How a simple computer game can help reduce HIV risk for teenage girls

ideas42 study focuses on South Africa where teen girls are three times likelier to be HIV positive than boys

New York, December 1, 2015 – To coincide with World AIDS Day, ideas42 shared the results of landmark peer-reviewed work aimed at protecting teenagers from HIV in South Africa, where five million people suffer from the disease.

Risking It All For Love? Resetting Beliefs About HIV Risk Among Low-Income South African Teens” explores ways to correct dangerous misperceptions about HIV risk in South Africa, where teenage schoolgirls are three times more likely to be HIV positive than boys in their own age group.

In many countries worldwide, it is a grim and worrying reality that women and girls are at significantly higher risk of HIV infection than men. One reason the risk is so high for lower-income South African teen girls is because they often incorrectly identify older men as safer sexual partners. They tend to focus more on older men’s financial situation and maturity as signs of responsibility and discount the actual risk created by the higher number of potential partners older men have had.

“We identified an issue that leads to more teenage girls getting involved with older men and unknowingly making a riskier choice. Addressing this problem thoroughly is an important element in the ongoing fight against HIV not just in South Africa, but around the world,” said Matthew Darling, Vice President at ideas42 and co-creator of this work at the non-profit behavioral design lab.

The ideas42 team created a simple, computer-based “HIV risk video game” which provided repeated doses of information about the link between age and HIV risk in an engaging format that appealed to teens’ gaming instinct. The aim was to test whether this might lead them to acquire and retain a better understanding of age factors and risk in a more effective way than the traditional approach—handing out informative paper brochures.

The gaming approach was overwhelmingly effective. Teens playing the game were able to correctly answer twice as many questions about HIV risk factors than the control group – and retain it for longer.

Said Darling, “The results show that anywhere in the world where young women and girls are at higher risk of HIV infection than males, similar interventions could make a difference. The policy implications of scaling up versions of this gaming platform to other areas such as conservation, criminal justice and financial literacy are also significant.”

The work is featured as a peer-reviewed paper in the current issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

About ideas42

ideas42 has a clear mission: to use our unique experience as a nonprofit at the forefront of behavioral science to change millions of lives. We create innovative solutions to tough problems in economic mobility, health, education, consumer finance, energy efficiency and international development. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behavior and why people make the decisions they do. Working closely with our partners from government, foundations, NGOs and companies, we have more than 50 active projects in the United States and around the world.


For further Press Information or for media availability/interviews with Matthew Darling, contact:

Andy Plews

Mitra Salasel