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Virtual world teaches real-world skills

A new video game offers people with Asperger Syndrome an opportunity to practice real-world social skills in the virtual world.
Inhabitants of the virtual world 'Brigadoon' mingle together at one of the island's meeting places. The online game offers people with Asperger Syndrome an opportunity to practice their social skills.
Inhabitants of the virtual world 'Brigadoon' mingle together at one of the island's meeting places. The online game offers people with Asperger Syndrome an opportunity to practice their social skills.John Lester /
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If home is where the heart is, then home for a dozen people with Asperger Syndrome could be a 16-acre island blessed with lush gardens and rolling green hills.

The island is called "Brigadoon," but unlike its literary namesake, this place is real — or real enough in a 21st century way. "Brigadoon" belongs to a public virtual world called "Second Life," a popular online 3-D environment frequented by tens of thousands of users.

"Brigadoon" is a real-world experiment in social skills made virtual, a private enclave limited to a select mixture of caregivers and individuals with Asperger Syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism. The inhabitants, or "Dooners" as they call themselves, enjoy the same privileges as those in the more public arenas of "Second Life." They are free to create their own digital representations of themselves, called "avatars," build virtual houses and seek out friends. And, most importantly, they are free to create a "second life" with a level of social interaction that, for reasons of their condition, has been hard to come by in their real lives.

Is gaming a good thing?
Talk of video gaming can set off feelings of unease among parents — no one wants a kid to be glued to a screen for hours on end. But the stakes for children with Asperger's and other autism spectrum disorders — who have difficulties with social interaction — tend to be higher.

At issue is the importance of developing enriching personal relationships and becoming a part of society. While video games can be educational and entertaining, their reputation as a solitary activity can present an impediment to progress for people with autistic disorders by limiting their exposure to social situations.

Researchers are also concerned that playing video games could simply become one of the many repetitive activities that an affected child engages in.

"One feature that highlights the risk of video games is that the behavior of children with autism can be repetitive. They like sameness and routine," says Sally Ozonoff, an associate professor of psychiatry at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. This preference for repetition and familiarity often limits their experiences and prevents them from learning how to adapt to new situations.

But if used correctly, video game technology could be beneficial. "Children with autism have a natural inclination to video games and television," Ozonoff adds. "The goal is to try to exploit that inclination therapeutically."

New technology in the works
Researchers around the world are now attempting to do just that. At the University of Victoria in British Columbia, cognitive psychologist James Tanaka is using a custom-built game called "Let's Face It!" to teach facial recognition. Actually a suite of mini-games, the program uses photos, sounds and positive feedback as part of a scoring system to encourage kids with autism to learn.

"You can have kids do an exercise, but they usually don't have the richness or the continuity [of the video game]," says Tanaka.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow Caledonian University are creating video games to study cognitive skills in children with autism using a revolutionary interface: gesture recognition software that registers the players' movements and transfers them to the screen.

"From my work, I know that a lot of children [with autism] have production skills we never would expect," says Maggie McGonigle, leader of the project and an expert on non-verbal communication. "So I'm hoping that language-like skills are locked up in their brain even if they can't speak."

Back to 'Brigadoon'
But in the small world of video games with real-life applications for people with autistic disorders, "Brigadoon" stands out.

When "Brigadoon" founder John Lester, an information systems director at Massachusetts General Hospital and research associate at Harvard Medical School, discovered the virtual world "Second Life," one of the first things that came to mind was how he could share the experience.

A decade earlier, Lester had founded Braintalk Communities, a self-help support site dedicated to neurological conditions. "I'm big on creating spaces where patients and caregivers can share experiences and emotional support and essentially help themselves," he says.

"Second Life" was different. Although not exactly a game, it was rooted in 21st century game technology. In gaming parlance, "Second Life" was "immersive," a world that's both three-dimensional (think "Halo 2") and "persistent," meaning the world is always up and running.

"A lot of what's happening in 'Second Life' is social," says Lester. "And I thought that this could be a fantastic place for people dealing with Asperger Syndrome. Give them a simulated environment and let them practice social skills in a three-dimensional space."

Individuals with Asperger's usually aren't comfortable in social situations, but many display an innate understanding of computer technology. These two factors — social deficiencies and computer knowledge — made them perfect candidates to test "Brigadoon."

Last year Lester purchased a virtual island in "Second Life," invited participants from Braintalk Communities to establish a claim, and in July 2004, "Brigadoon" was launched.

Taking the tour
Although virtual, it's possible to explore "Brigadoon" like a real-world island. On a recent personal tour, Lester and "Brigadoon" resident Jamison Read, a mother of a son with Asperger's, showed off the sights.

The tour began inside the Temple of Zeus, a meeting place positioned at the top of "Brigadoon's" highest hill. There are meeting places throughout the island — precisely the type of spaces that individuals with Asperger's would avoid in the real world.

"That's what most of the spaces around "Brigadoon" are focused on," says Lester.

The tour led to a valley and past an aquarium inhabited by a jumping shark created by an individual with Asperger's who goes by the online name of Coos Yellowknife. Nearby, a virtual screen mixed snapshots of past "Brigadoon" social events, like a virtual lobster dinner, with photos from the real-world.

"People with Asperger Syndrome get pretty 'beat up' by society," says Read. "Here they can go at their own pace and move into the mainstream."

Read originally joined "Brigadoon" to discover if the game would help her son who has Asperger's. He is still figuring out if he wants to join, but for Read there was something about "Brigadoon" — its whimsy, the ability to be creative with colorful virtual gardens and homes, and its reputation as a safe haven — that compelled her to stay.

"I have learned a lot about [Asperger Syndrome] from the adults here, so I am trying to help my son counter some of the problems he will have as an adult," she says.

"Brigadoon" is still an experiment. It is small in size — just 16-acres if the island existed in the real world — as well as in population. The world may be rich in color, but communication is limited to instant text messaging. When compared to the $10 billion video game industry, "Brigadoon" and its host world "Second Life" register as a mere blip on the radar.

But in a field where the quest to lead an enriching and "normal" life is measured by even the smallest steps, "Brigadoon" may be a sign of how video game technology can be used for good.

Lester is already convinced. "[The inhabitants] have learned a lot about themselves in how they socialize and they've gained confidence," he says.

And, as the "Dooner" named Coos wrote in a "Brigadoon" blog, "We are aliens in this RL [real world]. SL ['Second Life'] has showed me it is OK to be an alien in a strange new world!"