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The Eerie Playground: Videogames and Autism

David Owen | 3 Oct 2013 15:00
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"Essentially, we found that children with ASD spend much more time on screen-based media, including video games, than on other activities," says Mazurek. "We also found that they spent much more time playing video games than their typically developing siblings. This finding supported the idea that these technologies may be especially reinforcing for children with ASD."

This may seem like stating the obvious, but formal studies had never been conducted. "I have had no experience in the use of video games for children with autism," admits Landau, a treatment veteran of over 20 years, though she is open to the idea of further exploration.

Firmly establishing a link between ASD and video games potentially opens the door for the practical application of video games and other screen-based media in ASD therapy. It might be as simple as using a gamepad to teach sharing, or using online games to teach autistic children social skills in a safe, virtual environment.

But there is more to consider.

Taylan Kadayifcioglu doesn't personally know anybody with ASD. This didn't stop him from creating a game about it. "I am married to a very kind and compassionate woman who works with kids with special needs," he tells me. "Her experiences, insights, and awareness on issues around accessibility are what made me interested in making a game that dealt with issues of accessibility and inclusion."

Auti-sim is a simple game that was created in a weekend as part of Hacking Health, a hackathon focused on the health industry. The game takes place in a small playground environment populated by groups of children enjoying the play equipment. It should be a happy setting. But as soon as you take control of the game you realise that something isn't quite right. You play from a first-person perspective. As you approach the other children the sound of their laughter spikes to an unbearable volume. You realise that they have no faces. The visuals suddenly blur and degrade until they're almost painful to look at. The only reprieve comes when you retreat to an empty corner of the playground. What should be a joyful environment is quickly reduced to one of isolation and fear.

This is representative of one of the most unpleasant symptoms of autism. The afflicted may not possess natural sensory filters. This means that the sights, sounds, and smells of an everyday environment, such as a playground, can become insurmountable obstacles.

It might be as simple as using a gamepad to teach sharing, or using online games to teach autistic children social skills in a safe, virtual environment.

"I was interested in seeing if one could build a game level where sensory input would become the obstacle course, rather than walls or corridors or whatnot," says Kadayifcioglu. "Players naturally find themselves preferring solitude by the swings at the far end of the playground, to escape the unwelcome sensory input."

Some of the most effective ways in which the familiar setting is turned into a hostile space came about as a result of the three-strong team's limitations. "We didn't have 3D artists to create game assets from scratch, so our game world had to be constructed with what was readily and cheaply available on the internet." Kadayifcioglu's team had access to a trial version of Unity Pro, and they quickly found the playground package on the asset store.

"The fact that the children are all faceless was not really intentional," admits Kadayifcioglu. "Many people thought it was alluding to the challenges of people with autism around reading people's expressions and social clues. It was the only free 3D child model I could find at the time.

"Luckily it all came together nicely enough to create that rather eerie playground in the game."

Auti-sim, despite the title, was never intended to simulate hyper-sensitivity. "The game itself was intended to elicit a response from the player that is similar in quality to the kind of response an autistic person would give to sensory over-stimulation." He is very aware that, due to varying symptoms and subjectivity of experience, it could never be possible to simulate the experience with perfect fidelity.

"You can make a game where players storm the hyper-realistic beaches of Normandy with every grain of sand individually rendered, but you cannot truly give people the experience of actually being there," says Kadayifcioglu. "What you can do, however, is approximate the experience. I think we succeeded in that."

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