Video Games and Social Media Could Help Prevent HIV in At-Risk Gay Men

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Photo: Jonathan Kitchen/Getty Images

Long after the peak of the American AIDS crisis, HIV is still a major problem among gay men, who are diagnosed with the disease at a rate "more than 40 times that of women and more than 44 times that of other men," as a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research explains. The paper, a survey of various tech-driven ways to reduce the rate of HIV in this at-risk population, points toward the next generation of (hopefully) effective interventions.

There are some interesting options in the pipeline, as the study's press release explains:

One interactive website, Sexpulse, designed by health professionals and computer scientists to target men who seek sexual partners online, successfully reduced high-risk sexual behaviors. Another site, Keep It Up! (KIU), used video games to help reduce rates of unprotected anal sex. A third initiative, a downloadable video game, helped mitigate shame felt by some young men who have sex with men, though the reduction in risky sexual behavior wasn't statistically significant.

The challenge here is less about what message to deliver, given that the basics of how HIV and AIDS work have been pretty well-publicized at this point, than how to deliver it, since simply explaining that a behavior is dangerous is often not sufficient to change it.

It's important to point out that this doesn't just apply to gay men; people engage in all sorts of dangerous behaviors, from substance abuse to overeating to smoking to having sedentary lifestyles, despite having been told they're dangerous. That's why the question of how to get people to make healthier decisions is a massive area of concern for public-health researchers — designing an effective behavior intervention can be a very tricky thing to do. (We'll be posting a longer, more in-depth article on this subject soon.)

Some of the most useful approaches smartly target social networks — peer pressure has a tendency to influence us in ways other appeals often do not. This was borne out in the review:

On social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, popular individuals can spread HIV-prevention messages to their friends and followers. The sharing of information about HIV testing via trusted sources on a social network appeared to increase requests for HIV testing kits, one study found. Another study found that using opinion leaders to disseminate HIV-prevention information via social networks may increase testing rates and bolster condom use during anal sex with partners found online.

It's a very strange quirk of human reasoning that packaging the same old information in a slightly different way can lead to much better results. Luckily, experts are starting to capitalize on this.