The government’s latest efforts at trying to increase the standard of child protection comes in the form of a virtual game you can play on your computer, but is it any good and can it really be effective in raising the levels of understanding on such complex issues in the long-term? Researching Reform decided to find out.

The game, ‘Virtually Safe’, developed by Dr Jane Reeves and Professor David Shemmings at the University of Kent features a little girl, aged four who appears to be experiencing unusual behavioural patterns and who is clearly upset about something. It is your job to go in to the home and try to gather information by speaking with family members, boyfriends and Rosie herself, so that the problems can be addressed efficiently.

At this stage, the game is still just a prototype and there are hopes to increase the scope and quantity of material for the game, which is essentially a role play scenario, where trainee social workers get to explore what it might be like going into people’s homes and investigating possible child abuse.

To be fair, the creators of the game are very aware of the fact that this kind of work is highly complex, requiring a hugely sophisticated arsenal of skills and ‘Rosie’ is very much in beta phase. The graphics are poor and although this may just have been a computer glitch, at times the ‘characters’ fail to move their mouths when they are speaking. This raises huge concerns about the viability of this kind and quality of simulation. As threatening as some of the characters are in this game, they are still only pixels on a page. This doesn’t come anywhere near close to what it is like getting up close and personal with real-life aggression and that has to be a significant flaw when ninety percent of this kind of work requires the ability to stay calm in the face of verbally or physically threatening behaviour.

Another flaw within the software is that it is not hugely flexible. You are still having to use arrow keys to move, rather clumsily, around streets and inside houses and although you are given options in relation to what your responses might be to given scenarios or dialogs, they really are terribly basic and for the most part we would have wanted to say things in a very different way on several occasions as we felt the options on offer were poor and lacking in diplomacy or even tact.

One of the game’s positive aspects relates to the question function: whilst you are playing you are asked to consider whether or not certain things are appropriate. In one scene, for example, you are talking to Rosie’s mother but her son is in the room. You are asked whether it is appropriate to have this conversation in front of him. The resounding answer is NO! But you have no way of moving away from the room in which Rosie’s brother sits and so you must conduct what should be very delicate and provocative questioning in front of a little boy. The question function serves a useful function, but not if ‘players’ can’t respond to the warnings and adjust their actions accordingly.

Startlingly, the beta demo never incorporates Rosie herself. You never get to meet Rosie, see what she looks like or hear her voice. This has to be the deepest flaw in the game; how can you even begin to empathise with a child, if you have not even met them?

As a first step or introduction into the world of social work, the gaming concept is, to our mind, a good idea but it should perhaps be twinned with some seriously good computer programmers, of which in England we are blessed with many, to give it the five-star treatment it deserves. But the game is not enough. If it were paired with workshops or courses which used real life actors to play out roles, to really get the nuances in 3D and recreate the feelings and sensations of situations social workers might find themselves in, then the gaming concept, to our minds, would really fly.

We have so much technology at out disposal that we should not be afraid to incorporate it into our training of professionals and Dr Reeves and Professor Shemmings have created something truly worthwhile, but we must also not forget its limits. When combined with practical tools, Researching Reform feels ‘Virtually Safe’ could potentially offer a great way to ease social workers into the industry. On its own, it is not enough.

If you would like to play the game and offer feedback (optional) you can find all you need on the University of Kent’s website.