Austin (KXAN) — Earlier in September, the Austin-based National Deaf Center for Postsecondary Outcomes launched the first-ever video game that is completely accessible in American Sign Language (ASL). Monday, KXAN got an exclusive first look at the video game and the chance to speak to some of the people who created it.

The game is called “Deafverse World One: Duel of the Bots” and walks players through a choose-your-own-adventure which covers multiple worlds.

The player begins the game escaping from a mysterious organization who is trying to learn about the Deafverse — which is a collection of ancient, magical comic books. Next, the player enters these comic books, both trying to stop a rogue bot and also making choices in scenarios similar to those deaf teens would have to make in real life. The player encounters situations like: what should they do if they’re in a movie theater that doesn’t have the proper captions on the screen?

This game was designed by and for deaf individuals, with a team of deaf actors, developers, researchers and more who used their own personal experiences to fuel this game. Most of this work and most of the team is based in Austin. While the game is intended to be fun, it’s also tailored to teach lessons for deaf teens to learn about their rights and to practice the tools they’ll need to make the jump into adulthood.

Why use a video game to achieve that goal?

“Well we know that’s what teenagers use,” explained Stephanie Cawthon, the director of the National Deaf Center and a faculty member at UT’s College of Education. “Really with everything here, we try to make it meaningful and useful to the people it’s targeted to, so providing teens with a place where they can play, a place where they can find connection, a place where they could have a hands-on experience, and we decided video games were really the best way to do that.”

The National Deaf Center, a federally funded project which is part of UT Austin’s College of Education, focuses on helping young people transition from high school into successful adult lives.

The Center’s own research indicates that the deaf community in the U.S. falls behind their hearing peers when it comes to employment, education, and college achievement. Their statistics indicate that these trends can have real personal and economic consequences for the deaf community.

According to research from NDC released in September, only 53.3% of deaf people ages 25-64 were employed in 2017, compared to 75.8% of hearing people.

Additionally, they found that deaf Americans’ employment rates still have not recovered from the 2008 recession as employment rates for that population have not increased from 2008 to 2017. When it comes to opting not to participate in the workforce, 42.9% of deaf people do so compared to just 20.8% of hearing people. The NDC says their findings show that deaf individuals are more likely than hearing individuals to be actively working for work, but the deaf community also faces a lack of career options, alack of career advancement, and burn out from dealing with bias and a shortage of accommodations.

Other findings from the NDC show that deaf students may be less prepared for college than their hearing peers. The NDC’s numbers show that on average, deaf students take around five years after completing high school to enroll in college while hearing students take a little more than two years to enroll in college. The NDC notes that deaf students may have had a lack of academic support in high school and a lack of college-level coursework during high school.

This game is part of the NDC’s effort to erase these gaps the deaf community experiences by reaching teens through a medium they already want to use.

Cawthon believes that “Deafverse World One” will leave teens with hands-on experience making decisions in challenging scenarios.

“We know often times deaf teens don’t have access to all the communication tools everyone has, they face negative attitudes and they need to navigate what can be a fairly complex experience between high school and college,” she said. “[The game] gives them a chance to test that out, to really have a chance to build their own confidence.”

Making the game

Kent Turner is deaf and has always wanted to make a video game. He is a gaming coordinator for the NDC and his dream came true when he was able to design the Deafverse game.

“So I [started] really at my experience as a young boy,” Turner explained of the game design process. “I enjoyed reading stories and playing various games, and certain types of stories really stood out to me, and that was a choose-your-own-adventure type story where you could show through various experiences whether it be in a book or a movie or a game. And that was a very good model for us to use.”

Turner said the team crafted their idea based on choose-your-own-adventure books and decided to include actors in the game who were using American Sign Language.

“But this storyline is from a deaf experience,” he added. “We got the scenarios from actual deaf people, asked them what barriers and frustrations that they experienced in their life and we put those scenarios into a game. The game is really a safe space where the students can make a wrong decision, can make mistakes and then seek the best solutions.”

“The player experience we have… is we have like a comic book with various issues, and we call these issues worlds, you know like Mario has Mario World? ” Turner said. “We wanted that same experience for players.”

In this game, the player has found a robot and is trying to determine what this robot is and how the robot can help them. In return for helping the robot with some repairs, the robot may then guide the player through scenarios in the classroom, with friends, at home or going to a store.

He says the goal is that when students finish all the worlds in the game, they also have learned more about self-advocacy.

Where to find the game

The game is free and can be accessed online here. Teachers can also download a teacher strategy guide to help them learn about the lessons behind the game

A beta version of this game was already released in 2018 and tested in focus groups at ten high schools throughout the country.

The game won’t stop here, the National Deaf Center plans to release Deafverse World Two in 2020.

14-year-old Violet Garberoglio plays the ASL- accessible video game, “Deafverse World One: Duel of the Bots.” (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report about this game and what its creators hope it offers to the deaf community.