Breaking deaf stereotypes and normalizing sign language through gaming


The last decade has seen many advancements in video game accessibility. From hardware like the Xbox Adaptive Controller to legislation that requires all communication options in online multiplayer to be as accessible as possible to freely available in-depth development guidelines for interested developers, games have never been more inclusive to disabled players. As the 2010s come to a close, a game called Deafverse is trying to reach another milestone by becoming the first fully American Sign Language (ASL)-accessible game.

Developed through the National Deaf Center (NDC) in Austin, Texas, Deafverse is a browser-based ongoing-narrative adventure about navigating the world as a deaf teenager. Designed first and foremost (but not exclusively) for classroom use, the game seeks to educate and enlighten players about deaf culture through collaborative play and discussion. Players learn about the real-life challenges of deafness in a safe and sincere way designed by and for the deaf community.

Deriving inspiration from choose-your-own-adventure books and games, Deafverse merges aspects of point-and-click sci-fi and fantasy stories from the 1980s and ’90s with contemporary standards for accessibility to make something that is as educational as it is engaging.

Telling our own stories

“In deaf culture, we have a very strong culture of telling our own community stories,” Kent Turner, Gaming Coordinator at the National Deaf Center, told Ars Technica. “We love to share stories, and it’s a very small community, and our language is unique to us. So I wanted to develop a game that really incorporated those values of deaf culture.”

Turner, a former teacher with a master’s degree in game-based learning, derived much of Deafverse‘s design from his experience “gamifying” his classroom. There, he used a points system akin to Dungeons & Dragons to reward students for completing homework, doing well in class, and so on.

Deafverse marries that idea with a story-centered approach akin to King’s Quest and The Secret of Monkey Island. Players face common hurdles among the deaf community—like requesting an interpreter or just speaking up for themselves in a tough situation—and examine the issues involved through branching conversations and intuitive puzzles.

“‘Choose your own adventure’ is a model of storytelling that, historically, has been text-based, and American Sign Language isn’t really deliverable, so to speak, over text,” Turner said. “So, we have an actor who uses sign language and narrates the story and events using ASL. It also provides the text version as well, for those [who are] not fluent in sign language. We also have audio voiceover as another accessibility feature, and that really overlaps with the gaming features of picking your own adventure and figuring out what happens next in the story.”

Empowerment is the central focus—encouraging players to make their own choices and learn from the consequences. Even if things go sideways, the game creates an opportunity to discuss the hows and whys of what happened with other players, playing into the word-of-mouth storytelling that’s at the foundation of deaf community.

Modeling the real deaf experience

Deafverse went through a range of beta tests conducted through partnered schools before the first episode, about self-advocacy, became publicly available in September 2019. Built and rebuilt based on student feedback, the game is now effectively in its third iteration, and its increased interactive elements and animations make the universe feel immersive.

“In terms of building and designing the game with different layers of gaming concepts, we got some inspiration from stories like The Matrix,” Turner explains. “You know, plugging into and experiencing things in that world, but then you have to to come out and come back into the real world. So that’s given us some ideas about how to build out into the future.”

Enlarge / It’s like taking the red pill, just without all the side effects like waking into a dystopian wasteland ruled by machines.

Although Deafverse is primarily designed for deaf teenagers of high school age (in service of the NDC’s primary goal of supporting deaf young people’s transition into active employment), much of its subject matter is useful for anyone who wants to learn about deafness. Using federal funding through the NDC, the Deafverse development team was able to cast a wide net for research on ways deaf young people are and are not succeeding after their teen years. The findings, Turner says, were cross-checked against a set list of broad learning outcomes to create a game that teaches lessons while still being true-to-life.

But Deafverse is also about connecting to those who may feel isolated. Pop culture’s rare, usually inaccurate depictions of deafness are often not of much help in that regard.

“My two favorite examples are, first, people who can’t sign or they use a different version of sign language that we can’t understand,” William Albright, Senior Software Engineer on Deafverse, said of some common “deafness in pop culture” tropes. “And then, when a deaf character is chatting with other people in a movie, and the person is hearing and they speak back to the deaf person. It’s not what really happens in our life. If we can’t hear them, if a hearing person speaks to me, I sort of shut down and run away because it’s not that easy for me to engage with them as they often show in a movie or a TV show.”

As a way of addressing these issues, Deafverse is serving as a benchmark of sorts for overall accessibility within the games industry. While standards are much better than they were, there’s still a lot of room for improvement, not least in basic aspects like uniformity among subtitling and options available. Making Deafverse has involved incorporating as many variations of sign language as possible, so anyone who speaks it at any level can use it.

“We didn’t want to use American Sign Language the entire time because we didn’t want people to feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t sign like so-and-so,’ or ‘I don’t sign at all, I can’t play,'” Albright said. “We want them to feel like they have options of accessibility and we’ve really tried to keep that key. When advertising the game, if you look at the video, it does look like it’s only for kids who were born and raised in the deaf community, went to a deaf school, and only sign language their whole life. So we try to counter that by really emphasizing that it’s accessible to all hearing levels and all different types of diverse deaf people within our community.”

Breaking through with students and teachers

Although games are becoming more and more common within a school setting (major releases like Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed having specific versions available for teaching), there’s still a looming skepticism toward their wider usage in education. Deafverse, however, has been met with open arms by teachers relieved to have such a wide-ranging resource. Students, meanwhile, have almost uniformly reported a growth in confidence in surveys conducted after playing the game. More than that, there are also small but valuable knock-on effects for players, like understanding proper signing etiquette by following the narrator.

A cyber-suit isn't necessary to play <em>Deafverse</em>, but it doesn't hurt, either.
Enlarge / A cyber-suit isn’t necessary to play Deafverse, but it doesn’t hurt, either.

“I’m continually surprised at how positive people are receiving Deafverse,” Turner said. “I mean, we get so many positive comments about how great it is… The teachers are really able to take it and run with it, and often students will play Deafverse on their own.”

With the first episode of Deafverse a success, a total of four more episodes have been planned, each tackling one of the NDC’s “pre-employment transitional services”. The second, due sometime in 2020, will tackle entering the workplace; it will look at interviewing and resume writing while building on the communication “soft skills” from the first episode.

Developers are currently ironing out remaining minor issues with the engine and getting the upcoming achievement systems for tracking progress ready for roll out. In the long term, the team hopes to be able to make the jump to mobile and deepen the branching storylines that can make Deafverse feel so dynamic.

“Right now, the story is told through very basic ‘if’ and ‘then’ statements,” Turner explained. “It’s pretty basic, as we have it. We do want to add some more features like conditional branching… so when a player makes a decision here it’ll impact something later down in the story again.”

“The branching increase[s] the value for players, who can play it repeatedly and have all kinds of different things happen because of one choice,” Albright added. “The game [currently] feels more linear: you make one decision and it will tell you to keep navigating down the same road road. So we are planning to branch out and give people different results, so not everybody comes to the same conclusion at the end.”

“We’re looking forward to providing that versatile experience for our players as we move through the development.”

Special thanks to interpreter Amanda Katz who was an immense help in translating many of the interviews in this piece from sign language.

Listing image by National Deaf Center



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