Mobile Game From Former EA Devs Taking On Teenage Eating Disorders

Pixelberry Studios partners with the National Eating Disorders Associations for its iOS and Android game, High School Story.

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High School Story, the iOS and Android game from former Electronic Arts developers that previously took a stand against cyberbullying, is now aiming to raise awareness for another issue affecting teenagers: eating disorders.

Pixelberry Studios has partnered with the National Eating Disorders Association to create a new in-game storyline centered around eating disorders. The game will also offer educational resources to the estimated 20 million teenagers across the United States who are not happy with their bodies.

The new version of High School Story available today follows a character named Mia. After hearing an insensitive comment about her body type, she takes up an unhealthy diet and exercise regimen. She even edits her yearbook to make herself appear thinner.

Through High School Story's new narrative around Mia--researched by Pixelberry and NEDA--players will learn all about the causes and consequences of body image issues. The game will even allow players to reach out directly to the NEDA through the app.

Pixelberry says High School Story's previous anti-bully campaign helped 2.5 million teens learn more about cyberbullying prevention. In addition, Pixelberry adds that more than 100 players every week were directed to professional counselors through the game and that it raised over $250,000 for an anti-bullying charity.

To go deeper into what the new eating disorder content means for High School Story, we caught up with Pixelberry co-founder Oliver Miao. Our conversation is posted in full below.

GameSpot: What led you to want to tackle the issue of teenage eating disorders in High School Story?

Oliver Miao: The first inspiration came from our players, some of whom wrote to us to ask that we address the issue. Those requests really resonated with our writers, many of which also struggled with body image issues during their high school years or knew of people that had. Once we decided to tackle that issue, we were also inspired by real-life stories of teens who had done things like lobby fashion magazines to stop publishing photoshopped photos.

GS: What does your partnership with the National Eating Disorders Association let you accomplish that you couldn't before?

OM: We’re very happy that we've been able to partner with NEDA. First, they helped us make make sure our messaging around body image issues and eating disorders is accurate and helpful by providing us feedback based on the issues they've encountered. They also allow us to give our players direct support about these issues without having to leave the game. Whenever a player writes in to our in-game support system with a question about eating disorders, helpline staff from NEDA will respond. Lastly, they worked with us to create an in-game FAQ players can read to learn more about these issues.

On the other side of things, we now have over 10 million players, many of whom are teenagers. With our platform, we’re able to help an organization like NEDA reach a large number of teens through a channel that's otherwise hard to reach. In this regard, we're able to educate and support millions of teens about issues that are relevant and important to them.

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GS: What kind of response have you seen from users who maybe download the game and don't necessarily know that it's tackling the kinds of social/health issues that it does?

OM: We strive to make High School Story fun first and find ways to layer in socially impactful elements afterwards. These particular quests are purposely introduced later in the game, so that when players engage these quests they’re hopefully already connected to the characters and can therefore draw more of a personal understanding to the issues these characters are facing.

So most players come to the game not because it addresses these specific issues, but because it's fun and because it speaks to their interests in general. And when they come across the quests about cyberbullying and body image, we find that most of them are really excited and happy. Not because those quests are 'socially impactful,' but because they address issues that are important to them and their friends.

GS: What kinds of data do you have that shows High School Story is actually making a difference in the way you want it to?

OM: We look at this in several ways. We have metrics that track how many players complete our special quests. We're also providing a prominent in-game link to NEDA's teen-focused site, Proud2BMe, and we'll be able to see how many teens use it. We hope to get statistics from NEDA about how many teens reach out to them after playing our game, and we also pay very close attention to our players' reviews.

The body image features are new, so we don't have any comprehensive results from them yet. But similar results from our earlier anti-cyberbullying campaign show that it's been a big success. Over 2.5 million people have played our cyberbullying-themed quest. Through the support of our players, we've already raised over $250,000 for The Cybersmile Foundation, a non-profit we partnered with for that campaign. Cybersmile also told us that after the launch of the quest, every week over 100 of our players reach out to them for help. These are often teens who are being bullied, self hurting, or even thinking about suicide. With NEDA, we are really hoping that we can have the same type of impact with teens who are facing challenges with body image or eating disorders.

Oliver Miao
Oliver Miao

GS:. Are there any specific 'success stories' you can share that have come from High School Story?

One of the first times we saw the effect High School Story could have on players was when a player wrote in telling us that she had recently moved to a school in a new country and had been struggling with fitting in. After playing our game, she realized that she liked who she was and didn't have to fit in to feel good about herself. It was a very heartwarming moment for us.

We've also had several incidences of lives actually being saved because of High School Story. The first time it happened was from a player who wrote directly to us that we were able to encourage to seek professional help. Our partner Cybersmile has also shared amazing stories with us, including a time they were able to help a High School Story player who was right on the precipice of hurting themselves.

Every time we hear one of these stories, we're amazed that the work we do really is making a difference. It's an incredible feeling.

GS:. Why did you decide to make the Mia character female instead of male?

OM: Over 60% of High School Story's players are female, and research has shown that by the time they are 17, nearly 4 out of 5 females have had body image issues. We hope that by making the Mia character female, a majority of our players can more easily identify with her and be more willing to reach out for help, if they need it.

At the same time, we recognize that these issues affect both men and women, so our writers crafted the story to appeal to both our male and female players.

GS: You've taken a stand against cyberbullying and now you're raising awareness about the dangers of eating disorders -- What other social/health issues are you looking at for future versions of High School Story?

OM: For the time being, we're focusing on body image, and are continuing to address cyberbullying as well. When we take on serious issues like these, we want to show long-term commitment to them. This gives our players time to engage with the new content and respond to it at a pace that they're comfortable with. It also allows us to build strong relationships with our nonprofit partners.

That said, we definitely plan to continue with these types of campaigns in the future. In fact, we’re about to launch a "Your Voice" feature that lets our players first share their thoughts on fun topics, like music and memes, and then later share their opinions on current events and other more serious topics. Our hope with this feature is to encourage teens to develop their voices on important issues and to discuss these issues with their friends and communities.

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