The Rewards and Challenges of Developing Games for Autistic Children

Warren Longmire, game developer and Philly native, went to Magnet High School in North Philly, got a computer science degree, and headed off to the West Coast to work at his dream job: a dev for EA/Maxis. But that’s actually not where the story gets interesting. “Here was this job I thought I always wanted,” he says, “and I was miserable.” During its heyday, Maxis was an enormous company, and as a junior developer, he didn’t have a lot of creative freedom or high-level responsibility. “I was a tools developer, I had to go through and do something that made a skeleton turn a certain way, or something.”

He had the chance to move back home to take on a completely different role, with a lot more responsibility–and creative freedom. The Childrens’ Hospital of Pennsylvania began a program in tandem with several other university hospitals, looking at ways to use computer games that deal with one of the particular difficulties that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder face. Autistic children, even high-functioning autistic children, have trouble recognizing faces they’ve seen before, especially in different contexts. Researchers wonder if it’s possible to identify why, and perhaps treat the problem.

The game they’ve made is called “Let’s Face It.” It’s really more of a series of games. One version of the game, Longmire tells me, was just like the Nintendo classic Excitebike, powered by facial recognition tasks. There are other versions too, but all of them are carefully designed for data collection. ASD children are shown faces that they need to memorize, and then they are tested on recognizing those faces in different contexts, or with parts of the picture blocked or altered. Most of the project is staffed by researchers, and valid data are the most important thing for them. (Imagine having to face a bunch of Ph.D. peer-review editorial staffers instead of game critics!) Results have been encouraging so far, and the research is moving on to tests involving other circumstances, like hormone therapy.

As for the development team? Well, Longmire is the development team. “When we started I was the third or fourth dev on the project,” he explains. “But after a while, you know, I’m good at art, so I started doing other things with help.” To talk to Longmire is to know instantly that he loves his job. He says as much. He’s no longer a cog in a much larger apparatus; he’s got a lot of creative control. That has its price, however.

“At the begining,” Longmire says, “It was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s make some games.’ The hardest thing was going through the design with the researchers, because we’re speaking a different language. And they didn’t know what they wanted.” Longmire doesn’t take this as an excuse for poor design and production. “You’re working with people who really haven’t played a lot of games, trying to build something that has a practical purpose but still has real gameplay elements.”

The big difference between what Longmire does with what an indie production does is funding. Your typical indie is working other jobs, struggling for funding, equipment, etc., at one time or another. Longmire works with a research budget provided by a multi-university group. He has a salary as reliable as anyone else’s–certainly more so than most game devs. He shows his work to a panel of researchers, they make suggestions, and he makes changes. It’s about as agile as a game can get.

ALL GOOD ACADEMIC STUDIES MUST COME TO AN END

Probably the clearest sign that Longmire loves his job is that he’d do it again. “There’s an Alzheimer’s project started by some people at Stanford that I’d join,” he says. This owes not just to his relative freedom and control, but also to the fact that Longmire is clearly committed to honing his craft. “I’ve learned more working on these projects than I ever did [at Maxis]. That said,” he admits, “I’d love to try working on an indie.” Well, Warren, take away the paycheck and the prestige, and you’re pretty much there.

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Can You Make a Game in 48 Hours?

PRESS RELEASE
Can You Make a Game in 48 Hours?

IGDA Philadelphia to host two Global Game Jam sites in 2012

The Philadelphia Chapter of the International Game Developers Association is excited to announce that it will host two Jam locations for the 2012 Global Game Jam. On Friday, game development talent from the Greater Philadelphia area, including South Jersey, will gather at Indy Hall and Camden County College to join over 240 locations in 46 countries around the world in participating in the fourth annual Global Game Jam. The objective: to create games in 48 hours based on a theme announced that day.

“The video game development community in Philadelphia is one of the most passionate and creative in the country and this weekend, the IGDA Philadelphia will host the Global Game Jam in two locations in the Greater Philadelphia area,” states Matt Brenner, Chair of the Philadelphia Chapter of International Game Developers Association. “The IGDA Philadelphia is committed to the advancement and growth of the game industry in Philly and Global Game Jam is a wonderful opportunity for developers of any skill level to come out, flex their creative minds, and make games. This year is going to be our biggest event yet and I can’t wait to see the end result on Sunday afternoon.”

“It’s been very rewarding to work with IGDA and the Philadelphia game development community as they’ve grown and matured over the last several years,” says Alex Hillman, co-founder of Indy Hall. “Hosting the Philadelphia Global Game Jam at Indy Hall for the 3rd year in a row is a no-brainer for us, we love this group!”

Global Game Jam is open to anyone interested in making games, regardless of skill level, including programmers, artists (2D and 3D), designers, animators, sound artists, musicians and board gamers. In 2011, Philadelphia joined over 6,500 people in 44 countries by participating in Global Game Jam for the second time. Four video games and 8 card/board games were created by local student, hobbyist, independent and professional game developers based on the theme “extinction.” One of the card games created during the Jam, LangGuini, recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication.

