Virtual reality is being used to educate young fitness and sports enthusiasts about the risks of taking performance-enhancing drugs (PED) such as anabolic steroids and testosterone.

Researchers have developed a first-of-its-kind video game that simulates the experience of being in a gym or sports club and making decisions related to drugs and fitness.

Sheffield Hallam University is part of the EU project called GAME (A serious Game Approach in Mitigating performance Enhancement culture in youth) which is being run by experts in behaviour and computing.

The video game and PED education project has been funded by the European Commission (Erasmus+ Sport) and will be the focus of an event as part of the annual ESRC's Festival of Social Science.

UK project lead Lambros Lazuras says the aim is to help young people better understand the risks of using drugs, learn how to identify risky situations and make appropriate decisions without resorting to scare tactics.

"Little is being done in schools or in the community to combat the rise in young people taking PEDs," says Dr Lazuras, assistant professor of social psychology at Sheffield Hallam.

"This project shows how gaming can convey a serious message to young people about the importance of staying clean. It's a timely educational tool that could be vital in protecting fitness and amateur sport enthusiasts from the harms of PEDs."

PEDs are an increasing problem in sport and fitness and can cause serious health problems including long-term heart damage. However, they are largely unregulated in amateur settings, unlike in competitive events.

Games have been successfully used to encourage learning in education and healthcare but not to promote drug-free sport until now.

GAME is aimed at 18 to 25-year-olds who do not necessarily compete and are therefore not monitored by sport governing bodies or anti-doping authorities. It targets those drawn towards PEDs including to increase muscle mass and improve body image.

Players lose points for making the wrong choice or progress to the next level by choosing 'safe' options such as resisting social pressures to take PEDs. Currently web-based, the game will also be available as an app on Android phones and possibly also on smartphones.

The game will be showcased as part of an event entitled Gaming for Clean Sport on 9 November for the general public. The event is part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science.