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BREAKAWAY: A Personal Odyssey Towards a Game-Changing Legacy

Wendi Stein Jun 13, 2023

You know that feeling when you’re part of something big, something truly groundbreaking? If you’ve ever felt it, you know there’s nothing quite like it. For me, that ‘something big’ was BREAKAWAY, a project that started as an ambitious idea and evolved into an initiative for youth around the world.

Reflecting on the recent 25th anniversary celebration of Population Media Center (PMC) and the recognition of Aminata Touré’s contributions, my heart is filled with gratitude and pride. 

BREAKAWAY was not born out of thin air, and it took years to develop. It all began with a conversation between PMC President Bill Ryerson and Aminata Touré, who, at the time, served as  Director of Gender and Human Rights at UNFPA. Aminata’s firsthand observation of the captivating influence video games held over her son, despite their often-violent nature, sparked a revolutionary idea.  

Why not flip the paradigm and create a game that addressed violence, particularly violence against women and girls, to actively work toward ending it? Our goal was to reach young people, particularly boys, during their formative years as they shaped their identities and values. A tall order? Perhaps. But we were more than up for the challenge.

As we introduced the game to the world, I remember thinking, “This is it. We’ve done it.”

Out of this remarkable partnership, BREAKAWAY was born. Each entity of the powerful triad brought unique contributions to BREAKAWAY: PMC brought forth our methodology for creating the story; UNFPA set the criteria for the game and shared their expertise on the issues; and The Emergent Media Center at Champlain College brought the technological gaming prowess, skilled faculty, and best of all – young, talented students who were a lot closer to the target audience than the rest of us! 

From its inception, BREAKAWAY was intended to be a global game that would entertain and educate simultaneously. This ambitious scope propelled us on a journey across the globe, conducting formative research and rigorously testing the game in various iterations, starting from paper tests and evolving into online digital and mobile versions.

What made this venture truly magical was the unwavering enthusiasm and support we received from schools, afterschool programs, and our partnerships with primary schools and universities worldwide. Their collaboration and engagement played a pivotal role in making this global endeavor a reality.

Along the way we learned that BREAKAWAY is a powerful tool when implemented by a cohort of passionate facilitators, teachers, and local organizations. It is not only the children and youth who are impacted by the BREAKAWAY experience, the adults who work on the project are too.

We launched BREAKAWAY at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. As we introduced the game to the world, I remember thinking, “This is it. We’ve done it.” 

From that moment, BREAKAWAY has traveled far and wide, reaching over 150 countries and inspiring countless young players to stand up for equality and respect.

Fast forward to now, when we celebrated PMC’s 25th anniversary, it felt like a dual celebration as we recognized the incredible journey of BREAKAWAY too. Seeing Aminata, the woman whose vision guided BREAKAWAY’s creation, honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters by Champlain College was a cherry on top. It felt like a collective triumph, a testament to the dedication, hard work, and belief in the power of storytelling that propelled us forward.

We pushed boundaries, innovated, and poured our hearts into creating a platform where players could engage, learn, and contribute to fostering change.

When we began conceptualizing BREAKAWAY, we knew we were onto something special. But the journey to get there – and the people along the way — was extraordinary. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to Bill Ryerson, Kriss Barker, Scott Connolly, Natalia Cereser, Stephanie Tholand, Clinton Sears, Hope Craig, Paula Lopez, and a long list of others at PMC who poured their hearts into this project.

I am equally grateful to Aminata Touré and Leyla Sharafi from UNFPA for their invaluable contributions. The unwavering dedication of Ann DeMarle and her team of staff/faculty including Sarah Jerger, Ken Howell, Adam Walker, Amanda Crispin, and Erik Esckilsen, as well as the countless students at Champlain College with special acknowledgement to Dana Steinhoff, was nothing short of inspiring. I would also like to express my appreciation to Hua (Helen) Wang, principal investigator, and Vivian Wu from the University of Buffalo, as well as all the experts and partners who supported us along the way.

Last but not least, I am immensely grateful to our individual donors whose generosity made this endeavor possible. Together, we have accomplished something truly remarkable.

As I look forward to the future, I’m reminded that our work is not done. Our mission continues – to keep breaking barriers, inspiring communities, and empowering individuals around the world.

So, here’s to another 25 years of PMC, to the ongoing journey of BREAKAWAY, and to each one of you who have been a part of this incredible adventure.

Here’s to changing the world, one game at a time!