Helma van Rijn, a graduate student at the Delft University of Technology, developed a computerized toy to help young autistic children learn language. The project is called LINKX. A person can say a word (e.g. "fishbowl") into a kind of pictogram called a "speech-o-gram"; they then attach the speech-o-gram to the object it names. Kids can link special blocks to the speech-o-grams, which light up with colors and play sounds. Here's a video of LINKX in action:
(Note: While the video's spoken language is Dutch, English subtitles explain the action taking place).
While LINKX isn't a video game in the Oblivion or even Pong sense–in fact, one of its strengths is that it pairs words to real objects in the kid's environment, rather than to images on a screen–it's still a computer interface built for play. And since LINKX is supposed to be fun, its designers centered the project around what their target audience liked and what skills they had. In their paper "The Puzzling Life of Autistic Toddlers: Design Guidelines from the LINKX Project," published in the 2008 special issue of Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, van Rijn and Pieter Jan Stappers wrote that the guidelines they used to design LINKX included "Give [kids with autism] a feeling of being in control," "Make use of their special interests," and "Facilitate their excellent memory."
Such thinking may seem like an obvious principle of game design, but it's still revolutionary thinking about disability. (Recent research has found that autistic people do better at certain tasks than nondisabled controls). It's nice to see computer games' capacity as learning tools seriously examined, and especially nice when people are allowed to learn in ways that are natural to them.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.