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Mei Schultz Mei Schultz

Virtual Phone App Tackles Eating Disorders in High School

The latest version of "High School Story" depicts a teenager in recovery from anorexia, with the aim of exposing the reality of eating disorders and body image issues. But some teens in recovery say the game could be triggering.

3 Substance

The latest version of a mobile app “game” that simulates high school is tackling eating disorders and body image issues in a virtual world. High School Story is a Sims-esque smartphone app that offers a “realistic” high school experience. Developed by Pixelberry Studios, it lets you earn points through reading books, throwing parties, “battling” enemy teens, “crushing” and “flirting.” Each “quest” addresses a common challenge—like bullying or attending parties.

The most recent quest, released this week, takes you through the life of Mia—a cheerleader who is recovering from an eating disorder—as she attends a yearbook photoshoot, receives triggering comments about her weight, and asks to have her yearbook photo photoshopped to make her look skinnier. At the end, it asks how the scenario made you feel.

Pixelberry partnered with the National Eating Disorder Association in developing this game, and all questions about eating disorders are directed to NEDA staff. A NEDA spokesperson tells Substance.com that they advised Pixelberry on “how to present the story in ways that aren’t triggering.”

But not everyone agrees. Hannah, 19, who has struggled with eating disorders since middle school, tells us the game might be triggering for her. She views online representations of girls with eating disorders as “the final success of an eating disorder.” She doesn’t think the game would be very helpful for teens who don’t have personal experience with eating disorders, either. “The best preventative measures are to inspire confidence in them, not scare them,” she says.

Rory, 19, in recovery from bulimia, also doesn’t feel like the game frames eating disorders accurately. “I still fantasize about throwing up when I’m upset or stressed or I feel like my life is out of control, so it bothers me a bit when it’s portrayed as a ‘quest’ that actually ends,” she tells us.

The game also uses social stereotypes—asking players to chose whether they are a “nerd,” a “jock,” or “preppy.” In real life, these kinds of social strata can contribute to bullying, insecurity and low self-esteem—all of which could fuel eating disorders. Isn’t this kind of negating the app’s overall mission?

However, Rory says that there are some benefits to the app, like the attention that it brings to a common but stigmatized problem. “This game is a good thing in that it makes people think about eating disorders as a community problem rather than as a private issue,” she says, “and that’s ultimately what saves most people.”