Ava: a video game about space-pirates and social situations

Ava is a role-playing video game that gives autistic players a safe space to try out social situations and emotional responses.

Photo of Amy Wu
19 15

Written by

Additional categories (optional)

  • Technology

Website or social media url(s) (optional):

https://www.socialciphergame.com/ https://www.facebook.com/SocialCipherGame/ https://www.instagram.com/socialcipher/ https://twitter.com/SocialCipher

Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Autistic youth are told they don’t belong, that social/emotional skills will always be a struggle for them if they don’t adopt neurotypical behavior. They’re told that their identity is an insult (e.g. ‘autistic’ as a slur), that they’re broken and need to be fixed. They are 5x as likely to be bullied and 10x as likely to die by suicide compared to neurotypical peers.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Autistic youth are also 2x as likely to play video games. While this is in part due to the structured and objective design of games, there’s another underlying reason: video games make us feel safe. They give us a space to understand and interact with human experiences without fear of judgement or rejection. We create role-playing video games that give autistic players a safe space to practice social situations and build other social-emotional skills through play. Our space-pirate themed adventures break down complex interactions into interactive dialogue choices and a gamified emotional system, encourage self-advocacy, and remind autistic youth that we belong. Ava will be distributed as a PC/Mac computer game and Nintendo Switch console game.

3. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

When I was diagnosed with autism at age 14, stereotypes led me to believe that I was broken. Like many others on the spectrum, that led to anxiety, depression, and low self esteem. But then my family helped me look for stories of people like me in the movies, games, and books that I loved. They helped me find my voice to tell my own. After years of being ashamed of who I was, I finally knew that I never need to be fixed; I just needed to be heard. I started Social Cipher to make sure that every young autistic person finds that truth. Our video games give players a safe place to apply and understand social skills, while also learning to advocate for themselves through characters that represent them.

4. Selfie Elevator Pitch: Include 1-minute video that answers the following “I am stepping up to make change because...”

Growing up as a kid on the spectrum, I often felt like an outsider. Ava is a game that I would’ve wanted during that part of my life. That’s why we’re stepping up to create a cast and a story that truly understands us, that’s something we can turn to when we feel alone in our experiences. Our protagonist, Ava, is an autistic star-mapper who is created by actual autistic people. Like anyone else, she has fears and insecurities, but she learns to celebrate, love, and advocate for herself.

5. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

We co-develop the game with autistic advocates who’ve shared their personal struggles with social interaction and self-acceptance. We weave these stories and situations into Ava’s narrative about befriending a crew of feuding space pirates. Dialogue choices allow the player to shape Ava’s conversations as she works to empathize, communicate, and negotiate with a range of characters—a weary cook who relies heavily on sarcasm, for example, or a botanist who can’t stop talking about plants. Ava can take on different emotional states affected by her interactions, and just like in real life, those emotions affect her physical gameplay. Throughout her journey, Ava realizes that there is power in her differences, strength within herself, and that she’s never alone. We hope our players walk away feeling seen, heard, and confident in their own stories and abilities to interact with others.

6. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Our game is written by and for the autism community, created by a team with game design expertise. Traditionally, products in the autism industry are built for parents, to train “desired behaviors.” While such products can teach social skills, players can tell when a product isn’t actually made for them, when it’s “chocolate-covered broccoli.” That’s why we’re building for autistic youth, through a medium they already enjoy. We prioritize gameplay, story, and authentic, relatable characters because we believe it’s most important for players to be engaged and empowered.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

We measure the impact of our work so far through playtesting and user/parent feedback. We’ve organized demo-testing sessions with social skills groups, schools, and museums across the country like Social Grace LLC, the Reece School, and the Pacific Science Center. We’re always iterating and co-developing with our community, which is made up of about 90 youth, professionals, and parents, as well as our Discord testing channel made up of 30 beta testers. So far, we’ve gotten feedback that prototypes of our game are not only fun, but help both young people and parents navigate what it means to have autism, that Ava makes them feel heard and represented, and that players identify with Ava, behaving as who they would like to be through her character. Soon, we hope to be able to measure how Ava might help increase self-confidence, emotional awareness, and feelings of belonging.

8. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

We just brought on a narrative writer from Riot Games and two neurodiversity consultants to help us expand the narrative and dialogue to finish developing the full game. We’re aiming for a Summer 2020 launch on Steam, the Epic Store, and the Nintendo Store so that anyone can purchase and enjoy Ava, and so that we can invest any revenue back into developing more games for a neurodiverse audience. We’ve also been working with schools and educators to explore the idea of bringing Ava into classrooms as a social-emotional learning game that is paired with a curriculum.

9. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you?

  • Accounting & Finance

10. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Sales
  • Donations between $100-$1k
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • T-Mobile page or contact

Attachments (1)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Old Friend

Thanks for this post, because I've always loved gaming info. Because from the very beginning I thought that I will earn money in online gaming. So now I have chosen a NZ gamble and it is great. For playing, I am taking the help of https://icasinoreviews.info/nzd-online-casinos/ site. I want to master it and fulfill my dream.

View all comments