Pixelberry Studios tackles cyberbullying in High School Story on iOS [Interview]


By Brandy Shaul Comment

Image via Pixelberry Studios

Image via Pixelberry Studios

Pixelberry Studios has announced the addition of new content to its mobile game High School Story, tackling the topic of cyberbullying. Via new quests and other content, High School Story players meet a girl named Hope, who is being cyberbullied, and can help her stand up to her bullies using sensitive, realistic dialog developed in collaboration with cyberbullying charity The Cybersmile Foundation.

High School Story is free to play on iOS, and allows players to build their own high school from the ground up. Gamers place classrooms, enroll students (jocks, preps, nerds, etc.), build student hangouts, decorations and more. Players complete quests which see them interacting with students and helping them deal with typical high school issues, like bullying, sports, college recruitment and more.

We had a chance to chat with Pixelberry Studios CEO Oliver Miao about the new cyberbullying content in High School Story, and what it means for the development team to touch so many players with their game.

Image via Pixelberry Studios

Image via Pixelberry Studios

Inside Mobile Apps: Pixelberry Studios has revealed it was contacted by a player who admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Did this occur after the cyberbullying-themed content was added to High School Story, or did it serve as the ‘final straw’ to encourage the team to move in this direction?

Oliver Miao: We actually first started working on the cyberbullying content after reading an article about Rebecca Sedwick, a girl who committed suicide after she was cyberbullied. Her story really resonated with people on the team who were bullied themselves.

While we were writing our cyberbullying quests, a player reached out to us via our in-game support service to tell us that she was planning to kill herself. We were shocked. We were scared that we might say the wrong thing, so we called a suicide prevention hotline to get advice. Fortunately, after a week of exchanging messages with the girl, she told us that she was finally getting help and that it was because of our game that she was still alive.

At that moment, we realized the power our game had to make a difference. We knew that we had to find an expert in cyberbullying to make sure we were giving players the best possible advice, which ultimately led us to a partnership with the anti-cyberbullying charity Cybersmile.

Image via Pixelberry Studios

Image via Pixelberry Studios

IMA: What has the player reaction been to this new content in High School Story?

OM: We’ve always had amazing fans. And the reactions from our player base has been extremely positive. They love the fact that we’re trying to address an issue that is important to them and their friends.

We have also had several players reach out to our studio or to Cybersmile about their problems with being bullied. Knowing that we’re making a difference is very rewarding.

IMA: How did Pixelberry’s partnership with The Cybersmile Foundation help the development team create this in-game content? 

OM: Cybersmile was instrumental in making sure that we were teaching players the right things to do if they are their friends are being cyberbullied.  Cybersmile also gave suggestions that helped our writers make the quests more realistic.

IMA: How tough was it to find a balance between “fun” gameplay content and a topic that’s so serious?

OM: Initially we thought it would be difficult to balance the entertaining aspects with teaching players what to do about cyberbullying. But our writers realized that because cyberbullying covers so many different emotional points, the topic lends itself to really engaging storylines.

It did take several drafts for them to balance a difficult topic with some lighter moments. In the end I think our writers did a spectacular job of hitting a strong, believable tone.

IMA: If players are touched by this content, and wish to seek help for themselves or others, how does the app help facilitate that?

OM: Our writers actually wrote Cybersmile into the end of the cyberbullying quest so that players can become familiar with the organization. Once the quest is completed, we also give players the ability to learn more about The Cybersmile Foundation.

There is also a special section in the in-game FAQ that focuses on cyberbullying questions, with links to the The Cybersmile Foundation.

Image via Pixelberry Studios

Image via Pixelberry Studios

IMA: With the early success of this new in-game content, is Pixelberry thinking of expanding upon the theme for future High School Story updates, or perhaps a new standalone game?

OM: We had originally been planning to raise money for Cybersmile for just 2 weeks.  But the player response to supporting Cybersmile has been so enthusiastic that we’re planning to raise over 5x the money we had planned to raise. The cyberbullying quest itself will permanently remain in the game.

The team is also hard at work on future features that will allow us to continue to use High School Story to both entertain and make a difference in the lives of teens.

IMA: Anything else you’d like to add?

OM: Our team feels blessed to be able to make games while making a difference. We hope other developers will join us and others in using games for social good.