Carnegie Mellon University

Image of students testing a game

June 25, 2018

Award-winning Game Prism Explores Facets of Autism

By Heidi Opdyke

Julie Mattera
  • Marketing & Communications
  • 412-268-2902

Students from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center won the most honors in this year's International Serious Play Awards competition for games designed for use in education or training.

The ETC won four of the seven awards, including the only gold medal for Prism, a transformational web browser game designed for elementary school students to promote empathy for peers with autism spectrum disorder.

"ETC projects often explore the design and development of transformational experiences that can have a positive social impact," said ETC Director Drew Davidson. "We encourage our students and teams to strive to make a difference in the world through their work."

"Prism" is a technological solution to an important problem society faces today — helping neurotypical people to empathize with those on the autism spectrum.

Prism players explore a lush, green 3D world as a fox and encounter other animals along the way who can help the player solve challenges.

"The game is an allegory," said Daniel Wolpow, the game's producer and writer. Other team members are Ridima Ramesh, Xueyang Wang, Yutian Zheng and Yidi Zhu. "Various characteristics associated with autism are mapped onto the animals such as sensory overload, repetitive self-soothing techniques and difficulties with verbal communication."

The game can be played in about 30 minutes, Wolpow said, and is paired with classroom activities that helps link the themes and characters to some of the challenges faced by individuals with autism spectrum disorder. The game, which can be played on a variety of platforms such as iPads, tablets and desktop computers, is available for free at the Apple App Store, Google Play and through the project team's website, which also includes the classroom discussion information and additional resources for teachers.

"We wanted to make it as accessible as possible," said Wolpow who joined the team because he was fascinated with the idea of tackling a challenging social issue. "I loved working on this project with the rest of the team. We worked together very well, and ultimately arrived at something that is making an impact."

"It was exceptionally useful to help our students see the differences in everybody," said Michalene Mills, principal at Beech Bottom Primary School in Brooke County, West Virginia. Beech Bottom, which commissioned the ETC for the work.

The team also worked with Michelle Lubetsky, a training and consultation coordinator with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which serves 42 public school districts in Western Pennsylvania. Lubetsky specializes in training and technical assistance to share effective research and practices in the delivery of services for students with autism.

"I was excited to be able to be exposed to a different format of learning," said Lubetsky, in relation to working on a educational video game. "When you think about what kids are most interested in, it's often games. And when you can meet kids where they are, they will rise to the occasion."

Lubetsky said that the Allegheny Intermediate Unit has just started to think about the process of how the game and teaching materials could be used in the future.

"The instruction guide is a critical part of the curriculum, and you have to think carefully about how that guided practice component is facilitated," she said. “Guided discussions strengthen the awareness that people with autism experience the world a little bit differently. Additionally, class discussions foster the recognition that we all have differences, which is really what makes us all the same.”

Additional Serious Play Honors

Silver medal honors went to Mind Field, a game for CMU students that provides an interactive experience and tools for dealing with subtle forms of racism.

Bronze medals went to Trash Traders and Thin Line. Trash Traders engages K-12 students in learning about recycling and sustainability. Thin Line provides a virtual reality experience immersing users in a woman's unplanned pregnancy.

Winners will have a chance to attend this summer's Serious Play Conference Events and display their games. This year conferences will be held July 10-12 at George Mason University and July 17-19 at the University at Buffalo.

The two-year master's degree in entertainment technology is a professional graduate program that applies interactive entertainment across a variety of fields. Founded in 1998, the ETC is known for its strength in project-based learning and has been involved in educational outreach, especially in developing interactive learning experiences. As part of its R&D agenda, the ETC explores transformational games for education, health and change.