Game jams foster innovation and experimentation. If you have ever wanted to make a game, be a part of a team, or go outside of your usual working method, then a game jam is for you.

WARNING — A game jam is not for the faint of heart! It is two days of hard work, experimentation, little to no sleep, collaboration, new friends, great idea, laughs, technical issues and the time of your life.

IGDA Philadelphia’s 2012 Global Game Jam sites are proud to be sponsored by AMI Entertainment, Cipher Prime, Disk Makers, and Microsoft. PopChips! is donating snacks.

To learn more about Global Game Jam or to register with a location, please visit http://globalgamejam.org.

For more information or to register with the IGDA Philadelphia Center City location, please visit http://bit.ly/GGD-IGDAPHL_2012-CC
For more information or to register with the IGDA Philadelphia South Jersey location, please visit http://bit.ly/GGD-IGDAPHL_2012-SJ

About Global Game Jam™
The Global Game Jam (GGJ) is the world’s largest game jam event occurring annually in late January. GGJ brings together thousands of game enthusiasts participating through many local jams around the world. GGJ is a project of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

About the International Game Developers Association
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is the largest non-profit membership organization serving individuals that create video games. The IGDA is committed to advancing the careers and enhancing the lives of game developers by connecting members with their peers, promoting professional development, and advocating on issues that affect the developer community. For more information on the IGDA, please visit www.igda.org.

About Independents Hall
Independents Hall (Indy Hall) is a coworking space and community in Philadelphia. We are designers, developers, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, small business owners, telecommuters, marketers, videographers, game developers, and more. Learn more at www.indyhall.org

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November IGDA Philadelphia Events

The Philadelphia Chapter of the IGDA has a lot of events coming up in the month of November. First up is the monthly Art SIG meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, November 2 from 7:00 to 10:00. It will be a social meeting, open to any art topic the group wants to discuss. The meeting will be held at the Art Institute, 1610 Chestnut St, in room 305, and you can RSVP for this free event here.

Next up is the Art SIG’s November drawing night, which gives you access to a live model to practice your drawing on (not drawing on the model, of course!). Drawing night will be held on Thursday, November 10, from 6:00 to 10:00 at the Art Institute, 1622 Chestnut St, in the 8th floor studio. Again, the event is free, but please RSVP to give them an idea of the expected headcount.

Saturday, November 12 is the date for the re-scheduled IGDA Philadelphia Chapter Meeting. The meeting itself – which will be a postmortem by Island Officials on their game, Pattern Blocks – will be from 5:00 to 7:00 at Wildbit/IndyHall at 20 N. 3rd Street, 7th floor. To RSVP and see a full schedule of the meeting, please click here.

Finally, the IGDA Philadelphia Chapter will be holding a Developer Demo Night on Wednesday, November 16 from 6:30 to 8:30. This is the perfect time to check out what the local devs have been doing, or to showcase your own work. If you’re interested in the latter, please contact the chapter directly (philly[at]igda.org) – and as soon as possible, as space is limited. The event will be at the University of the Arts’ Terra Hall (that’s right, where we held GameLoop Philly!) on the 11th floor. For more details and to RSVP, click here.

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Upcoming IGDA Philadelphia Art SIG events

The IGDA Philadelphia Art SIG will be holding two meetings in the beginning of October. The first is its monthly meeting, held on Wednesday, October 5 at 7pm. The meeting will be at the Philadelphia Art institute. AMI Entertainment’s Mike Balcerzak will be giving a talk on his experience in the development of casual games and UI design. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

The second meeting is its October drawing night, held on Thursday, October 13, at the Art Institute. This event is open, but please RSVP here so they can give the venue a head count. The event will run from 6pm to 10pm, so feel free to stop by anytime to join in on the drawing.

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Gamification Event: Practical Advice from Game Developers

On Monday, October 3, Professor Kevin Werbach from the Wharton school and Nathan Solomon from Philadelphia Game Lab will be hosting a networking even and discussion on gamification and game development. What is gamification, exactly? Gamification is the application of game design in order to solve problems, but recently has been used for “applying gameplay functionality in non-game contexts.” This networking event will cover a wide range of topics related to gamification – from whether or not it is deeper than leaderboards, to what makes a game compelling.

The event, which starts at 6 pm at Huntsman Hall, will start off with pizza and networking. After that, there will be an overview and a panel discussion about gamification. The panelists are Chris Grant (Joystiq), Jesper Juhl (NYU), Margaret Wallace (Playmatics), Ethan Mollick (Wharton Management Department), Eric Goldberg (Crossover Technologies), and Frank Lee (Drexel Game Program). RSVP on Eventbrite for this free event.

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