Over the past decade, game studios have made big strides toward accommodating players with physical disabilities. Features and changes such as color blind mode, holding a button instead of repeatedly tapping it, adding subtitles and adjusting their size and controller remapping have widened the game-playing audience immeasurably. But what can developers do to include players with developmental disorders, such as autism?

One group, mostly composed of members of the Montreal-based entertainment company Reflector, recently mulled this question with Kelsea Kircoff, a specialized education teacher who had often worked with children on the spectrum. The idea took root, and Project Pālaka was born.

The quartet, consisting of Kircoff, her husband Andrew Kephalidis, who works in Reflector’s animation department, public relations manager Noémie de Rothschild and marketing head André Vu, is now watching some aspiring student game developers attempt to answer their question. With help and mentorship from the team at Reflector, eight students at the video game design school ISART Digital Montréal are racing to complete a 10-minute-long game as part of their graduation project. It will be judged in June by a panel of professionals in the game industry.

“We wanted to implement something more meaningful that could have a wider impact than just the school itself,” de Rothschild said. “By working with students, they’re a newer generation that’s going to be able to spread this better than we do."

“Pālaka” focuses on the relationship between a guardian and a child. Players control the guardian and guide a lost child from purgatory to the afterlife. Working together, they must traverse a dangerous environment, avoiding hazards and solving puzzles along the way.

Since Project Pālaka began in October, students have met with different mentors from the company every other week for two to three hours. Student-game-designer Loïc Trudeau-Prenovault said the 10 Reflector specialists they’ve met with helped “us figure out a working environment and guide our direction and focus on a better path than the one we would have taken.”

Designing a game for people with autism in a 10-minute time constraint is a tall order for the student-led team. They’re forced to think about how someone on the spectrum might react to a scenario presented in the game, while also making the game playable for the public. Kircoff and Rebecca Dion, a board-certified behavior analyst, offered guidance in that area, drawing from nearly 20 years of combined experience working with children on the spectrum.

Kircoff and Dion suggested students first narrow the target audience down to a group of higher-functioning individuals attending neurotypical schools. Even though autism is a highly variable mental disorder, neuroatypical individuals generally can’t focus on too many variables at a time. Having someone else take control and sharing resources to attain a goal are difficult concepts for them to grasp. Some are nonverbal and have trouble reading emotional cues.

ISART students wrote the story, created the environment and designed mechanics in a way that best fit the above constraints. The guardian and child must help each other if they are to reach the end. It’s a single player game but teamwork with the child is vital for level progression.

“It teaches [autistic players] the aspect of ‘I have to let someone else take control for a little bit to get what I want,’” Dion said.

Trudeau-Prenovault said the team incorporated a hand-holding mechanic to help the guardian-child team get around obstacles. If they want to, players can maintain that physical connection for the entire game.

“The idea of holding someone close is central to communicating non-verbally,” Trudeau-Prenovault said.

The team also added visual and auditory cues to prevent players from getting upset and overwhelmed with the game. Instead of words or dialogue, they’re using ambient noises and sound effects to set the mood.

Players will have to understand the child’s emotions as they progress. The ISART team created “barks,” voice lines that show feeling without any words, that indicate if the child is in distress and needs help. The hope is this mechanic can help users with autism pick up emotional cues in the real world.

While most mainstream video games aren’t made for those with autism in mind, scientists have created games to help patients overcome an emotional disconnect or to improve balance via an Xbox Kinect camera.

Jim Tanaka, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, who created one such educational video game called “Let’s Face It! Scrapbook” to aid with face processing, said those with autism are drawn to games for the same reasons as neurotypical individuals. They are visually attractive and engaging, but Tanaka posits there’s an added benefit for someone on the spectrum.

“For the person on the spectrum, it provides a consistent, stable environment that is more predictable,” Tanaka said, adding his team found that for those with autism, faces on a screen are less threatening than in real life.

One of the biggest hurdles the ISART team faces is programming the adaptive difficulty feature, Trudeau-Prenovault said. Depending on how well the player is progressing through the level, items vital to the story will light up, a GPS-like system will show the player where to go and pop-up messages will remind users of game mechanics. Trudeau-Prenovault hopes that combined with the linear nature of the game, players on the spectrum will hit fewer points of frustration.

“Designing the game to make it more open mainly forces us to make a better game experience for everyone that’s going to play,” Trudeau Prenovault said. “The fact that we’re helping a specific group of people also means that we’re helping everybody else.”

Self-quarantine measures as a result of covid-19 have added another set of challenges. Students are working from home and communicating with their ISART mentors through a Discord channel. Physical playtests with 10 neuroatypical children and their families have moved online.

While circumstances aren’t ideal, the team had already been working off the cloud, making for a smooth transition into a world with social distancing, Trudeau-Prenovault said.

The ISART team completed the alpha rendering of the game March 27. Chapters one and two are fully playable and the last chapter is in the works. If ISART approves of the game, it will be released for download on its site, like last year’s ISART game, “Blossom.” Reflector is already taking note of the lessons from Pālaka’s development, saying the studio will “take these key learnings into consideration when we start the production of future games.”

“Video games are really for everyone,” de Rothschild said. “Anyone can play video games and I feel like we shouldn’t forget any part of the population.”

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