Students in Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) created a game to help children who have experienced trauma. The game earned an honorable mention from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations PEACEapp competition.
The project paired students with doctors from Allegheny Health Network looking for new ways for children to understand Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), which is a therapy practice used with traumatized youth.
"[The doctors] were very interested in seeing if there was something the students could do to help with one particular area — the triangle of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that children have a difficult time with," said Scott Stevens, an ETC teaching professor and one of the project's advisors. "All they had were pieces of paper with a diagram. They wanted something that was more impactful."
Creative Director Etaba Assigana (ETC'15) thought back to his own childhood for inspiration.
"There was a short animation of an African story that I used to watch. The story told a sequence of events and presented a mystery," Assigana said. "One thing might happen to the owl, which caused her to react in a way, perhaps ignoring iguana. You would have to get to the bottom of the chain of misunderstanding."
The team, Transcendence, created a game where a character, Lion, must figure out why other animals are discontent.
"You have to jump from platform to platform and categorize ideas as thoughts, feelings or behaviors to unlock access to additional platforms until you are eventually able to reach the exit and solve a story-relevant TF-CBT question to complete the level," said lead programmer and game designer Eric Chang (CS'13, ETC'15).
The team met weekly meetings with Drs. Anthony Mannarino and Judith Cohen, who developed TF-CBT.
"Working with the team from the Entertainment Technology Center was a terrific experience for us," Cohen said. "We were impressed with their interdisciplinary talents and how quickly they meshed together as a team. The African jungle theme was wonderful. When I first saw the prototype for the Lion character, I thought, 'Kids are going to love this!' The game does a great job of helping children learn how to use cognitive processing."
Assigana said the process has focused his career path.
"In my undergraduate studies I had some exposure of making games purely for entertainment. From this project, going forward I know I'm more interested in making games for social change," Assignana said.
That same thinking resonates in the ETC, where teaching professor and project advisor Mike Christel encourages similar collaborations. He said more projects are in the works with the Allegheny Health Network.
ETC Director Drew Davidson, said the program always looks to create transformational experiences with the student-created products.
"We think about how we can use entertainment technologies to create positive social impact and better health," he said.
Thanassis Rikakis, Vice Provost for Arts, Design, and Technology, recognizes the importance of the ETC's focus on games that can make a difference. Rikakis oversees the ETC, which is part of CMU's IDeATe network.
"The work of the Transcendence team brings together technical and creative expertise to benefit children. This is exactly the integrative practice and bigger thinking that we strive for at Carnegie Mellon," he said.
Transcendence's TF-CBT Triangle of Life game is expected to be released in March on multiple platforms.