SenseU – The Future of Sex Ed

photo by A. Martinelli

Catt Small in SoundCloud’s Offices

SenseU is the interactive sex ed app that you will be buying for your children. It could even be the app teachers use in high school sex ed classes. At least that’s the hope of game maker, UX designer, and developer Catt Small who created the soon to be released app to help kids learn about sex without the fear and shame that inevitably arise. I first met Catt after she was named the Brooklyn Technologist of the Year at the Brooklyn Innovation Awards hosted by I caught up with her again on a particularly exciting day when her work at SoundCloud was coming to fruition. She had been in Soundcloud’s offices since 6:30 am guiding the launch of the company’s new purchase experience, which she designed. “It was like watching my baby grow up and graduate.”

In addition to designing products for SoundCloud, Catt is a founding member of Brooklyn Gamery and Code Liberation, both of which work to diversify the male-dominated video game industry by encouraging and providing resources to new voices who wish to create their own games. As the parent of a 12 year old son who racks up a tremendous number of screen hours, I am acutely aware of the influence of video games. I’m concerned about the negative images portrayed and mindset often programmed within them —shooting, racing, fighting. Catt works to change the gaming industry simply by creating alternatives, like SenseU that are from a different perspective. Catt sat down with me to explain SenseU and her perspective on gaming.

How does SenseU work? 

Sense U is like an interactive choose your own adventure game for high school and college-aged students based on current sex ed curriculum. For now there are 11 diverse characters and the user plays the role of a college resident advisor helping the characters through pre-scripted scenarios. The user also has a mentor who provides accurate information. The game proceeds through a narrative introductory section into a text message format where the resident advisor is communicating with the characters.

The college version, which I plan to launch first, focuses on several core topics: safe sex, psychology, different types of sex, consent, and society. Psychology encompasses issues like self-esteem, body image, how we think about sex, and gender identity. Consent covers rejection, being okay with saying no, the effects of drinking and substances, and non-verbal consent. The last topic that the game covers is the societal context because that’s incredibly important. It covers respecting different sexual values and gender or sexual identity. It also discusses the influence of media on sex and how to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes.

What are some of the scenarios that players go through?

For instance, there is a character who wants to to ask her boyfriend to have sex. You the R.A. guide her through asking him. Then depending on whether he says yes or no, you guide her through the next steps. If you, the R.A., give the student inaccurate information a mentor will message you with correct information. So by advising these characters you are hopefully learning.

What is the end goal for the user or R. A.?

The end goal for the R.A. is to get through the semester and help as many people as possible. You want to receive positive feedback from the mentor and the students you are advising. You receive a rating based on that feedback which demonstrates how the characters are seeing you.

Is SenseU a jumping off point to encourage conversations with parents?

Ideally it’s a game for a college or high school kid to experience by themselves. I really want kids to be able to answer their own questions through safe experimentation; seeing what choices they have and the feedback they get without real life repercussions. I do want to encourage kids to talk with their parents about these situations, but I acknowledge that can get really uncomfortable. So I want to give younger people a way to learn about these things without embarrassment. Many kids are just looking up things online or talking to their friends who are just as uninformed. This game is really a way for people to get correct information in a fun entertaining format that doesn’t feel like an education game.

How will SenseU make parents comfortable with their children using the app?

I spent a lot of time speaking with sex educators to understand how the curriculum varies from state to state and how best to structure the game. Based on that I decided to create separate college and high school versions because the discussions need to be different. Also, the art is very calm, positive and young person friendly because the game is not promoting or encouraging sex. It’s really about giving neutral information. I feel that young adults are going to do what they’re going to do, so let’s at least give them the correct information.

Will users at any point be referred to outside information?

We might include an FAQ section, but it’s really not an encyclopedia of sex. There are already apps for that out there. The real purpose is be interactive. We want to slowly feed information while they are having a positive experience with the game, but it’s not a reference in that way.

How, if at all, does SenseU prioritize the physical and the emotional aspects of sex? Is the game more about relationships than anatomical facts of life or vice versa?

We try to treat it fairly equally. First we start with the concept of safe sex, but then we address the mind because sex is very psychological. Take consent for instance—the question of whether you want to do something or not. So much about sex revolves around questions. What do you know? What do you want to do? What are you comfortable with? Then we get back into kinds of sex. So yes. We alternate between addressing the psychological and physical stuff, but we try to treat both aspects equally.

I recently had a conversation about sex with my son that led logically to the issue of pregnancy. His response was, “Well, that’s not really a problem I can have.” It was at that moment that I wished I’d had your app. Is SenseU, designed to develop a more empathetic user? How does it accomplish that?

I’m really interested in the concept of empathy games. A lot of the projects I work on are focused on making it possible for people to live another’s experience so that they can understand it better. SenseU achieves this by creating many different characters from different backgrounds and different sexualities. And hopefully by interacting with all these characters it opens up the mind of the user to see many different kinds of normal.

The video game industry isn’t good at presenting normal. It has made boys superheroes, villains, sports stars, superior marksmen, etc. Is empathy the next evolution in gaming? 

It’s been really interesting to watch people work with Virtual Reality. I think there is going to be a lot more people doing the kind of work I do with empathy in V.R. I think work in V.R. will go beyond fantasy and superheroes. Of course, there will still be a lot of fantasy experiences but as V.R. becomes more prevalent we are going to start to see more games that ask What is a day in the life of a different person like? I’m really excited to see where that goes because I think we should be asking that question of each other a lot more and use games to continue to connect people. Games have always connected people, board games, multi-player games. But now that we have V.R. it brings it to an entirely new a level, so we have to find new ways to connect people and new ways to share experiences.

Thanks so much for chatting Catt. The way that you are using UX design to connect people is exciting! Video games have influenced generations of boys who became men who have sex. Up until now, the medium has missed a unique opportunity to create better boys, better men, better humans. But it’s heartening to know you are working on it and hopefully SenseU will be available next year. One last question, might you have any advice or opinions about raising boys from the perspective of a woman in the often aggressively chauvinistic video game realm? 

I don’t have kids yet, but I think the most important thing is to help kids understand the challenges that others face while emphasizing that in spite of those challenges people are equal. It’s also important to have interactions with your kids that challenge their assumptions. Talk to your kids and really break those down. Just spread understanding!

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