Carnegie Mellon University
May 20, 2015

Decisions That Matter

By Shilo ReaDecisions That Matter

There is no question that sexual assault is a huge problem in American society and on college campuses.

While there have been some recent ideas to try and prevent assaults from happening, none have seemed to work.

That may just change with “Decisions That Matter” – a new interactive graphic novel created by students in a unique class offered by Carnegie Mellon University's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). “Morality Play: Laboratory for Interactive Media and Values Education” allows students from different majors and backgrounds to collaborate and solve a real-world problem, all in just 15 weeks.

“We did two classes like this before – one on income inequality and another on privacy and government surveillance – both very large and broad subjects.  What was different this time is we focused on a specific issue and worked closely with an actual client.  Carnegie Mellon University – and many other colleges and universities – have a real need for an educational piece for freshman that deals with date rape,” said Ralph Vituccio, the ETC professor who co-taught the course with Philosophy’s Andy Norman.

Fifteen students, both undergraduate and graduate, spent the semester developing a concept, creating the interactive piece and testing, re-testing and testing some more to ensure the game’s scenarios came across as genuine. The ETC students served as artists, sound engineers, programmers and producers, while the others did background research on the problem and the current, ineffective solutions, led user testing and gave feedback on everything from the script to the game’s look and feel.

“A challenge was coming up with a realistic but morally ambiguous story line that creates a powerful emotional message,” Norman said. “To combat sexual assault, you need to change attitudes, and this requires an experience that not only provokes moral reflection, but also evokes deep emotion. Decisions That Matter is a marvelous example of creative problem-solving by some hard-working students committed to making a difference."

The result, “Decisions That Matter: An Interactive Experience,” is a game with five characters plus the game player. In roughly 10 minutes, the player makes decisions throughout a typical college day with friends. The player’s decisions ultimately lead to a character being assaulted or not. At the end, College of Fine Arts actors bring the characters to life and explain their emotional responses to the outcome.

Jess Klein, coordinator of gender programs and sexual violence prevention at CMU, absolutely loves the tool and believes it is something that they will want to use in the future.

“When Andy and Ralph came to me, the first thing I thought was, ‘not another app!’ Sexual violence ‘prevention’ apps just do not work,” Klein said. “Many ‘rape prevention’ products on the market put the onus of defending oneself on the survivor. One important component of primary prevention is effective bystander intervention. ‘Decisions That Matter’ addresses this head-on and allows users to really think about what they would do if they were in a situation where they had to intervene.”

For the students, creating the game was about more than just completing coursework.

“I care about the issue because I know people who have been affected. I’m interested in intervention methods that could make a difference,” said Anna Malone, a human-computer interaction graduate student. “As we tested, we could see people were affected by it – it was making them think about sexual assault.”

Following a simulation presentation to the CMU community, Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno had high praise for the students’ work.

“This is incredible,” Casalegno said. “I have done this work for over two decades, and it is hard to get this content right.”

Vituccio strongly believes that the potential to extend these types of interactive awareness experiences to addressing other forms of sexual violence, on-line sexual harassment, hate crimes and LGBT violence is huge. 

“If these experiences can get people to reflect on their actions, to become more introspective, that is the beginning of change,” he said.

The Morality Play courses were part of a three-year pilot program supported by CMU Trustee Lowell Steinbrenner. They are examples of how CMU harnesses a cross-disciplinary ecosystem of learning science, a hallmark of the university’s Simon Initiative. Named for Herbert Simon, the late CMU Nobel Laureate, professor and co-founder of artificial intelligence, the Simon Initiative’s goal is to measurably improve student learning outcomes.

In addition to Vituccio and Norman, Chris Klug, assistant teaching professor of ETC, was also an instructor involved with the ETC students.

Learn more about Decisions That Matter.

Play Decisions That Matter.

View photos from the student showcase.