September

My Fertility Matters

Lee Scott, Subject Leader for Creative Computing, visits education group My Fertility Matters to scope a serious game on fertility awareness

OK, I admit it - I’m into video games. If I’m not checking out the latest Naughty Dog epic, I’m likely shooting bits over to my favourite Civ 6 streamers. More recently, however, I’ve started to make games - more specifically ‘serious games’ - as personal commissions or with Echo Games, a CIC I set up with some friends from the University of Bath.

Serious games can be described as ‘games beyond entertainment’. In other words, they are designed to address real-world problems by promoting discussion on important topics and by facilitating learning through play. For instance, I've just finished a Pac-Man style game for UCL's Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health that helps kids with Leukemia understand what is going on in their bodies when undergoing CAR-T cell therapy.

My Fertility Matters

One of my emerging creative projects is a collaboration with My Fertility Matters UK (MFM) - an education group that promotes fertility awareness to children approaching puberty. The output is a computer adaptation - intended to take the form of a serious game - of MFM’s The Cycle Show. This a workshop for girls aged 9-12 that frames the menstrual cycle as a theatrical event, giving participants an in-depth behind the scenes understanding of how new life is created.

Recently, the Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries (CCCI) and the Centre for Media Research has been exploring the lived reality of fertility and its representation in the media with the documentary and podcast Infertility, the Media and Me, and they were keen to support my work with MFM as a way to explore how emerging technology can enhance, and help us engage with, issues surrounding health and development.

With CCCI's support, I was therefore able to accept an invitation to a MFM training session to see first hand how The Cycle Show is conducted.

In particular, I was interested to learn how MFM helps children understand and celebrate the natural processes that are about to occur in their body, expressed by their core message: “I can only protect, what I value and respect”.

Experiencing The Cycle Show

Upon arriving at the session, I was struck immediately by how dedicated and knowledgeable the MFM team is. Many are volunteers, yet all are clearly passionate about sex education and fertility awareness. Laid out on the floor of the training room was a hand-made representation of the female reproductive system, complete with labels and recognisable objects that stood in as metaphors for biology. The ovaries, for example, are ‘treasure chests’ containing golden beads to represent dormant eggs, which later house a larger ovulated egg covered with red felt hearts to visualise follicles. The feelings of luxury, care and respect that MFM are trying to establish in The Cycle Show is clear to see in their carefully crafted learning environment.

Next came a run through of the narrative. This was an impressively detailed and accessible story of a ‘special guest’ (new life) set to arrive at a party, in which the children - acting as agents within the body - must prepare. We learnt of the ‘estrogen friends’ that make a ‘magic potion’ to provide nourishment to sperm, and the ‘progesterone team’ which act as ‘party planners’ that ready the ‘luxury hotel’ (uterus) in anticipation of a fertilised egg.

The story continued to talk of how the female body reacts when the ‘special guest’ does not arrive, painting a very clear and caring picture of the menstrual cycle in its entirety. This journey, called ‘the equation of life’, was followed by a segment that helps girls understand the physical changes that occur in their body during puberty. Like ‘the equation of life’, this discussion is highly supportive, respectful and accurate in its biological underpinnings.

A ‘Serious Game’?

Beyond gaining an understanding of the purpose and tone of The Cycle Show, my visit prompted me to rethink my creative approach.

Although The Cycle Show contains game-like elements (e.g. a somewhat chance decision for sperm to head to the left or right fallopian tube) and games are a really useful mechanism for facilitating learning through play, I left MFM sure that a serious game was not the right tool to use here.

Games typically have win-states and are generally expected to maintain a sense of jeopardy. This would sit at odds with the positive, sensitive tone of The Cycle Show, that at no point considers ‘failure’. Further, the narrative of the workshop is so well crafted and on point that I felt introducing a gaming element might confuse its message. Why reconfigure something that is already proven to work? MFM and I agreed then that an interactive story would make for a more suitable and direct adaptation. 

Moving forward 

My visit prompted a number of questions that MFM and I are now in the process of resolving: 

  1. What is the purpose of the interactive story? Perhaps it is used to support children that do not have an opportunity to attend the workshop, or maybe its value is in reiterating information to those who already have.
  2. How do we communicate the depth of information presented in The Cycle Show in short form? An interactive story would likely not maintain interactor interest for all that long, or at least not for the durations comparable to an attendant, collaborative, and highly enthused workshop.
  3. What is the look and feel of the interactive story? How may it echo that sense of care, respect, but also fun found in the workshop? I’m working with illustrator Conor Rawson on this, exploring particularly the use of 2D vector art and soft colour profiles to maintain the sensitive yet playful tone of The Cycle Show (as shown below).

CCCI's involvement

The support of CCCI has enabled me to form a clearer picture of how to move forward with the MFM project. The visit in particular has emphasised the need for a creative technologist to adapt their practice to the situation - to ‘fit the tool to the task’, as it were. This for me articulates the ‘computing’ part of creative computing: the objective, problem-oriented side of the discipline that can at times butt heads with the artistic motivations of the other.

I look forward to offering further updates on my collaboration with MFM, and our efforts to expand through digital creativity the impact of their essential, and rather humbling, work.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.

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