Dalhousie University Students Create Online Game To Shift Attitudes About Accessibility


A new online game under development by a team of Dal computer science students aims to help educate the university community about (dis)abilities and reduce affiliated stigmas in the process.

The students have received assistance on the accessibility project from two teaching assistants as well as Robert Hawkey, an instructor of professional practice in the Faculty of Computer Science.

The gaming project arose this fall in one of Hawkey’s courses on modern software development. Part of the course consists of a project that sees students work with real-world clients in need. In this case, Dal’s Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT).

As an educational developer with CLT, I’ve been involved in collaborating with the students in the creation of this game that should help raise awareness and shift attitudes across the Dal community.

“The best part about the course is that the learning structure allows us to find real work for the student to do that also helps people,” says Hawkey.

The team expects to launch the online game sometime in the next week or so. (Update, Dec. 14: Play the game online now!)

Capturing authentic experience

To get the game off the ground, though, first required the team to do some learning of their own.

One big task was learning more about the (dis)abilities featured in the game, including Substance Use Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder — all of which the students themselves had little prior knowledge.

“We got to connect with our faculty and learn a lot about why this game needed to be made,” says Tom Campbell, one of 10 students on the development team. “The impact which stigma and stereotyping had on this community shocked me.”

In the quest to create a game rooted in authentic first-person perspective rather than clinical descriptions, the students reached out to members of Dalhousie’s (dis)Ability Staff and Faculty Caucus for input.

Each member was asked a single question: “What do you wish people knew about your (dis)ability(ies)?”

Many of the responses were pages long, even though such detail was not asked of them. When asked why they wrote so much, a common reply came along the lines of, “Answering this question was cathartic and empowering.’

Recommended reading: Accessibility in action: Inside Dal’s plan to build a better campus for all

A game evolves

When it came to the game design, the students needed to go far beyond what they were learning in their computer science courses.

Students worked with Maria McNeil, technology advisor with the Student Accessibility Centre, to begin learning about designing for accessibility. With McNeil, the students learned that the best approach to designing and building new technology is to begin with accessibility in mind. Often products are created first and then designers must go back and ‘fix it’ later.

This is a lesson many people at Dal — whether designing courses, planning events, keeping common spaces clean and safe, erecting new buildings, meeting for group work with fellow students, or greeting individuals who enter our units — could use to help avoid and remove barriers for those with (dis)abilities.

Student Joseph Burton, who took on the role of senior developer with the team, reflects on how the project evolved over the course of the term as they consulted with Dal accessibility experts.

“Initially some of our designs were very uninformative and borderline unrelated to raising awareness,” he says. “Through refinement the content of the stories have tremendously improved, and the game has transitioned into more of a visual novel to provide understand to what it is like to experience everyday life with a (dis)ability.”

Recommended reading: When a little effort goes a long way

Surmounting stereotypes

Now, as the students close in on completing the project, I’ve asked them to reflect on the three-month journey. What emerged in their responses were more reflections about (dis)ability, rather than, the technical design challenges, which I think is symbolic of the project’s overall purpose: to help users develop an awareness of (dis)abilities and barriers faced those living with them. The students seemed to experience an attitudinal shift that has helped them challenge and overcome previously held misconceptions and stereotypes.

They have also became so invested in the project and in contributing to the Dal community in a meaningful way, that they’d like to see the game picked up again and further improved. They recognize that although they were able to build in certain accessibility features they learned about in only three months, there is a lot more to learn and they hope future iterations will be accessible to all users.

Hawkey, the course instructor, has decided to make this a legacy course project handed down from class to class, with further development happening in the upcoming winter term. He also has plans to make space for future students to contribute to Dalhousie Accessibility Week each year.

“I could not be prouder of their hard work and effort on behalf of accessibility awareness,” he says of the students who worked on the project.