Since 2005, the number of recorded sexual offences against children in the UK has doubled, rising to almost 50,000 in 2015/16.
That's according to research by the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in its 2017 'How Safe Is Your Child?' Report. This rise can partly be attributed to improved recording of such incidents by police and more victims willing to come forward - which in some ways is a positive - but there's no question this number is unjustifiably high.
Back in 2013, the charity sought a way to raise awareness amongst kids as to what constitutes sexual abuse, and to help parents explain this to their children - all in an understandable, accessible and non-frightening way.
The answer was PANTS.
Privates are private
Always remember your body belongs to you
No means no
Talk about secrets that upset you
Speak up, someone can help
The NSPCC has built on this message over the past four years, putting a face to its efforts in the summer of 2016 with the creation of Pantosaurus. The character was introduced with a song and animated video created in partnership with famed UK studio Aardman (best known for Wallace & Gromit) to explain the undies-centric acronym, and has since become the central figure of the charity's campaign.
"He's proving to be a great mascot for us and we've got loads more plans for him in the future too," Becky Sibson, NSPCC brand marketing planner, tells GamesIndustry.biz.
This year, efforts kicked off with a new mobile game: Playtime with Pantosaurus, a collection of mini-games punctuated with quiz-style reminders of the NSPCC's advice. Given the popularity of mobile games with children, such a release was perhaps inevitable but there was still the tricky challenge of ensuring the app was as enjoyable as it was educational.
"We explored a number of different gaming solutions," Sibson recalls. "Some versions integrated the safety messages into the game itself and others made more of a distinction between the gaming elements and the messaging.
"Through this process, we agreed that keeping the distinction was important so not to risk making children or parents feel uncomfortable, and also to optimise the learning opportunities by making the messaging clear and distinct. We knew we wanted our pant-wearing dino character Pantosaurus to be front and centre in the game, as he's proven to be really popular with children and parents, and such a great character to help share our messages."
The game is split into segments, alternating between mini-games such as diving and basketball. Completion of each activity prompts a question that emphasises what the next letter in PANTS means, before the 2016 song drives the message home. This split between mini-game and messaging was "key to keeping that balance of fun and educational", says Sibson.
"We know talking to children about issues like this at a young age can really help keep them safe. We also know parents want help to get these conversations started"
Becky Sibson, NSPCC
"We purposefully kept the PANTS messaging separate from the basketball and diving parts of the game, opting for separate quiz-style sections to break up the games, where we addressed the safety messages to ensure the messages weren't lost or trivialised and to ensure no part of the game felt uncomfortable or insensitive."
Following the successful collaboration on Pantosaurus' debut, Aardman was a natural fit to help develop the game. Ben Curtis, creative director for Playtime with Pantosaurus, explained that the game was essentially built on the style of the original video and even expands on some of the sequences.
"We felt that if our players felt comfortable in the setting and environment they would more easily be able to engage with the difficult subject matter delivered by Pantosaurus and the narrator," he tells us.
"Aardman has a long history of creating games and interactive experiences for this age group, and the NSPCC were more than happy to take our lead in planning and delivering the gameplay and other non-educational content based on that expertise. However, we know that nobody knows how to deliver the message to the audience as well as they do, so I think we ended up complementing each other very well in balancing play and learning in a sensitive, enjoyable manner."
Another challenge was ensuring the game held children's attention throughout and minimise the chance of distraction. As such, the entire experience is a seamless affair with no loading screens and no clear separation between the fun mini-games or the educational quiz - they simply flow from one to the other.
"We had to think really carefully and work closely with our narrator and the NSPCC about how to sensitively portray the message in a way that wouldn't alienate parents"
Ben Curtis, Aardman
"It felt more natural this way, and there would be less tuning out of the audience between bouts of gameplay if they still felt immersed," says Curtis.
He adds that Aardman was aware the interactivity made this project potentially much more sensitive than the original animation: "We discussed at length whether we should show examples of situations where the PANTS rules might need to be applied, or talk about the rules more generally. In the animation everything happens very quickly - it's designed to draw people in to the campaign to learn more.
"But in the game, the player spends a longer period of time engaged in the world. So we had to think really carefully and work closely with our narrator and the NSPCC about how to sensitively portray the message in a way that wouldn't alienate parents, create inappropriate examples or confuse children while going into slightly more depth about the rules and what they mean."
Playtime with Pantosaurus encourages children to play through over and over again with the use of scoreboard challenges and unlockable costumes for their customisable dinosaur - and Curtis hints at other secrets that can be found. But even if kids play through this repeatedly, how effective can it really be in preventing sexual abuse?
"We know talking to children about issues like this at a young age can really help keep them safe," says Sibson. "We also know that parents want help to get these conversations started. So we've been focusing on creating a bank of icebreaker assets to do just that, in ways that feel as natural and fun as possible, giving them things we know their children will love and want to revisit time and time again to help reinforce the messaging.
"A game that children can play on their mobiles or tablets is something they already love doing, so we're tapping into existing behaviour, and parents can share it with them whenever the time seems right."
And it's important to remember Playtime with Pantosaurus is just part of the NSPCC's wider, ongoing efforts to raise awareness of this issue. The charity has recently launched a new national campaign, including adverts on TV and video-on-demand services, as well as search engines and social media.
A suite of materials is also being created to help parents "talk PANTS" with their children, including the mobile game, an activity pack and the PANTS song.
Playtime with Pantosaurus is not the first time NSPCC has used video games to spread its message (it has worked on several different titles for Childline to enable various forms of self-help and therapy), but it's the first time the charity has used our medium to reach out to parents as well as their children. And it's unlikely to be the last.
"Based on the games we've developed in the past, we've found it's a really effective way of engaging with children and young people and encouraging them to express themselves," says Sibson.
"Following the project and its review, we'd definitely be interested to explore the creation of additional game assets for the NSPCC and Childline. We look for agencies with a good understanding of our target audience and the ways that they use devices and interact with different kinds of media, and a sensitivity to our subject matter is obviously fundamental."
To find out more about the PANTS campaign, head to www.nspcc.org.uk/pants.