Eric Johnson

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High School Story Game Tries to Fight a Real School Problem — Cyberbullying

According to one of its co-founders, the game studio Pixelberry’s longtime goal was to make a popular, fun game first, and then “leverage it for social and educational good later.”

Easier said than done. Its first game, the iOS hit High School Story, offered an in-game helpline, but one player — a teenager being cyberbullied — used it as a suicide helpline.

“We were pretty worried about our responses back to her,” Pixelberry CEO Oliver Miao said. “We worried we’d say the wrong things.”

The studio referred the player to the suicide prevention hotline, but also “told her we cared for her and urged her to get help,” Miao added. It may be one outlier out of thousands of players, but Miao uses it to suggest that High School Story may be able to reach young players in a way real people cannot.

“It seems obvious as an adult that teens should tell their parents that they’re being bullied,” he said. “But I remember when I was being bullied in middle school, I never told my parents or a teacher about it. In hindsight, I was stupid. I thought they wouldn’t understand or would exacerbate the situation.”

In fact, Miao didn’t tell his mother about being bullied until this year at Thanksgiving, while explaining his work at Pixelberry. High School Story is broken up into, you guessed it, stories, with players and their friends in the starring roles; the game’s most recent story concerns, you guessed it again, cyberbullying, and is the studio’s first attempt to come through on that social good notion.

How many people can the do-gooding game narrative reach? According to a company press release, “we’re estimating that 80,000 of our players could attempt suicide this year” — a stat that Miao tells me is based on CDC estimates that one in 13 teens attempt suicide per year, while one in seven at least seriously consider it. Four million people have downloaded the game to date, and it attracts half a million players daily, the CEO added.

Most of High School Story’s users are female and between the ages of 14 and 24, Miao said. And the “quest,” a game term for each story like the cyberbullying one, also aims to teach how to respond to a friend who is a suicide risk. When players say or do the wrong things to a suicidal character named Hope, those decisions “blow up in your face,” Miao said.

Of Pixelberry’s 15 staffers, 8 are writers, and those writers worked with the Cybersmile Foundation to develop the story; half the revenue from three purchasable in-game items will be donated to the Foundation, Miao said. The company expects to donate more than $100,000, according to the press release.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”