A school counselor’s introduction to advising a student at risk for suicide can be a trial by fire. After all, a young person’s life is possibly hanging in the balance of carefully chosen questions, inflections and body language.

A computer-simulation game developed at Purdue University offers virtual training for such emotionally charged situations in a setting that realistically reflects a counselor’s everyday responsibilities.

“The game is an emotional equalizer, with the idea of promoting self-efficacy and self-competence among counselors,” says Carrie Wachter Morris, an assistant professor of counseling and development at Purdue’s Department of Educational Studies and a former counselor at facilities throughout North Carolina. “The more we’re worried about ourselves, the more we focus on us and not the clients.”

Morris, a member of the American Counseling Association, began developing the Suicide Risk-Assessment Game (SRAG) in 2008 with the aid of what was then known as a digital-content development grant from Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), Purdue’s central information technology organization. Of 34 applications submitted in 2008, Morris’ was one of 10 accepted, earning $15,000 and the use of ITaP resources toward developing the game.

Morris came up with the concept for and content of SRAG. A team of student developers led by Terry Patterson, an educational technologist with ITaP’s emerging technologies group, oversaw the graphic design and programming, with Morris providing feedback.

“It wasn’t only the social impact on a very serious issue that appealed to the grant committee about the idea,” Patterson says. “This was a great opportunity for students to create a framework for a game that could be reused for other experience simulations. SRAG has been one of the most successful projects developed in the grants program, and we’d like to continue seeing projects as innovative and impactful.”

Bridging the gulf between counselor training, professional expectations

Morris aims to regularly use SRAG in her graduate-level school counseling seminar this coming fall, but it’s also her response to a gap between counselor training and professional expectations.

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2007, 14.5 percent of high school students seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, while 6.9 percent of high school students reported making at least one suicide attempt in the previous year. A 2002 Brigham Young University survey of school counselors found that 35 percent of respondents had received no graduate education training in crisis intervention, and 57 percent felt either “not at all” or “minimally” prepared for such intervention.

In response to this need, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs now requires that school counselors demonstrate suicide-response skills as part of their training.

“To undertake such training with something like role-playing may feel contrived to students and lack realism,” Morris says. “And it wouldn’t be ethical for me to find 10 individuals with suicide ideation and have my students practice with them. There is also the possibility that some educators may not be comfortable with, or have a background in, crisis response themselves. As a field, we have to generate teaching tools that those without the background can effectively use.

“Studies show that students we’re matriculating have spent more time during school playing video games than reading. Now that these students are entering graduate school, why not develop a tool from which they can learn in a medium with which they’re familiar?”

Simulating counseling’s realities

Usable in PC, Mac or Linux format, SRAG places the player in the role of a high school counseling intern with typical resources (for example, student files, a planner and live Internet links). In gamer parlance, SRAG is a “beat-the-clock” title: A note has been found from a student planning to commit suicide Friday after school.

Beginning at the start of Monday’s workday, the player has 40 in-game hours (30 to 45 minutes in real time) to assess which one of five students is at imminent risk of suicide and which one is at false risk — meaning there might be danger signs to monitor in the future but no worry of immediate harmful action.

Of the remaining students, one is academically at risk, one is personally or socially at risk with peer problems, and one is “normal” but still exhibiting some risk signs. Shrunken for simulation purposes, the sample is randomized for names, genders, ethnicities, personalities and inclinations with each new session. Also randomized are the traits of in-game peers with whom players must converse along the way.

The game logs the player’s path to assessment — gathering information through investigation such as observing graffiti, visiting classrooms and querying teachers. Players must discern the relevant information because pursuing fruitless leads takes crucial time from the clock.

Asking each student outright whether they’ve had suicidal thoughts will yield correct answers but not a passing grade. “We want to prevent the easy outs,” Morris says. “We want users to navigate the school as they would have to in real life.”

Further complications come from daily tasks generally required of counselors in the real world, ranging from lunch duty to small-group counseling. Players can field counseling-related tasks themselves or ask peer characters (who may seek a favor in return) to cover those that aren’t counseling-oriented. Failing to complete these tasks yields a time-consuming penalty from upset parents or scolding administrators.

“If you cross a teacher, they will be less likely to help you,” Morris says. “If you cross a principal, you will be disciplined and lose time that way. If you miss other students’ appointments and meetings, you will lose time with calls from angry parents and have to re-establish rapport with the student. We’ve tried to make these consequences true to life.”

Should a player not correctly identify the imminently suicidal student before the clock runs out, SRAG offers a deus ex machina — or “out of the blue” — element to save the student.

Striving to set a standard for gaming tools

Although no statistics exist that study the effects of gaming in counseling work, Morris hopes SRAG will be a useful tool for pedagogy and a barometer of where student services are developing. After discussion at professional conferences, SRAG already has generated interest from school-district counselors nationwide.

Morris envisions SRAG one day helping resident advisers in college residence halls, other mental health professionals and, perhaps, middle and high school students to recognize risk behaviors. The game could also expand to additional crisis responses (students coping with a divorce, for example) or a larger scale combination of concerns.

“These current iterations must assess playability and effectiveness: Are students learning from it?” Morris says. “We can always go in and add elements and bridge gaps, but I have to see whether this is immediately engaging.”

This past December in her school counseling seminar, Morris introduced SRAG to nine graduate students, most of whom had participated in counseling internships and practicums. Although some made suggestions to improve SRAG, the students generally appreciated the game’s accuracy and its interface.

Ebony Gilbert says SRAG incorporated many aspects of counseling that were similar to her actual experience, such as asking teachers what they noticed and observing behavior. Adam Guebert says that SRAG accurately represented the counselor “being pulled in all different directions into a wide variety of activities and roles.” Ashley Bigelow also gives high marks to the game’s realism but adds she’d like to see an expansion of assessment options. (Morris plans that for future expansions of SRAG and is currently pursuing external funding.)

“It’s so difficult to get hands-on training for this sort of thing,” Guebert says. “You don’t just want to throw somebody in there with someone’s life on the line. You can do this without putting a life at risk, and it’s a good bridge to real-world application.”

Adds Morris, “SRAG is that half-step between in-class instruction and a student in front of you where it’s in the moment and you have to think on your feet.”

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in Purdue University publications and is being reprinted here with permission.

Nick Rogers is a technology writer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Contact him at 765.496.8204 or rogersn@purdue.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.