USC students create video game to help children with autism

New game Social Clues aims to teach children to make eye contact and recognize others' emotions.

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A team of students at the University of Southern California has developed a game called Social Clues, but not for profit, at least not right away. The 35 USC students, who have backgrounds in fields like engineering and design, have made the game to help autistic children. Specifically, the game aims to teach children to make eye contact, listen to others, and recognize others' emotions.

In Social Clues, children play as one of two characters: ParticiPETE or communiKATE. In an effort to find their lost toys, they must then converse with characters in virtual depictions of real-world settings. Along the way, USC says, children will "learn the dos and don'ts of social interaction."

In one scene, children must correctly identify the emotional state of a non-player character (NPC), while another asks users to drag an arrow until it aligns with another character's eyes to teach children about the importance of making eye contact during conversation. A friendly parrot named Sherlock helps the children along the way.

"What we’re trying to do is break down everyday interactions into something very understandable, very manageable," USC Marshall School of Business MBA student Jeremy Bernstein said in a news release. He worked on the game as its project lead, alongside his wife, Karen Okrent, who is a speech pathologist.

The skills that Social Clues teaches effectively serve as a "road map" for children to use when they are away from the computer simulation, Bernstein said.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that around 1 in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder, which USC said shows that the need for a game like Social Clues "has never been greater."

To make Social Clues, USC developers met with more than a dozen autistic children, as well as therapists. Feedback derived from these working sessions inspired changes to the game's user interface in the interest of clarity--bright colors, simple characters, and big buttons were added.

Social Clues itself came out of USC's Advanced Games course, which sees a game through from inception to completion over the course of two semesters. USC reports that the designers continue to work on the game as they explore the possibility of a commercial release.

USC's Advanced Games course also spawned 2010's The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, which was published by Borderlands studio 2K Games.

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