connect / 2020
Ava: A video game about space pirates and social situations
Our premier game series, Ava, is a space pirate-themed adventure game that breaks down social interactions through interactive dialogue and emotional systems, encourages self-advocacy, and reminds autistic youth that they belong with characters that represent and understand them. With the help of the MyLA2050 Grants Challenge, we'll be able to finish developing Ava and run subsidized pilots of our game with schools and autism service providers in the Greater LA area who need it most.
In which areas of Los Angeles will you be directly working?
- Central LA
- East LA
- San Gabriel Valley
- South LA
- County of Los Angeles
In what stage of innovation is this project?Pilot project or new program
What is the need you’re responding to?
Autistic youth are told they don’t belong, that social/emotional skills will always be a struggle for them. They’re told that their identity is an insult (e.g. ‘autistic’ as a slur), that they’re broken and need to be fixed. They’re 5x as likely to be bullied and 10x as likely to die by suicide compared to neurotypical peers. We believe there are two root causes of this issue: the lack of positive, nuanced representation of autistic characters in media and the focus that digital autism products hold on changing behavior, rather than empowering autistic youth to embrace who they are. Autistic youth are also 2 times as likely to play video games. While this is in part due to the structured and objective design of games, there’s another underlying reason: video games make us feel safe. They give us a space to understand and interact with human experiences without fear of judgement or rejection.
Why is this project important to the work of your organization?
As CEO, I have a background in neuroscience research and a deeply personal connection to autism–I’m autistic. I started this company because of the mental health challenges that I faced growing up on the spectrum. My team and I are determined to create a future in which neurodivergent youth never have to go through what I did. Our games are built by and for the autism community, based on autism community feedback, and deliver social emotional learning and support through a medium that autistic youth already enjoy. My co-founders’ backgrounds span game development, visual art, and business, including experience in software development and business analytics at other startups. All co-founders have worked full-time on Social Cipher for over a year now. We’ve also brought on a narrative writer from Riot Games, an animator, a sound designer, and two autistic neurodiversity consultants (all part-time). Our advisors include a Rock Band product executive and a former Ask/dictionary.com CEO.
Approximately how many people will be impacted by this proposal?
- Direct impact
- Indirect impact
Please describe the broader impact of your proposal.
Our focus groups and target pilot schools are mainly charter schools in the greater LA area that serve about 70-90% students of color because we’ve seen such a huge need for our product here. According to interviews with educators and counselors in communities like these, counselors are overwhelmed and outnumbered by the sheer number of students in need of their services and social-emotional skills development. We’ve gotten feedback from professionals in these environments that Ava could be useful in modeling behavior and as supplemental learning (or “cooldown time”) for students with conditions other than autism, such as ADHD, PTSD, and anxiety.
Please explain how you will define and measure success for your project.
We currently measure our impact through feedback and engagement in our playtesting groups. We’re now working with educator partners to quantify how Ava might help increase self-confidence, self-advocacy, and feelings of belonging. We also track our impact by qualitative personal stories of players touched by our characters, narrative, and gameplay.
Overall, it’s our mission to give young people everywhere the power to build social-emotional skills through play. Success would mean giving these youth positive representation of characters like themselves and pride in their identity; a sense of belonging and community; and increased social-emotional competencies like self-efficacy and relationship building.We imagine future episodes and products helping neurodivergent people as they enter the workforce and beyond, venturing across the autism spectrum, and even providing game-based social-emotional learning for the general population. We imagine utilizing AI in-game to gain a better understanding of communities typically underrepresented in autism research. In the short term, though, we recognize that a video game alone cannot “solve” social skills for autistic youth – nor should it. Rather, we aim to give these young people an environment where they can fail safely, build confidence, and know that they’re not alone.
Which of the connect metrics will your submission impact?
- Social and emotional support
- Disability access and inclusion
Are there any other LA2050 goal categories that your proposal will impact?
- LA is the best place to LEARN
Which of LA2050’s resources will be of the most value to you?
- Access to the LA2050 community
- Host public events or gatherings
- Communications support
- Strategy assistance and implementation