MilTeenChat™ App for the Military Community: Developing Gamification to Strengthen Teen’s Decision-Making Skills

Male standing up speaking to classroom


Children in military families aged 12 to 18 have experienced the highest number of wartime separations in U.S. history. The effects of multiple moves and significant parental absences have affected resilience in the military adolescent population. The MilTeenChat™ App was designed to promote resilience and coping among teens in military families. We plan to develop a gamification component to the app with which we can teach military teens coping with deployment strong decision-making skills. 

Principal Investigator

Ann M. Mitchell, PhD, RN
Co-Principal Investigator
School of Nursing

Ann Gleason, MS
Co-Principal Investigator
Center for Military Medicine Research

Judy L. Cameron, PhD
Co-Principal Investigator
Psychiatry and Neuroscience


Goal of Pitt Seed Project

The first goal of our Seed Grant was to create a “visual novel” that teens would be interested in reading on their cell phones that would relay a story about teens in a variety of common situations that teens face, and would put teens in the situation of needing to make difficult reallife decisions. The novel would incorporate engaging decision-making tools (see Figure 1) that we have created and already tested for their effectiveness in improving teen decision-making skills (i.e., teens consider more factors, more resources and more long-term consequences when making decisions). We hypothesized that by creating an interesting novel, teens would want to use the decision-making tools to progress in the story, and that by using the decision-making tools again and again they would become more effective decision-makers.


Visual Novel 1

We chose to write our first novel about a group of teens at a high school, Abingdon High, in the week leading up to the homecoming football game and dance. We believed that this context could create a number of real-life decision points that would be realistic for teens in terms of pitting their feelings of what they should be doing to make parents, friends, romantic partners happy with the social pressures on teens for being accepted and the teens long-term goals of doing well in school so they can go to college. We have done this by creating a story where the reader is integrated right into the story and has to make a series of decisions during this week. A variety of characters are integrated into the story, each with a different background, sets of goals and pressures.

Situations that are dealt with include one friend dating a person that is not well-accepted by the friend group (Figures 2 and 3). Teens face expectations from teachers (Figure 4) and parents. One of the teens has to decide how she will get off from work in order to attend the game and dance, but her boss at the movie theater where she works indicates that she can’t take time off without losing her job. There are tensions with friends trying to decide what direction to go with their lives in terms of taking a job, dating, applying for an internship to have a better chance of graduating and finishing high school (Figure 5). There are tensions over studying for exams and getting passing grades vs. going to a party where all the cool kids will be (Figure 6). One of the teens has a mother who is deployed in the military and the high school is located next to a base, with several of the kids in the story going on and off of the base. The person reading the novel, becomes part of the story, has to use decision-making tools as the story progresses to make various decisions that alter the course of the story arc (Figures 7 & 8).



Visual Novel 2

Novel 2, Mountain View High: First Week, follows one of the students, Kendra, from the first novel as she moves to a new school because her parent in the military is relocated. As in Novel 1, the reader enters their name as they first start reading the novel and they become an integral character in the book. In the first few days it is clear that you (the player) are not showing your normal interest in activities, your mind wanders as you are trying to concentrate on things, you are sleepy all of the time. Your mom is worried about you and you are tired of her bugging you and giving you suggestions for things you could do (Figure 9). This is particularly tough because you feel she is comparing you to your older sister who is a high achiever in college (Figure 10).

In an effort to get you to focus and start paying attention to things like participating in a summer program that would help you get into college your mother tries to get you to limit your extracurricular activities and wants you to choose between running track this academic year and trying out for the school musical. Each time you need to make a decision in the story, you use one of the decision-making tools that prompts you to think about the impacts of the decision on yourself and others, both shortterm and long-term, the resources you need to make the decision, and how the decision meshes with your overall beliefs and values (Figure 11). The decisions you make change the course of the story.

Your friends are also struggling with issues of their own. The new girl who just moved to the school, Kendra, is trying to figure out how to integrate into social groups and activities in the middle of a school year. You try to convince her to try out for the musical (Figure 12). You want her to feel welcome but you don’t want to put pressure on her. 

One of your best friends, Shannon, has become very withdrawn and noncommunicative lately and then you find out she is pregnant (Figure 13). Shannon is struggling with what to do, she breaks up with her boyfriend, Theo, and won’t talk to him about it and he is worried about her. You feel in a bind because you like them both and you want things to turn out okay for both of them (Figure 14). 


You are also friends with Theo’s adopted little sister, who is feeling isolated and different from everyone else now that she has started high school. She is Asian, attending a school where there are few other Asians. But she doesn’t even fit in with those there are because she is adopted and is living in a household with Caucasians. She is also feeling like everybody thinks of her only as Theo’s little sister and doesn’t get to know her for who she really is (Figure 15).  

In between dealing with the issues described above, you are a regular high school student. You meet with your friends and talk, go shopping, enjoy time winding down, relaxing and playing games. The novel has games embedded in it that provide such diversions. 
In the next six month period we will release these novels and evaluate whether they are effective in improving teens decision-making skills and how engaging they are for teens.

Visual Novel 3

Abingdon High: Spring Break again follows one student, Kendra, who was in both novels 1 and 2, as she returns to her original high school during spring break. She moved across country between novels 1 and 2 because her mother in the military was relocated, and she’s returning now to visit friends in her hometown (Figure 1).


As in Novels 1 & 2, the reader enters their name as they first start reading the novel and they become an integral character in the book. The book starts with a group of friends hanging out after the last basketball game of the season, eating pizza and talking about options they are thinking after they graduate from high school, the pressure they are feeling from their parents to consider college, and what it will be like to separate from friends. The conversation continues later by text (Figure 2).  

Some conversations drift uncomfortably to remembering a classmate, Darren, who just recently committed suicide. One of the friends now has a job working at an animal shelter and many of the friends find emotional comfort in playing and helping care for the animals (Figure 3). Still, many of the friends find it is difficult to talk to other students, teachers and parents about the suicide. 

As your character in the story has to make various decisions in the story, you are giving access to decision-making tools to help you think through the decisions you are going to make (Figure 4). 

Games are interspersed throughout the novel as fun interludes and activities that the friends can do together. Homework assignments, like writing an essay, have been assigned over the Spring Break and students have to decide whether to tackle their homework early and get it out of the way or procrastinate and face it at the end of vacation.

Your mother is in the military and she is coming home on leave and you are excited but anxious also about her home-coming. Your friend, Jaxon, is grappling with his gender identity and you try to help him make decisions about issues he is facing.

Spring break ends with a highly emotional memorial service for Darren with various friends differing in how much they choose to be involved.

Goal Area