Devin Randall's picture

The US Government's Creating A Health Focused Virtual Reality Game For Gay Men

Still not convinced about virtual reality gaming? Well, the American government is spending money to get you playing, and also to talk about sexual health.

The National Institutes of Health has announced that it is spending over $1.7 million on a virtual reality simulation for young men who have sex with men.

The virtual simulation is called “Tough Talks” and focuses on young gay men gaining the practice they need to tell their partner they have sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

This new game is being created as a joint project between tech and health experts at Georgia-based Virtually Better, Inc., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.

The hope is to raise awareness about safe sex practices and about increasing communications between young MSM. We know this thanks to a study that was conducted by the same team earlier on and published online. That study, which was funded by a grant, says that sixty-percent of young gay men do not disclose their HIV status to first-time sex partners.

"Given the potential benefits and challenges associated with disclosure, there is a need for sophisticated interventions that can assist [men who have sex with men] MSM, with the disclosure process," the grant states. "Virtual reality provides a unique environment for users to practice HIV disclosure."

"Primary outcomes of HIV viral load and condomless anal intercourse (CAI) will be assessed at intervention completion (1 month) and at 6-month follow-up," according to the grant.

That grant sadly couldn’t fund the whole project past the study itself and certainly couldn’t cover the budget for creating the simulation. As such, it’s taxpayers who have unknowingly given over more than $1,788,748 to the project. This started in 2014 with the Obama administration and is expected to continue through May 2020.

According to the Free Beacon and the research paper "‘I Didn't Tell You Sooner Because I Didn't Know How to Handle It Myself': Developing a Virtual Reality Program to Support HIV-Status Disclosure Decisions," first tests with the simulation are going well.

Cisgender male participants who had sex with another man in the past 12 months were placed into focus groups to gather data. That data was then used for creating the virtual conversations and virtual sex partners.

Those virtual characters were then programed to display a wide range of emotions and also conversational skills appropriate for a diverse set of gamers from different racial, cultural, and sexual backgrounds.

The game then had players attempt to disclose their positive HIV status “post condomless anal intercourse” with casual or primary partners. The virtual characters would then react in either a neutral, sympathetic, or negative reaction to prepare gamers for any situation.

Again, the paper says that first test results went well and most of the young gay/bisexual men found the game “visually appealing” and admitted it’s usefulness to real-world situations.

We’ll see how far the study and simulation go in due time.

h/t: Free Beacon, Study 1 & Study 2 by Virtually Better, Inc. et al.