Virtual world teaches real-world skills
Virtual world teaches real-world skills
Game helps people with Asperger's practice socializing
By Tom Loftus
Updated: 6:59 a.m. ET Feb. 25, 2005
If home is where the heart is, then home for a dozen people with Asperger
Syndrome could be a 16-acre island blessed with lush gardens and rolling
The island is called "Brigadoon," but unlike its literary namesake, this
place is real - or real enough in a 21st century way. "Brigadoon" belongs to
a public virtual world called "Second Life," a popular online 3-D
environment frequented by tens of thousands of users.
"Brigadoon" is a real-world experiment in social skills made virtual, a
private enclave limited to a select mixture of caregivers and individuals
with Asperger Syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism. The
inhabitants, or "Dooners" as they call themselves, enjoy the same privileges
as those in the more public arenas of "Second Life." They are free to create
their own digital representations of themselves, called "avatars," build
virtual houses and seek out friends. And, most importantly, they are free to
create a "second life" with a level of social interaction that, for reasons
of their condition, has been hard to come by in their real lives.
Is gaming a good thing?
Talk of video gaming can set off feelings of unease among parents - no one
wants a kid to be glued to a screen for hours on end. But the stakes for
children with Asperger's and other autism spectrum disorders - who have
difficulties with social interaction - tend to be higher.
At issue is the importance of developing enriching personal relationships
and becoming a part of society. While video games can be educational and
entertaining, their reputation as a solitary activity can present an
impediment to progress for people with autistic disorders by limiting their
exposure to social situations.
Researchers are also concerned that playing video games could simply become
one of the many repetitive activities that an affected child engages in.
"One feature that highlights the risk of video games is that the behavior of
children with autism can be repetitive. They like sameness and routine,"
says Sally Ozonoff, an associate professor of psychiatry at the MIND
Institute at the University of California, Davis. This preference for
repetition and familiarity often limits their experiences and prevents them
from learning how to adapt to new situations.
But if used correctly, video game technology could be beneficial. "Children
with autism have a natural inclination to video games and television,"
Ozonoff adds. "The goal is to try to exploit that inclination
New technology in the works
Researchers around the world are now attempting to do just that. At the
University of Victoria in British Columbia, cognitive psychologist James
Tanaka is using a custom-built game called "Let's Face It!" to teach facial
recognition. Actually a suite of mini-games, the program uses photos, sounds
and positive feedback as part of a scoring system to encourage kids with
autism to learn.
"You can have kids do an exercise, but they usually don't have the richness
or the continuity [of the video game]," says Tanaka.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow Caledonian
University are creating video games to study cognitive skills in children
with autism using a revolutionary interface: gesture recognition software
that registers the players' movements and transfers them to the screen.
"From my work, I know that a lot of children [with autism] have production
skills we never would expect," says Maggie McGonigle, leader of the project
and an expert on non-verbal communication. "So I'm hoping that language-like
skills are locked up in their brain even if they can't speak."
Back to 'Brigadoon'
But in the small world of video games with real-life applications for people
with autistic disorders, "Brigadoon" stands out.
When "Brigadoon" founder John Lester, an information systems director at
Massachusetts General Hospital and research associate at Harvard Medical
School, discovered the virtual world "Second Life," one of the first things
that came to mind was how he could share the experience.
A decade earlier, Lester had founded Braintalk Communities, a self-help
support site dedicated to neurological conditions. "I'm big on creating
spaces where patients and caregivers can share experiences and emotional
support and essentially help themselves," he says.
"Second Life" was different. Although not exactly a game, it was rooted in
21st century game technology. In gaming parlance, "Second Life" was
"immersive," a world that's both three-dimensional (think "Halo 2") and
"persistent," meaning the world is always up and running.
"A lot of what's happening in 'Second Life' is social," says Lester. "And I
thought that this could be a fantastic place for people dealing with
Asperger Syndrome. Give them a simulated environment and let them practice
social skills in a three-dimensional space."
Individuals with Asperger's usually aren't comfortable in social situations,
but many display an innate understanding of computer technology. These two
factors - social deficiencies and computer knowledge - made them perfect
candidates to test "Brigadoon."
Last year Lester purchased a virtual island in "Second Life," invited
participants from Braintalk Communities to establish a claim, and in July
2004, "Brigadoon" was launched.
Taking the tour
Although virtual, it's possible to explore "Brigadoon" like a real-world
island. On a recent personal tour, Lester and "Brigadoon" resident Jamison
Read, a mother of a son with Asperger's, showed off the sights.
The tour began inside the Temple of Zeus, a meeting place positioned at the
top of "Brigadoon's" highest hill. There are meeting places throughout the
island - precisely the type of spaces that individuals with Asperger's would
avoid in the real world.
"That's what most of the spaces around "Brigadoon" are focused on," says
The tour led to a valley and past an aquarium inhabited by a jumping shark
created by an individual with Asperger's who goes by the online name of Coos
Yellowknife. Nearby, a virtual screen mixed snapshots of past "Brigadoon"
social events, like a virtual lobster dinner, with photos from the
"People with Asperger Syndrome get pretty 'beat up' by society," says Read.
"Here they can go at their own pace and move into the mainstream."
Read originally joined "Brigadoon" to discover if the game would help her
son who has Asperger's. He is still figuring out if he wants to join, but
for Read there was something about "Brigadoon" - its whimsy, the ability to
be creative with colorful virtual gardens and homes, and its reputation as a
safe haven - that compelled her to stay.
"I have learned a lot about [Asperger Syndrome] from the adults here, so I
am trying to help my son counter some of the problems he will have as an
adult," she says.
"Brigadoon" is still an experiment. It is small in size - just 16-acres if
the island existed in the real world - as well as in population. The world
may be rich in color, but communication is limited to instant text
messaging. When compared to the $10 billion video game industry, "Brigadoon"
and its host world "Second Life" register as a mere blip on the radar.
But in a field where the quest to lead an enriching and "normal" life is
measured by even the smallest steps, "Brigadoon" may be a sign of how video
game technology can be used for good.
Lester is already convinced. "[The inhabitants] have learned a lot about
themselves in how they socialize and they've gained confidence," he says.
And, as the "Dooner" named Coos wrote in a "Brigadoon" blog, "We are aliens
in this RL [real world]. SL ['Second Life'] has showed me it is OK to be an
alien in a strange new world!"
© 2005 MSNBC Interactive