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Innovation By Design

A Board Game Designed To Help Autistic Adults Make Friends

The game Me, Myself, and You was designed to foster connection between individuals on the spectrum.

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Almost everyone can relate to the feeling of social isolation—lunch time at a new school, a party with no familiar faces, the first day on the job. But it's a particularly persistent problem for many young adults on the autism spectrum, who report feeling left out socially with few friendships or invitations to gatherings. While there are many resources for children with autism, there are few aimed at helping an older demographic make friends and find their way in a social world.

That's where Me, Myself, and You (MMY for short) comes in. It's a conversation- and activity-based board game designed specifically for adults with autism. By providing an easily understood structure for socializing, the game enables individuals on the spectrum to share their passions and preferences and learn about others at the same time, helping them make connections in their peer group. The game was an honorable mention in the student category of the 2016 Innovation By Design Awards.

To learn about what resources the often underserved adult autism community was missing, the game's designers, Devika Patel, Claire Jacobson, and Nina Ligon—all recent Stanford University graduates—began attending game nights at different community centers as part of their senior capstone project. The three spoke with researchers, developmental pediatricians, parents, teachers, and individuals on the spectrum to understand the challenges they face. However, they were initially met with resistance. One individual they met at an assisted living center told them off, saying that he already knew how to socialize.

"The community is initially pretty hesitant to let outsiders come in," says Jacobson, who now works as a tech consultant for Accenture. "It’s hard to work with them unless it’s going to be on their terms and something that they specifically asked for."

But some individuals were willing to help. One person living in the assisted living center told the designers that he felt frustrated about getting to know his roommates. "He said he couldn't really connect to them," says Patel, who is currently pursuing a master's in community health and prevention research at Stanford Medical School. "That story really stood out to us because it highlighted how isolated he could feel sometimes."

While visiting Autistry Studios, a makerspace in Marin County, California for autistic adults, the designers noticed that many people wouldn't spend time socializing during break times. "Everyone would separate out by themselves and check their phones and play games on their phones," says Ligon. "We thought this was real opportunity to interact socially in less of an instructive setting. We thought, is there a way to help them get to know each other better?"

Based on conversations with members of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a local organization of individuals on the spectrum that fights for rights and visibility, the designers realized that board games—and games in general—were a way for the group's members to come together and hang out because they provide a structure.

"If you’re playing Monopoly, there’s a certain set of rules, and pieces and what the board looks like. Everyone understand how to act during a board game," says Patel. "There’s a motivation to play because there’s the chance of winning. After several of these meetings, a really strong point that resonated with all of us was that board games have this power to be effective if they’re designed to cater to [autistic adults'] needs."

But the problem with many board games out there right now is that they're either too unstructured or have confusing rules and language, requiring facilitators for autistic individuals to play. These small design flaws make them less than ideal for autistic adults who want to play on their own without supervision.

With these details in mind, the three designers set out to create a game that would be easy to understand, that individuals could play on their own, and that ultimately would help foster connections and promote friendship. They began with the idea of monologuing—a term that’s used by individuals on the spectrum to indicate a one-sided conversation in which someone fixates on something she's really interested in and doesn't actually interact with other people—and created a prototype for a game in which players find connections between their disparate interests.

But they soon realized that it didn't produce the results they were looking for: only two people could play at a time, and it catered toward people who had a special interest that they were willing to talk about, and had the verbal skills to talk about it.

Instead, the designers turned toward a conversation-based idea that, after many sessions of user testing and feedback, would end up as the final game. They turned to compelling questions and activities to encourage social connections and ended up with four categories of color-coded cards: Solo, Partner, Team, and Challenge. Each answer is timed to keep the game moving, and once the card's prompt has been fulfilled, the player moves to the next spot on the board that has that card's color. This gives the game a sense of progression and an ending.

Realizing that it was important to give individuals the chance to talk about themselves and their preferences, the designers' Solo cards are meant to be answered by the player who picks them up. They have questions players wouldn't get in ordinary conversation, like "What's your favorite smell?" and "Which celebrity would play you in a movie about your life?"

Partner cards inspire an interaction between the player who picked the card and another random player (chosen by spinner), and they have mostly silly questions and prompts for the two to answer together. One card reads, "Take off your shoes, stick them together, and tell us the story of how they fell in love." Another asks, "If you and your partner could make a new law, what law would you make and why?"

Team cards ask everyone playing to participate. One of the designers' favorite Team cards reads, "Show us the way you cook your eggs in the morning, and tell us who you’re making your eggs for" because of the reactions it elicits. Players talk about their friends and their families, and it's a fun way for them to get to know each other.

Challenge cards encourage the players to step out of their comfort zones, and everyone is asked to participate as well. One more contentious challenge card reads, "Go around in a circle passing this card saying the tongue twister "Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers." Patel explained that this really puts them on the spot, which made some individuals hate the prompt. But when everyone's doing it together, it becomes funny. Still, realizing that some people may not want to answer every question, the designers gave them an out with Skip cards—everyone gets two at the start of the game.

The designers also tested the visual design of the game. Knowing that strong colors like red can trigger emotional responses for individuals on the spectrum, they chose a more muted color palette that is as neutral as possible while still looking bright and fun. The board is composed of hexagons that form a clear path, and the game's player pieces were laser cut into an easy-to-hold, pleasing shape to be accessible to players who may have trouble with coordination.

Patel, Jacobson, and Ligon have now wrapped up an overfunded Indiegogo campaign and are currently sourcing all parts of the game. They're looking to deliver it to people who helped fund the campaign as well as donate games to the organizations and people who helped during the design process at the end of October.

The next step? More research. Patel says that they want long-term feedback on how MMY fits into day to day life when they're not observing the players. She's hoping to eventually research the effects the game might have in a more clinical setting in conjunction with other therapies.

"Research and personal, anecdotal evidence has shown us how necessary it is to have meaningful and reciprocal human connections in your life," says Patel. "We hope to really help these young adults and adults with autism to not feel as isolated or left out. We understand that need. It’s universal."

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