This is a game about the realities of living with HIV

Hi, my name is Tim and I just learned I'm HIV positive. Not me personally, but, as the character Tim I played in I'm Positive, a short interactive narrative about living with the human immunodeficiency virus. It started out simply enough: I was shooting baskets when a phone call interrupted my jump shots. It was an ex girlfriend telling me that she'd been diagnosed as HIV positive after giving blood, and she urged me to get tested as soon as possible. Maybe it's because getting tested has been on my mind anyhow or possibly because I shared a name with the protagonist (there aren't any custom-name options; everyone plays as Tim), but after I "hung up" the phone I felt a weight in my chest and an all-too-real sense of panic.

It only got worse when the next phone call was from John, which may as well have been from my in-real-life best friend Josh, bugging me about the type of cake I wanted for my birthday. I role-played as myself, choosing dialogue options that were remarkably similar to what I'd actually say in the situation, but just how effective the brief game was surprised me. For me, I'm Positive's first-person perspective went deeper than I'd expected.

It wasn't avoiding telling John or my mom about the news I'd gotten that hit me -- it was sliding to unlock my phone and take a call from an ex whose caller ID picture was a pixelated cartoon heart. Immediately after that it was forcing deep breaths after learning that I was possibly HIV positive by clicking, pausing, releasing on a real heart nestled between a pair of lungs.

A trailer for I'm Positive

What struck me most, however, was sitting in the exam room at the clinic. Guiding a Q-tip around my gums for the saliva sample, a rapid test required, and even having blood drawn for a confirmatory test weren't what bothered me, though. It was me telling the nurse that I didn't have health insurance, asking exactly how a condom could be used incorrectly and asking what AIDS' origins were that gave me pause. The mundane activities were what gave the game consequence because these were the types of things I'd talked about in a doctor's office before -- the boring stuff is what scared me because it was so easily identifiable.

It's the idea that, no, I haven't signed up for the Affordable Care Act yet because I've been too busy and I don't have a general practitioner as a result. It's me thinking, hey I'm a pretty smart guy; how in the hell would I use a condom incorrectly? It's not that I hate taking pills (well okay, I kind of do). It's that if I missed a day, this time the consequences were dire. My risk of spreading HIV and possibly dying of AIDS could increase exponentially because the lack of drugs would cause the HIV bits in my body to increase instead of decrease.

Video games have a way of reaching their audience on a level that no other medium can replicate; you're active and engaged, driving the action and narrative forward with your interactions. Whether that means choosing to look out the window as a nurse draws blood or deliberately checking each compartment in a seven-day pill organizer to make sure you didn't miss a dose, I'm Positive can spread a message of hope with all you do.

I'm positive won the Center for Disease Control's "Health Game Jam" this year, and it's available for Linux, OS X and Windows with mobile versions coming soon. It's free to download and play, and next year the CDC plans to conduct a study testing the game's effectiveness.