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by on April 25, 2012
PART ONE: An Extraordinary Developer and an Extraordinary Game
As the parent of a little girl with special needs, and an avid gamer, the issue of accessibility in kid-friendly games is territory I know pretty well, and it’s a matter close to my heart. Developers and games that attend to accessibility issues for children with special needs don’t always get the recognition they deserve within the gaming community. Most, in fact the overwhelming majority strategically target the mainstream adult male player, take it or leave it.

However, more and more, over the past decade, the video gaming industry is making time for a wider range of players, and specifically reaching out to children. Still, to play those games, required the use of controller designed for the mainstream adult male player. For many children with special needs, that’s a preemptive game over. But conscientious developers and new charities like Special Effect and Child’s Play are changing that. Determined efforts and technological advances are changing the rules for those players, opening the world of video games up to more children now, with amazing results.

One game in particular that deserves high praise for success with children across the board is Once Upon a Monster made by Double Fine. It stands out as a game frequently used by Special Effect to help children with special needs. And as it happens, I am a huge fan of Double Fine. I’m a life-long gamer and both Tim Schafer and Double Fine have been behind some of the best games I’ve ever played including most of my all-time favorites. Of course, Sesame Street has always embraced diversity and inclusion, but the idea of making a video game that could represent the classic show and interpret those ideals into a game that similarly embraced them, represented a huge challenge. As it turns out, Double Fine was a perfect choice. I bought Once Upon A Monster for my little girl and it was not only an instant hit with her, but an instant favorite, convincing me too that the Kinect had been a worthwhile investment after all.

I’ve long had the notion that the people at Double Fine are an uncommon bunch, in a word, phenomenal, and time and time again, they prove me right. Enter Nathan Martz. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Martz of Double Fine, creator of Once Upon A Monster.

How do you feel about the great success of OUAM, in particular, it’s value in helping children with special needs and its therapeutic use with children in hospitals?
It’s hard to express how it feels to know that our game has helped special needs children and the adults who work with them, but I think humbled and very, very happy are a good start. When we set out to create OUAM, our primary goal was to make a positive, uplifting game that kids and parents would feel better for having played. As a game creator, it’s often hard to know what sort of impact your creation has had on people’s lives, so knowing that people have found a way to use it therapeutically, to improve the lives of special needs kids in a meaningful, tangible way makes me feel like we actually accomplished what we set out to do, even more than that. It’s a very good feeling indeed.
How does accessibility* factor into the development process when you are designing a family oriented game? What role did it play in the design of OUAM? (*physical interaction/interface demands and the communication of understandable goals)

Accessibility was the major focus and design challenge for OUAM. We knew that Kinect games in general and especially those for young children needed to be as accessible as humanly possible. Our focus was primarily on young children, not special needs children, but I think many of the decisions we made to make the game fun for very young children (i.e. 2-3+) proved to be beneficial to special needs children as well. I discuss this at greater length in my GDC talk, but I think the major accomplishments were clear modeling, no-fail gameplay, and seamless drop-in, drop-out coop.

A huge part of our ability to make an accessible game was due to very frequent usability testing, which we did both here at DF and at Warner Bros’ usability labs in Seattle. We tested OUAM at least once a month during development, usually on 5-10 families (parent/child or sibling pairs). Seeing actual players use the game, struggle with the confusing bits, and smile at the best moments really made a world of difference. It’s hard to imagine the game being nearly as good w/ out that help from our usability testers and researchers at WB.

Lastly, I need to give credit to the exceptional work done by the Kinect group at Microsoft. We rely on the skeletal data that they give us, and though we do a lot of processing and clean up on top of that, it’s ultimately to their credit that Kinect works as well as it does on children with physical disabilities, especially those with partial limbs or who need mobility aids while playing.

Is broad accessibility important to you and to Double Fine? Does it complicate the process of game development or are such challenges welcome/inspiring?

At Double Fine, we always try to design our games in a way that makes them easy to enjoy for anyone who is even remotely interested in the subject matter. When you talk about an original Sesame Street game for parents and young children, that’s a very broad audience indeed. In fact, that’s why the title of my GDC talk was “Fun for Everyone” as that really was our goal. In the case of OUAM, the challenge wasn’t in making a game that was broadly appealing (Sesame Street + Monsters + Kinect is already pretty open) but on making sure that players would actually enjoy the game once they brought it home, even if they had short attention spans, weren’t gamers, etc. That really goes back to my previous points about accessibility, and my main lesson from OUAM, which is that when talking about games for young children (and even more so for special needs children!) that fun really is all about accessibility.

Kinect support, in particular, has many advantages for providing access to children with physical challenges, Double Fine and OUAM show innovative and creative use of Kinect technology. Likewise, DF Happy Action Theater has maintained these standards. Do you see such use of Kinect (and similar technology) playing an important role in future games from Double Fine? Do you yourself hope to utilize Kinect (and similar technology) again in future games that you design?

We’ve really enjoyed working with Kinect and designing for families w/ young children on both Once Upon a Monster and Happy Action Theater. DF HAT has done a great job being even more user-friendly and fun for all ages than OUAM, in part because they learned from our mistakes, trials, and tribulations (and in part because that team is super creative and clever.) Unfortunately, the economics of developing games for Kinect have been tough, especially its relatively low attach rate (number of games sold per Kinect sold) and the dominant player preference for Sports and Dance/Fitness games over other genres. Still, we’ve had such a great experience working with the Kinect and with our young fans that of course we’d love to work on more Kinect games were the right opportunity and inspiration to come up in the future.

In your opinion (and/or in the view of Double Fine) how can children benefit from video games? What does OUAM offer?

I’m not in a position to make any clinical claims about the benefits of video games, especially for children, though I know there have been various reports over the years on improvements in hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, etc.

On OUAM, our primary educational goal (in partnership with the ERO group at Sesame Workshop) was to weave the Sesame Street Whole Child curriculum into our game. If you’re not familiar with it, the Whole Child curriculum is basically about everything kids (should) learn outside of the classroom, primarily social and emotional development. We focused a lot on lessons about empathy, friendship, identification of emotions, a respect for the natural world, and, as is natural for a Kinect game, the value and joy of physical activity. Our goal was always to teach in a subtle way, to avoid lessons that felt heavy-handed or didactic, but it’s my hope that some of these lessons found their way in and encouraged our players to be more compassionate, curious, and healthy people.

At Double Fine, we make games that we care about and believe are worth making. Our hope is that these ideas that inspire us engage and inspire our players, too, and that each title helps demonstrate ways in which video games can explore subject matter beyond the conventional genres and mechanics. When we have the opportunity to do that and find that it’s also had a positive, tangible impact on the lives of children, especially those with special needs, well, it feels like just maybe we’re doing the right thing.

In case you were wondering, the motivating principle behind the design of Once Upon A Monster, was Martz’s revelation that “Joy = Access”… by extension therefore, Access = Joy. To be fair, Martz and the people behind OUAM were aiming at a different type of “accessibility” at first, but have achieved a much greater sort, and I think his equation is correct, joy and access do indeed go together. In games like Once Upon A Monster, Martz and Double Fine deliver both. As more players are given the opportunity to experience such games, more players are sharing that joy.
COMING SOON! Part Two: Special Effect & Child’s Play
-MKC 04/25/12
Related Sesame Street Game News:
Kinect TV Interactive Sesame Street Coming Fall 2012 to Xbox Live:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2012/mar/30/kinect-sesame-street-tv
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  • WWFMankind
    April 25, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    That is really awesome! Not going to lie, not only did that video make me smile, but also made a little tear pop up.


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