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UAMS researchers develop opioid misuse ‘visual novel’ game

SafeUse App
The SafeUse app allows players to make decisions leading to different outcomes related to opioid abuse.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences have developed a new “choose your own adventure”-style game to help dissuade teenagers from abusing prescription painkillers.

The game-based video app, called SafeUse, takes players through various scenarios from which their character can choose during a typical school day.

UAMS experimental psychologist Alison Oliveto led the team of researchers and game designers who developed the app. She says the goal was to illustrate the negative effects of drug abuse, and to teach teens skills to avoid making the wrong decision.

“We’re really trying to focus on prevention, but we do have some avenues where, in that particular line that they go through, they could end up in a state where they’re developing a drug problem,” Oliveto said. “Each time that they choose to take the prescription opioid, we have a random generator that increases the likelihood of them overdosing.”

Oliveto says the project was inspired by similar “choose your own adventure” games like “The Oregon Trail” and the Netflix film “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” She said it was important to frame the experience in a realistic way.

“First-person I think brings the experience really home to them, especially the scenes where a friend or they end up having an overdose and dying in this storyline,” Oliveto said. “They get to choose different types of endings and we have it set up where they get to see how many endings have you uncovered and how many myths have you busted?”

The team of researchers from the UAMS Center for Addiction Research worked with local game design studio Little Rock Games on the project. Oliveto says the game has been well-received by students who’ve played it.

“A lot of this was trying to put it in the context of a teen social school day, and so our feedback from the students was generally, ‘This was very realistic, this was very relevant.’ They wanted to build out this game in major ways,” Oliveto said.

Oliveto says her team hopes to expand the game to include different drugs commonly abused by adolescents, such as stimulants and antidepressants. The study is published in the Games for Health Journal.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.