Fun way to solve relationship issues

Published February 28, 2017

So you bombed Valentine’s Day. You forgot to make plans. You made the wrong plans. You made the right plans but for the wrong person. Whatever the outcome, if you suspect your communication skills might be to blame, Professor Ebony Utley wants to help.

Relationship expert Dr. Utley is teaching students in her Interpersonal Communication classes to improve their romantic relationships through an educational online game called “Love Lines” that she created specifically for college students.

“I’d been giving a lot of interviews and publishing articles which was great, but I thought to myself, students don’t read articles,” Utley said. “I asked myself, how can I get my research out there in the world where it would be more accessible and engaging…what’s the broadest way that I can help someone else? Then I thought, ‘I know, I’ll create a game.’”

Image: promofront.jpg

With the help of a developer and student researchers, Dr. Utley spent a year creating Love Lines, a five-level game that utilizes emojis and real-life scenarios. The game incorporates quotes from people she interviewed as part of her research on intimacy and infidelity. Quotes are positive (“I look out for you, you look out for me”) or negative (“I should have believed who you showed me you were”) and require students to first identify how the statement makes them feel, teaching them to assess their emotions, and then determine the rationale behind what is being said.

As they navigate from level one, the “Honeymoon Phase”, to the last level where they choose to make or break a relationship, the goal is that students will learn emotional intelligence, communication tools and vocabulary that will help them have healthy relationships in the real world. At one stage of Love Lines, students actually chat with other students active in the game to practice what they’ve learned.

“I’m not going to lie, sometimes I jump in and have conversations with students,” Utley said with a laugh. “They don’t know it’s me and maybe they are suspicious that this person is more intense than anyone else they’ve chatted with, but what I’m assessing and grading them on is how well they can use the information in the game to solve a relationship issue.”

Utley said she enjoys watching her class play the game because it brings up important life lessons. Sometimes, she asks students to pair up in the live chat, and directs the person on the left of the screen to try to get sexual consent from the person on the right hand of the screen.

“And if the person on the right consistently said ‘I don’t know’ but the student said they got consent, I can tell them, ‘No, I don’t know is not consent. You used oppressive strategies as opposed to welcoming or invitational strategies for sexual consent.’ Then I can grade them on that, and give them feedback on those types of things, which is excellent practice,” Utley said. “It’s very important. It’s more important that you fail this in the game and get this right in real life.”

Third-year nutrition major Vivianna Goh was paired with Utley through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and helped with the research required to build Love Lines. Goh’s research assignments included things like playing numerous games to find out how they work, and reading about literary gaming. She says the game resonates with students who are accustomed to communicating via text or chat.

Love Lines completed game screenshot
“In Love Lines you’re supposed to be able to have a conversation with a person and negotiate a relationship through an online chat function on your keyboard or phone, which is just like in real life. It’s how we text our partners and call our partners,” Goh said. “It’s all online communication now. So this gives students a safe space to practice that.”

Goh noted that Love Lines has helped her practically with her relationship, too.

“I think with games in general we’re used to just clicking on things and moving forward, but with Love Lines, you really have to take a step back and think,” Goh explained. “So now even with my boyfriend, sometimes I want to text out this huge massive paragraph, but I stop and actually think about what’s going wrong. Love Lines really establishes that you can’t just rush through a relationship or say whatever you want, because once you say it, you can’t take it back.”

This academic year, 750 students have used the game. It’s also being used as supplemental course material at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California and Utley plans to use the game in her Communication in Families courses as well. The hope is that Love Lines will be adopted by more professors at Cal State Long Beach and colleges across the country.

“I’d like it to replace a traditional textbook,” Utley said.

The game is constantly being upgraded based on user feedback – the use of emojis was a suggestion given in beta testing – and several graduate students are working to build a romantic relationship competency scale based on Love Lines.

Goh says instructors will find it rewarding to adopt the game, because it’s a fun way to engage students in what they are learning.