Anne Norris, a University of Central Florida nursing professor, and Charles Hughes, a UCF computer science professor, will work together with UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training during the next two years to develop the game with a $434,800 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Our ultimate goal is to reduce pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease among the young Latina population,” Norris said.

The schoolgirls will interact with realistic computer-generated characters that speak and respond to them in real-life scenarios. To make the game as realistic as possible, the avatars are controlled by the actions of a skilled “interactor” using motion-capture technology. The interactor remains hidden, often in a remote location, during game play.

Norris cites many reasons for focusing on young Latina adolescents, age 12-15. Low-income Latinas have higher teen birth rates and higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases than their white peers. The best time to teach girls abstinence and peer-resistance skills is during middle school — those approaches are less effective once girls become sexually active. And many Latina girls may lack role models who can help them learn how to resist peer pressure.

“In lower- income communities, there is often a lack of clear role models for adolescents,” Norris said. “Parents are concerned and want to help, and teachers try to intervene and make a difference, but there needs to be more for these girls.”

Young mothers also often struggle to stay in school while they are pregnant or caring for a baby. And families with younger adolescent mothers can be hit harder financially. On average, it costs up to $5,000 out-of-pocket to have a healthy baby with health insurance. But hospital bills skyrocket to $190,000 or more for a pre-term infant, and those babies are often born to mothers younger than 16.

The game will be designed to improve girls’ skills in responding to peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior. A girl should become better at handling social interactions and answering sensitive questions — for example, why she doesn’t have a boyfriend or why she and her boyfriend aren’t having sex.

The game is intended to be played in after-school and youth outreach programs run by trained teachers and counselors.

To develop the game characters, Norris and her team are collecting data from focus groups of Latina students participating in the City of Orlando After-School All-Stars program based at Stonewall Jackson Middle School. In April, two groups of girls each came to UCF twice to participate in games and other activities supervised by Jeff Wirth, director of the Interactive Performance Lab at UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training.

The girls provided the UCF researchers with real-world scenarios, as well as words, phrases and gestures they actually encounter at school and in social circles.

“Our researchers role play, and the girls often laugh as they give us feedback,” Norris said. “They might tell us, ‘We’d never say that!’ The girls are comfortable, even though the topic is sensitive.”

The researchers also visited the school to explain the study to parents and recruit participants. Before students could participate in the research, parents signed consent forms. Students and parents were informed that they can decide to stop participating at any time during the project.

After the game is developed, it will be tested on a small group of Latina girls. Their progress will be studied three, six and nine months after they start playing the game.

While the peer-resistance computer game is focused on young adolescent Latinas, all middle schoolers could benefit. If the game is successful for these girls, Norris plans to develop a similar game for boys and girls of other ethnicities.

Norris credits the City of Orlando’s After-School All-Stars program with its partnership and support. Eileen Smith, of UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, also is assisting with the development of the game.