Student Developers Work to Design Video Game for Players With Autism
Over the past decade, video games have become more inclusive of people with physical handicaps, introducing features such as color-blind mode, holding a button instead of repeatedly tapping it, adding subtitles, and more. Sadly, games accommodating people with developmental conditions, such as autism, are in short supply. Reflector, a Montreal-based entertainment company, has introduced Project Palaka, in which eight aspiring student game developers at the video game design school ISART Digital Montreal are working to create a 10-minute long video game for people with autism as part of their graduation project. The students are being mentored by Reflector, as well as special education teacher Kelsea Kircoff, her husband Andrew Kephalidis, public relations manager Noemi de Rothschild, and marketing head Andre Vu.
According to a report by the Washington Post, the game (titled Palaka), focuses on the relationship between a guardian and a lost child, whom players must guide from purgatory to the afterlife. To get there, players must traverse a dangerous environment, solving puzzles along the way. To help players understand the child’s emotions, the developers created “barks,” voice lines that communicate feelings non-verbally, to indicate that the child is in distress. The designers hope this mechanic will help users with autism pick up emotional cues in real life. The team has also attempted to reduce frustration for players with autism by introducing an adaptive difficulty feature, which will light up items vital to the story, a GPS-like system that tells players where to go, and pop-up messages that remind users of gameplay mechanics.
The project has also been a learning experience for the developers, forced them to approach challenges and problem-solving from the perspective of someone on the autism spectrum, while also making the game accessible to the general public. The self-quarantine resulting from the Covid-19 has also been an obstacle, forcing the students to work from home and communicate remotely with their mentors at ISART. According to the Washington Post’s report, the game’s alpha rendering was completed on March 27. The game’s first two chapters are fully playable, and the final chapter is in development. If the game is approved by ISART, it will be available for download on ISART’s website.
“Video games are really for everyone,” de Rothschild was quoted as saying. “Anyone can play video games and I feel like we shouldn’t forget any part of the population.”