Diana Hughes, '06, Creating Games for Autistic Children

February 11, 2011

Games for Growth

 

Multimedia alumna Diana Hughes has always enjoyed playing games, but never liked the feel of rigid, plastic videogame controllers. So for her master's thesis project at the University of Southern California, she developed a videogame interface and corresponding puffy, fluffy controller - cleverly named "Pluff" - that looks and feels like a stuffed animal. Users manipulate the soft controller to elicit reactions from a digital representation of the character on a screen.

"The game play is, as long as you're nice to Pluff, Pluff will be nice to you," Hughes said. "If you keep him happy and you're being nice to him, he'll do tricks - you can stand him on his head and he'll roll over on his head or you can give another input and he'll do another trick. You cover his eyes and he'll play hide and seek."

During Hughes' thesis defense, Pluff caught the attention of researchers and teachers from theShafalla Center in Qatar, an educational and healthcare institution for children with special needs. They were visiting USC looking for new research and treatment methods for autism when they recognized Pluff's potential to help autistic children learn positive social interaction.

"The game provides a really low barrier to entry into social interaction, something autistic children often struggle with. It's not going to cure or fix the problems these children face, but hopefully it can at least reduce the anxiety that comes with social interaction," said Hughes.

Now Hughes and the USC Interactive Media Division have partnered with the Shafalla Center to specialize Pluff for classrooms that serve children with a variety of developmental disabilities. For the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, that could mean a new name for the furry, friendly controller, as there is no "p" sound in the Arabic language. Hughes' design is not only cross-cultural, but also highly adaptable.

"There's interest and potential for use with disabilities like cerebral palsy, because you don't have to have fine motor control," Hughes said. "There's also potential use for teaching any child how to care for a pet, for instance. 'We have to take care of Pluff and then maybe you can have a dog.'"

Despite all the work she spends perfecting Pluff, the game is actually Hughes' side job. She works full time for Codename, a game label that helps young, talented artists gain footing in the gaming business. In both endeavors, Hughes said her Bradley background has paid off.

"The core classes in the multimedia program (now Department of Interactive Media) were about taking all these disparate elements - music, art, digital compositing, computer programming - and putting them together in a way that made a coherent, cohesive whole. I didn't just want to do music, or programming, or art. I really liked being able to dabble and see the larger picture and put it all together."

Applying to the Interactive Media Division at USC was a big step Hughes said she never would have pursued without the coaxing of Jim Ferolo, chairman of Bradley's Department of Interactive Media, who would only write her letters of recommendation for the best graduate programs in the country.

"He forced me to reach much further than I would have on my own. I would have opted for something less prestigious, for sure, and he just wouldn't have it. That was a really important push for me. It ended up being the best thing I've ever done."

For Ferolo, that approach wasn't just tough love, it was an endorsement of a student and a program he knows can compete with the best in the nation.

"We turn out students who are at a very high caliber and can compete at a national level. She got a great start here at Bradley, and then leveraged that to make her way at one of the top graduate programs in the country," Ferolo said.