NYC Targets Teen Pregnancy with Mobile Phone Game

New campaign features interactive text game to warn teens about the challenges of unplanned pregnancies.

by / March 11, 2013

A new campaign launched last week by the New York City Human Resources Administration is making waves thanks to its frank depiction of the harsh realities of unplanned teen pregnancy. 

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign combines ads designed by the city’s Office of Communications and Marketing with social media, video and even an interactive texting game. 

The campaign’s ads, which appear on buses and subway trains, pull no punches. The ads (one of which is shown at left) feature distraught-looking children and provocative messages such as “Dad, you'll be paying to support me for the next 20 years,” and “I’m twice as likely to not graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” 

In a clever appeal to the target demographic, the campaign also includes a “choose your own adventure” style texting game. By texting NOTNOW to 877877, anyone can play the game, which has you choosing to act on behalf of either Louis or Anaya, two fictitious 16-year-olds who are dating.

The game begins with Anaya’s discovery that she is pregnant. Once a player chooses either Louis or Anaya, the game sends text message scenarios with two choices. Each choice leads to other scenarios, which generally illustrate the difficulties of teen pregnancy. 

The game has been criticized by several media outlets. The New York Daily News deemed the effort a “Shame Campaign,” while an article on The Today Show’s website decried the game for apparently failing to offer abortion as a solution -- and claiming that the Louis character demeans Anaya in one scenario, supposedly calling her a “fat loser.”

Government Technology contacted the city to answer questions about the game and for a response to the criticisms, but received no reply by press time. 

So I decided to try the game myself, twice as Louis and once as Anaya.

First, as Louis, I made only what seemed to be the best choices:

NYC: DYK as a teen you can call 311 for sexual health care services and contraception near you? Text "more" to play a game.

ME: More

NYC: Hey my name is Louis - my GF Anaya is pregnant! Prom is coming up and she's not going, should I stay in with Anaya or go to Prom? Reply "PromYes" or "PromNo"

ME: PromNo

NYC: Can't believe I missed Prom! I need more time with my boys! Should I go shoot hoops w/ them or go w/ Anaya to the doc? Reply "Doc" or "Hoop"

ME: Doc

NYC: I saw the sonagram and still can't believe I am going to be a father. I need to provide for the baby, should I get a job? Reply "Yes" or "No"

ME: Yes

NYC: Just failed Math and I might not graduate. Should I try to pass Math or get my GED later? Reply "Math" or "GED"

ME: Math

NYC: I'm doing OK in school, can't wait till I'm done. But Anaya needs more money for the baby - should I get a job or focus on my future? Text "Job" or "Future"

ME: Job

NYC: Louis graduated H.S., but had to put his life on hold after that. Now, he can't afford to go to college, and has a lot less free time. Text "Done"

Next I tried the game with Louis making what, to me, were the worst possible choices. 

NYC: Hey my name is Louis - my GF Anaya is pregnant! Prom is coming up and she's not going, should I stay in with Anaya or go to Prom? Reply "PromYes" or "PromNo"

ME: PromYes

NYC: Prom was great, but Anaya won't talk to me. She's even ignoring me in school. Should I get her a gift and say sorry? Text "Gift" or "NoGift"

ME: NoGift

NYC: Anaya and I are over! But I am still going to be a great dad. Should I start buying baby clothes or buy new shoes? Reply "Clothes" or "Shoes"

ME: Shoes

NYC: I'm rocking my new kicks, but I'm behind on child support. Should I work overtime to pay off child support or go out with friends? Text "Child" or "Friends"

ME: Friends

NYC: Got a warning letter from the gov't. They said there'd be "legal consequences" if I don't pay my debt. What should I do? Text "Ignore" or "Respond"

ME: Ignore

NYC: Louis had his driver license suspended for not paying child support! Now he has to apply for a work-only permit just to get to his job & school. Text "Done"

Finally, I attempted the game as Anaya, meaning I had to imagine what I would choose were I a pregnant, 16-year-old girl. 

NYC: OMG! My BF Louis and I got pregnant. He was going to take me to prom. Now I will look huge in my dress. Should I go? Text “Yes” or “No”

ME: Yes

NYC: My BFF called me a “loser” at prom. I was devastated. Now she’s texting me. Should I text her back? Reply “TextYes” or “TextNo”

ME: TextYes

NYC: My friend says I should get a job to pay for the baby. Should I be a waitress or a cashier? Text “Wait” or “Cash”

ME: Cash (note: I figured that job has more stability)

NYC: Being a cashier is tough – pregnancy makes me tired. After work, should I finish my math homework or just go to sleep. Text “Math” or “Sleep”

ME: Math

NYC: Got a B in Math! But I’m nervous about how I’ll pay for my baby. My `rents won’t talk to me. Should I call my sis for advice? Text “Call” or “NoCall”

ME: Call

NYC: You finished 8th! (note: no ranking system was ever conveyed). Louis pays child support. In NY, you must pay child support until the kid is 21 or face losing your license & possible jail time. 

The game ended, and I was invited to invite my friends to play. The scenarios I encountered seemed random and illogical, making it appear as if the entire campaign is less about informing teens about what to do should they become pregnant and more about scaring them away from the risky behavior to begin with.

I also did not encounter the “fat loser” insult The Today Show claimed to have discovered; it’s possible the offensive word was removed since it was reported.   

Despite the campaign's widespread criticism, a reader poll on The Today Show's blog post that asked what readers think of the anti-teen pregnancy ads showed that most think the ads are good. Of the nearly 17,500 votes on the morning of March 11, only 14 percent of readers said they did not like them. 

Whether the same can be said for the mobile game is not yet determined. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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