Not because it was a bad game. Just the opposite. Because it’s so effective in its aim to simulate the unbearable sensory overload that is associated with some cases of autism.
Auti-Sim, an experimental prototype designed to simulate what it’s like to have autism as a child, inundates players with increasingly intense, indistinguishable sounds as the game’s visuals continue to blur.
It was created by a three-person team at the Hacking Health Vancouver 2013 game jam. Taylan Kadayifcioglu, pitched the original idea at the 48-hour event, and handled programming and game design. Matt Marshall designed the playground level and the project logo. Krista Howarth, an early childhood educator specializing in working with kids with autism, advised Kadayifcioglu and Marshall on autism.
Since the game jam, Auti-Sim has picked up steam online, with more than 100,000 plays on Gamejolt and Kongregate. The team has continued working on it, with plans to make it more inclusive of the spectrum and add other environments, such as a classroom. Although there’s interest in Auti-Sim (one school approached Kadayifcioglu about adapting it for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or general impulse control issues), funding remains a challenge. The team would like to keep Auti-Sim free to the public as a nonprofit venture.
Kadayifcioglu recently discussed the game’s development and future plans.
How did you come up with the idea for Auti-Sim? Compared to the final prototype, what changed from the initial concept?
The inspiration came from a clip from the documentary “Inside Autism.” We just recreated similar audio and visual distortion in our game world. So our initial concept was very, very similar to what we ended up with.
My original idea was to include different environments and maybe also the ability to cover one’s ears in the game to reduce discomfort. But adding those would probably be too ambitious for the time and resources we had at hand.
What was the biggest challenge in making the game?
The biggest challenge was explaining the concept to people, without a prototype. The use of the word ‘game’ is such an interesting thing: when you call something a game, people immediately start thinking of typical game mechanics. Like a user score, victory conditions, jumping over platforms, etc.
And yet, without calling it a game, it is very difficult to convey the extent of the interactivity involved. When you say “interactive experience” people do not expect a first-person game using mouse and keyboard, they expect “click here to proceed.” So it was challenging in that sense trying to explain my vision for this project at the beginning, and it’s probably why we did not end up having a larger group.
How do you plan on making Auti-Sim more representative of a wider portion of the spectrum?
That will take a lot of listening on our part, which we have already begun doing. Whenever I hear someone say that the way we did the game does not represent their experience, I try to engage them and get them to tell me what would make it better in their eyes. We are hoping that at some point we will have a partner autism organization who can help us in this regard by connecting us with their community, so we have an efficient way of gathering that input. Similarly, we are looking for scientists who are experts in this field to have their feedback and guidance for our project.
What are the biggest criticisms the game has received so far?
The biggest criticism was that we did not include anyone with autism in our team. I tried explaining that we did not exclude anyone either, we simply could not have timely access to someone with autism for that weekend, and we had to continue on to finish the project.
That said, I understand the concern behind the criticism perfectly well. There is a sad history of neurotypical people trying to come up with treatments for people with autism without actually consulting with them, and the end result of such attempts has been very unpleasant in some cases. They want to avoid this, they want to be included, and we want them to be included, too.
How did you decide on the playground environment, and the visuals and sounds used in it?
I just tried to think of noisy environments that could pose a challenge for someone with autism. And as someone who has been to more than a few kids’ birthday parties with bouncy castles, it wasn’t that hard for me to come up with the playground. Later when we were looking for ready-made game assets on the internet, we found the playground set, which was easy to set up and it looked good, so we went ahead with it.
Same with the sounds actually. They all came from FreeSound.org. That’s why there is not a great variety of sounds in the game. There is one long background track that loops, plus four or five shorter audio clips that play at random sequence. We did not have an audio engineer or any way of recording our own sounds.
As for the visuals, we just experimented with different camera filters and effects. It was tricky choosing the right one because we did not want to misrepresent the condition. That’s why we didn’t use something like a “drunken” effect or something that could remind people of hallucinations.