Billy, be a hero, say no to drugs

14th September 2001 at 01:00
BILLY AND THE BIG D-CISION. CD-Rom pack. Free to Orkney schools; pound;39.95 inc VAT plus pound;2 pamp;p to others. Information Plus, 3 Hill of Heddle, Finstown, Orkney KW17 2LH Tel 01856 761334

A computer game about the dangers of drugs has been produced with the help of Orkney's youth, writes David Hartley

It's the playground moment that parents and teachers dread. A child, innocent in the ways of the world, is offered drugs by youngsters more streetwise than he is.

The stakes are high. Does the boy give in to peer pressure for fear of being called a wimp? Or do concerns about getting into trouble - and the dangers of taking drugs - win the day?

This is the dilemma Billy faces at his Scottish school. But unlike other youngsters, he has an entire classroom of children waiting to make some life-changing choices on his behalf.

The reason is that Billy is the animation star of a new computer game developed in Orkney to help youngsters in the battle against drug misuse.

Called Billy and the Big D-cision, the interactive CD-Rom has been supplied to every school in the islands. Using the game, children can follow the predicament that confronts Billy and the difficult decisions he has to make.

The high-tech software allows them to discover what happens when Billy takes drugs - or what happens when he refuses to become part of the drugs scene.

Those behind the venture hope the choices that children make during the game will help them make the right decisions for real, if they find themselves faced with similar situations.

After trying out the CD-Rom for himself, Scotland Against Drugs director Alistair Ramsay praised the idea of using the latest technology to capture the imagination of youngsters.

"It's the kind of approach we feel drug prevention has to take," said Mr Ramsay. "It's not about wagging fingers or delivering sermons - it's about encouraging youngsters to make good choices for themselves.

"So in today's high-tech world, an interactive CD-Rom is the right approach to take. It's lively, informative and fun and it is one of the best resources I've seen. I know young people will find it helpful and attractive, because they were closely involved in its development."

Although Orkney has a reputation as a safe place for children, cannabis, speed and ecstasy are available and police have seized harder drugs such as heroin.

The Orkney Drug, Alcohol and Smoking Action Team (DASAT) was granted more than pound;22,000 from the Scottish Drugs Challenge Fund to develop the CD-Rom. DASAT then hired the services of the Orkney-based IT company Information Plus, which used local youngsters not only to provide voices for Billy and the rest of his animated friends, but also to road test the software at each stage of development.

"We wanted to make sure we'd pitched the language at the right level for their age group," said guidance teacher Linda Ross, whose S1 class at Kirkwall Grammar School took part. "We needed to know whether they still used words like 'cool' and we wanted to see if they could use the CD-Rom itself. And, of course, they took to it like fish to water."

The 19 pupils were invited to the launch of Billy and the Big D-cision and given the chance to try out the finished version. They laughed at some unexpected animation - a submarine surfacing in a kitchen sink, a monster popping out of a dustbin, Billy's socks discussing his choices - and liked using a cartoon mobile phone to access information.

"We could be asked if we want drugs," said 13-year-old Laura Gray. "We need to know what to say and what to do and this will help a lot."

Mrs Ross added: "It's no longer enough simply to say to the kids that they'll be OK if they don't take drugs. They wanted to know what happens if you do take them and the street names of the sort of drugs they might be offered.

'This game provides them with that sort of information. Most importantly, we wanted to know if it would stop them taking drugs. They're young and impressionable at that age. But they all said yes, they thought it would."

The software is aimed at P6 and 7 and S1 and 2 classes, and all Scottish schools have been sent details of the initiative.

Les Cowan, who runs Information Plus, believes he has taken a completely new approach to educational software, one he hopes will make a real difference to young people's lives.

"The usual approach taken in drug prevention is simply about providing as much information for youngsters as we can about the topic," he said. "But the software is an interactive adventure which gives young people the chance to find out about the consequences of the sort of choices they may find themselves having to make."

The idea is for children to use the CD-Rom with adult supervision, so that they can then discuss the difficulties Billy has faced.

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