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Video games: A Safe Space for Neurodiverse Youth and Ojibwe Language Learners

In 2022, the global video game market had an estimated worth of $244 billion. By 2027, this value is expected to increase to over $473 billion. While video games have long been categorized as entertainment, they also serve as a tool to support social, emotional, and cultural learning.

2022 Solver team, Ava, is a game series that uses the power of storytelling to facilitate social-emotional learning and increase a sense of belonging for neurodiverse youth. Another 2022 Solver team, Reclaim!, is a developing point-and-click adventure game aimed to support Ojibwe language learners and others who want to practice using Ojibwe–an Indigenous language part of the Algonquian language family.

(View of the non-playable demo version Reclaim!)

Ava was titled after the game’s main character who is a star mapper with Autism on a quest to recruit a crew and go on space pirate adventures. 

“Players have free reign to choose dialogue choices as they play through the game and meet other characters, which lets them practice social situations in a safe way,” explains Vanessa Castañeda Gill, Co-Founder and CEO of Social Cipher

“I went through many mental health issues because I lacked representation,” says Castañeda Gill who grew up with Autism and ADHD. She shares that she became a neuroscience researcher with the hopes of understanding her brain, but she ended up finding a supportive community and developing a new way for neurodiverse people to connect. Her organization, Social Cipher, was founded in October 2018 and Ava launched in October 2021. 

Reclaim!, a point-and-click adventure game, was inspired by Dr. Mary Hermes, Executive Director and Founder of Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia. The game is designed for Ojibwe language learners regardless of age, and Hermes hopes to bridge the gap between older generations who may be reluctant to adopt video games and younger generations who may more eagerly adopt gaming.

“I presented Reclaim! to a group of elders in Canada. One of them said they hoped their granddaughter would show them how to play the game and he would show her the language,” Hermes recounts. 

Accessibility to the videogame is a key component of Reclaim! Hermes shares, “We started with big dreams around VR, but nobody around here has VR and a lot of the kids don’t even have phones with phone plans. They all could access a computer or iPad at the Boys and Girls Club, community colleges, and schools, so that’s what we moved forward with.”

(Waabishkiiimiigwan (Mary Hermes), Producer and writer (left), and Anagookwe Hermes-Roach, Lead Developer and Designer of Reclaim! (right))

“We have seen a large demand from people to learn and not just to learn Native languages, but to use language in other contexts. Creating a video game is a big risk–it’s time-consuming and labor-intensive to produce, but we have to break through into the wider entertainment sector. We’re at a point of growth where we need places outside of ceremonies and immersion schools to use the language. We need something fun,” says Hermes.

For Reclaim! and Ava players, video games also offer safe environments to practice skills, which may traditionally be hindered by trauma, anxiety, and or fear of rejection.

“Educators and therapists often lack quality tools to teach neurodiverse youth social-emotional skills,” says Castañeda Gill. With Ava, students are given a welcoming platform to be immersed in social situations, and counselors and educators can play the game with students in real-time and learn from the dialogue choices they choose.

(Example of dialogue that Ava players may encounter in their adventures)

During a pilot study in 2021, a counselor monitored a student playing Ava. The counselor noticed during the gameplay that her client, a girl with ADHD, would not advocate for herself and consistently wanted to appease a villainous character in the game. Those learnings were able to be applied to the patient's therapy.

Players of Reclaim! may feel a different form of relief in the game space. Hermes shares that for many Indigenous language learners and fluent speakers, there is a barrier of PTSD and trauma to overcome. “Language revitalization is about speaking to each other and that’s the standard we want this [videogame] to get us to,” she says.

Reclaim! is still in the development phase and is seeking locations for play-testing workshops so the game can be fine-tuned and developed further. Hermes will continue to validate and empower language learners. “For so many of our young people, video games are their storytelling. Storytelling is a tradition here. Video games are just a new tool and I don’t want to have a prejudice against that,” she says.

(Members of the Social Cipher team from left to right: Vanessa Castañeda Gill, Lucy Stevens, Joel Groff, Louisa Tsai)

To date, Ava has been played by 1,000 youth users in 150 schools and youth therapy centers across 4 countries–US, Australia, Canada, and England. In the future, Castañeda Gill is looking forward to expanding to Latin America. She also is hopeful for more accessibility and notes that adding voice acting to Ava will make the games more inclusive of youth with different learning styles and reading challenges. Overall, she wants to abolish the idea of what is considered a normal neurotype.

If you want to learn more about these innovative gaming solutions for neurodiverse youths and Native language learners, join us at Solve at MIT this May. Request your invitation now.

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