Abertay students develop game for tackling social isolation

23 June 2021 - Published by Walter Wehus
The game prototype Budding Up lets people connect and collaborate online, without the need for verbal communication.

“As a team of students, some of us far from home, some coping with mental health difficulties and some from the LGBTQ+ community, it seemed like we could identify with people at risk of social isolation, and successfully create a game for them”, says game designer Safya Devautour.

She is part of the student team thisPigeon at Abertay University. For Budding Up, they have been collaborating with the project From Isolation to Inclusion, which is working to foster innovation in the field of social inclusion in the North Sea Region.

“Many members of our team were looking to work for a charitable project. We wanted to create a positive game with a purpose”, says Devautour.

A perfect medium

Budding up is an online two-player game that lets players express and work through their emotions by growing their garden. It is designed to combat social isolation by letting players from around the world meet remotely and tend their gardens together, forming connections nonverbally.

A guiding principle behind the game is that people tend to feel better when they are able to share how they feel.

The game is meant to be played on a smartphone. This is a large part of the appeal, according to Dr Kenneth Scott-Brown (pictured below) at Abertay University’s School of Applied Sciences.

Dr. Ken Scott-Brown

“Games like this are fun and non-threatening. Even though it is about social isolation, it is not looking to be too formal. It is not like someone showing up with a clipboard and asking you how you are doing, or if you are lonely”, he says.

Scott-Brown says that the creative industries are a good avenue for a range of disciplines and insights to work together.

“Social isolation is a design challenge that can be tackled with technology. The process of developing a game can in itself help tackle social isolation. It can help us articulate what isolation is in a different way. Through working with game designers and computer artists, we can see a problem through different lenses than a voluntary organisation or a psychologist”, he says.

Doing the research

The students in thisPigeon had to make sure to read a lot of literature on social isolation and mood regulation in general while researching the game.

“When designing a serious game, it is necessary to research the subject you are working with and understand the players you are working for. The collections of essays “Alone in the crowd: Loneliness and diversity” that the I2I partners shared with us was invaluable in designing a game for people at risk of social isolation, says Devautour.

Among the challenges in creating the game were to make it accessible as possible in the limited time available. Another challenge was to ensure that the game did not allow for any negative interactions of cyber-bullying.

“I can happily say that we are confident we overcame this challenge and made our game a safe place for everyone”, says Devautour.

Connecting online and in real life

While the game is still in prototype, it can be downloaded from the developer’s itch.io page.

If it is developed further, thisPigeon envision the game being used by care homes, community groups, LGBTQ+ groups during Freshers week at the university, or by anyone that works with people at risk of social isolation.

“Since the game is online and multiplayer, players will be able to share with peers and experience this mindful experience together, safely at home. But people could also play the game in the same room during events, and maybe – after a game or two – engage with other players in real life and create a meaningful relationship based on a feeling of belonging and common humanity”, Devautour says.