Unfamiliar terrain

September 13, 1996

THINK POSITIVE By Artec East London & the City Health Authority (+44 181 983 1141) Windows CD, Pounds 40 +VAT

Think Positive is a novel and elaborate sex and health education package which has been acclaimed for the excellence of its multimedia design. It is the fruit of a venture by the East London and City Area Health Authority, and is aimed at teaching people aged from 14 to 17 in schools, colleges and youth groups. Provided as a single CD-Rom package, it combines a wide range of moving and still images with imaginative, interactive graphics that the user can select and control.

The point of departure is a virtual building the makers have labelled the Positive Cafe. Within its spaces are rooms and exhibits that are accessed simply, using a mouse alone. The spaces and exhibits include factsheets, pictures, interview clips, and information areas. The user is invited to explore and browse within these spaces, which are said to contain 12 hours or more of material.

By putting the learner in control, and by (substantially) deploying virtual characters who are also young people, the makers believe that Think Positive will score higher on credibility than more conventional materials. Certainly the more sophisticated material, such as a collection of interactive photo-comic style stories, provide an innovative way for young people to explore making relationships and to rehearse how to approach negotiating safer sex.

But the structure of the package makes the "positive" stress of its title in some ways a misnomer. The main thrust and effect of this material concerns general sexual and health education, including drugs, rather than specific tutoring about HIV and Aids. Here, it offers a sort of computer-driven counselling.

The selection of characters is avowedly multicultural and thus well suited to east London, although these are features which could lose some of their impact in the shires or in Scotland.

One feature of Positive Cafe is a "gallery", using photographs from Positive Lives, an exhibition arranged by the Terence Higgins Trust in 1993. The CD sleeve notes this prominently. But only a few images were selected from that large project, all of them concerned with a single role-playing drama by a theatre group. The span of issues raised by HIV and Aids shown in the full Positive Lives exhibition, and the contexts in which they were seen to arise, are both highly instructive and very moving. I was sorry to see the range so narrowed.

Absent too from this package were images invoking or describing sickness or death, bereavement, grief and loss. There were interviews with people who were HIV positive; but all looked well and were mighty cheerful. In my browsing, I did not come across a simple statement that Aids kills. But that is the reality of HIV and Aids, at least for the time being. In the introduction to the book of Positive Lives, the American writer Edmund White (himself with HIV and whose lover was then dying of Aids) explains "Aids is a lonely thing . . . Aids is a despairing thing. It is a slow decomposition rather than a mercifully sudden surcease; it is a way of wearing down moral resistance, the devotion of friends, funds and resolutions to be optimistic".

Any tutorial on HIV and Aids which omits these aspects is not being true to its subject. Although the images in Positive Lives do testify eloquently to such experiences, they are not the only or even the best way of bringing home what Aids has done. That distinction would belong to the Aids memorial quilt, a vast tapestry (now covering acres) with panels made up in remembrance of a lost child, friend, lover or partner. It is impossible even for the most bigoted to encounter the quilt, see the grief and the heroism it embodies, and not weep. Images from the quilt (which I understand are available online) or something like it, would have been a helpful addition to this project.

The importance to sex and (anti-) HIV education of stating simply that HIV is deadly should not have been missed. The stark brutality of contemporary road safety and anti drink-driving campaigns suggests a consensus that seeing the personal consequences of carelessness is the best educational tool around. I take the Think Positive project to have the joint objective of educating young people to protect themselves; and to replace stigma with compassion for those who have or face Aids, or who have lost friends or family to the disease. For both of these purposes, it is right to be as blunt and graphical about illness and death as the exhibits here are on subjects such as anal intercourse or how to put on a condom.

This coyness betrays more unfamiliarity with the subject than the project's title and blurb would first suggest, a feeling I found reinforced when the virtual "reference room" labelled its presentation as "a definition of the infamous syndrome". Upstairs, in a "chillout room" and adjacent bar, the learner meets and hears from people who are HIV positive. One was Molly. "In a sense testing HIV positive was extremely beneficial for me", says Molly, explaining that her HIV diagnosis had enabled her to get rid of "negative things in my life". She came from an organisation which commands ridicule for its view that HIV does not cause Aids, but that Aids is actually caused by the drugs doctors use to treat the condition.

Fortunately from the health education point of view, it appears that Molly was not permitted to do more than hint at these views. It may be that tombstones and falling glaciers are inept and dated imagery, but to hint at HIV infection as a chance for opportunistic karmic realignment rather than opportunistic infections seems well wide of the mark for a package like this one.

It was perturbing to see the brevity of some of the medical information. Many users who access this CD will have had their first - or much - sex. Much of that may have been unprotected. There will be some users of Positive Cafe who are wondering or fearing that they may already have risked or incurred infection by HIV. The "reference room" offers a checklist of symptoms, without apparent awareness that some of the visitors will be testing the list on themselves. Thus, while it is accurate to say that the onset of HIV infection is often signalled by symptoms like flu, "tiredness", a "sore throat" and a "rash", so are many more common and less worrying ailments.

I had greater misgivings about another aspect of the presentation. The technical virtuosity and lavish graphic style of much of Think Positive could not be faulted, but some of its iconography raised worries. The Positive Cafe is a spaceship by any other name. On first using the package, the user is told that s/he is entering the "Global Village Network" and then travelling to a "datasphere", reached by a space warp sequence that is pure Star Trek. Science fiction style calligraphy marks the opening sequences, until a "digital receptionist" says "Welcome to [the] 90s retro exhibition". Throughout the package, there are repeated back references to "the late 20th century" and the mid 1990s.

The information is presented as history, seeming to signal that the package is of and about the past. Why? Together with the Star Trek style, the subliminal message could only be that the events and contingencies described were remote from learners' daily lives, when the opposite impact was needed.

In contrast, however, the comics and story telling media were entirely familiar, boy/girl next door material and (sometimes rather slowly for the present soundbite era) brought up all the right issues. Taken as part of a teaching package, and as the stimulus for classroom or tutorial discussion, these components were excellent. I was less comfortable with the structure into which they were knitted. I could find no explanation why the Positive Cafe was a spaceship datasphere of the next century, and not a virtual block on Bethnal Green Road, containing the kind of cafe that would be real and familiar to the users of this package. Perhaps next time it will be.

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