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Child exploitation

Gamifying education: an ‘end game’ for child exploitation?

Image of a gaming computer screen with the words 'Gamifying education: an ‘end game’ for child exploitation?'

Isabel Jones, Partnerships Manager at Catch22, explores how games can be used in education to explore complex and sensitive topics such as child exploitation, what the benefits and the potential risks are, and what role technology can play in gamifying complex issues.

A society obsessed with games

The earliest known board game, The Royal Game of Ur, dates back to around 2,600 B.C. Fast forward to today, and we have  approximately 140,000 different board games.

In the 2016 Pokemon Go craze, I vividly remember seeing a grown man in a suit, presumably on his way to work, running across a busy road to capture (at a guess) an augmented Charizard on his phone. As new technology develops, games are becoming more accessible to people.

It’s obvious, we love games – but what about games for really serious life lessons?

Games as an effective teaching tool

Child exploitation, knife crime and other related issues are complex and delicate subjects that can be intimidating to professionals who are not specialists in the subject matter.

I spoke with Sarah Parker our Research and Development Officer at Catch22, who has been exploring the use of games to educate children and young people about child exploitation. She told me that when games are used as teaching tool within exploitation they are “always about enabling conversation”.

For example, if a practitioner is working with a child who struggles with verbal communication, playing a game might encourage the child to open up and engage in conversation. It can also be a great way to ask questions without making the child feel personally targeted. Discussing a character or story within a game allows the child to speak in the third person, avoiding direct references to themselves as “I” or “me” can take away feelings of shame or over-exposure. This approach can be particularly helpful when working with neurodiverse children.

Games in Catch22 frontline practice

At Catch22, our Child Exploitation Practitioners use games in both their one-to-one support and their early intervention work in the community.  Some use activities from our free educational resource Catch On, to discuss difficult subjects and/or to share with wider professionals and parents.

In the Zone is a partnership between Catch22, Wirral Council, Merseyside Police, and the Probation Service. Together, we conduct school sessions across the Wirral, addressing issues such as exploitation, knife crime, criminal gangs, alcohol, and internet safety. We use interactive games to discuss these topics, with the project aimed at preventing crime among young people. The games are designed to resemble well-known ones we already play, for example, we might use a Monopoly-style game themed around peer pressure.

Since launching in 2021, more than 4,000 children and young people have taken part in the programme. In 2023, the Wirral Council annual youth justice plan has reported a 27% reduction in young people entering the youth justice system. This is the highest drop seen in Merseyside and contrasting with the 2% increase nationwide. This achievement is also due to other preventative efforts, but Wirral’s Youth Justice Service has cited In The Zone as a key part of the success.

Blurred lines: help vs harm

The video games industry is huge and is only expected in get bigger with more than 3.38 billion players worldwide. 91% of UK children aged between 3-15 play games on some type of device, ranging from personal consoles to mobile phones. Video games are clearly engaging, so does it make sense to create educational games aimed at preventing children from exploitation?

In 2020, a video game called Cunch-Line Chronicles became increasingly popular among young people. (According to Urban Dictionary, “to go cunch” means to travel to a distant area to sell drugs, known as county lines.) The game was free, easy to download on smartphones, and simple to use. Due to its concerning nature, professionals nationwide raised alarms, believing it glamorised county lines by making it seem fun and turning the real-life drug trade into a game. The game was also said to provide young people with information on running their own “cunch-line” and included an in-app chat functionality that could be used for grooming –  highlighting concerns for online safety (another important issue, for another blog, on another day).

Concerns have been raised that video games like Cunch-Line Chronicles and popular titles such as Call of Duty (COD) normalise the behaviour they portray. Specifically, COD, a first-person shooter game, is feared to desensitise young players to in-game violence, with some research suggesting a correlation between playing the game and increased aggression – however other studies suggest there is no long-term affect. Although we would never use these games within an education setting, it is important to consider our ethical responsibility when developing games to use with young people, particularly regarding the potential for miseducation about real-life dangers and violence.

When talking to Sarah about these risks, she emphasised the importance of using games in education strictly as a tool. Video games tend to isolate individuals or risk connecting them to unsafe strangers, whereas board games within an education setting can be tools to “enable connection and conversation”. We talked about how video games or virtual reality can do that too but the importance of them being not just one resource, but part of a much larger support system used to foster conversations and help to identify and safely address risks.

End game: a future of educated gaming

Whether we are talking about boardgames, video games or VR we know that when used correctly, they can be an incredible engagement tool for young people. We also know that more effective communication on complex subject matters is needed.

Our initiative in the Wirral shows the positive impact that games can have and how games are a great resource to use as part of a wider support service.

Across Catch22 we explore gaming in various ways, including tech-focused employability programmes and previous collaborations with partners Microsoft and Rare, allowing young people to explore the gaming industry. As an organisation, we track new technology and continually seek ways to leverage it to our service users’ advantage.

Could creating an in-house video game specifically for one of our services be an incredible tool for tackling child exploitation? Watch this space.


End game: the final stage of a game such as chess or bridge, when few pieces or cards remain.

Gamification/gamify: Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organisations, and activities by creating similar experiences to those experienced when playing games to motivate and engage users.

First person shooter: a type of video game whose gameplay involves shooting enemies and other targets and in which a player views the action as though through the eyes of the character they are controlling.

Augmented reality: a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.

Charizard: Charizard is a fictional species of Pokémon created for the Pokémon franchise. “Charizard can breathe flames so intense that they can melt boulders, but will never torch a weaker foe” (Game Freak, 2005)