“We were informed that many of those who contract the virus are young teenagers. We thought there is a need to communicate with them using their language. That’s why we thought of a mobile game,” recalls Baja.
They partnered with Dr. Miriam Taegtmeyer of UK’s Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and drafted the proposal.
The three-year program was approved, with the team tapping various agencies and organizations, including the DOH and the local governments of Davao and Quezon City.
From the proposal, the team went on to conduct research, develop the game design and test the application to ensure its suitability and acceptability to its target audience.
Following the launch, project developers say they will monitor its reception and impact and use the information that they will gather for their research.
Admittedly, mobile games like #BitB will not solve the high prevalence of HIV in the country overnight.
Baja, however, believes that such initiatives are necessary to address the problem from a different perspective.
“We have to do something. Otherwise, the problem will just continue to worsen,” he says.
Battle in the Blood or #BitB is available for free at AppStore for iOS users and Google PlayStore for Android users.
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