Playground Nightmare: Auti-Sim Is About Childhood Autism

By Nathan Grayson on March 1st, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

Auti-Sim is a very short experience. But then, so is having a railroad spike driven into your ear. That’s the basic idea behind the horrifyingly overwhelming dose of auditory hypersensitivity disorder, which was put together as part of the Hacking Health Vancouver 2013 hackathon. The short version is, you’re an autistic child on a playground, and everything seems perfectly normal. Then more sounds start creeping in. Voices, whispers, screams, footsteps, swingsets creaking, merry-go-’rounds whirring. All distinct, yet inseparable, like the whole world is trying to stampede its way into your head, trampling your eyes and ears. Auti-Sim hurts. But it hurts for a reason.

Obviously, this isn’t a literal interpretation of what it’s like to have auditory hypersensitivity disorder. Rather, Auti-Sim draws on horror game tropes juxtaposed against a bright, idyllic playground environment, to rather brilliant effect. It’s more or less an approximation of what debilitating sensory overload would feel like, designed so that people who’ve never experienced it can come to grips with just how difficult seemingly mundane situations can be for autistic kids and adults.

For me, it started very slowly. I approached the playground, and then – little by little – my vision blurred and sounds bled together. Louder. Louder. LOUDER. I couldn’t take it. I had to escape. I stumbled and lunged for reprieve, eventually sighting a swingset way off in the distance, free from the faceless crowds. Only there was I able to get my bearings. It was quiet. It was nice. So I just sort of hunkered down. Alone.

I think that’s what struck me most about Auti-Sim: not the sights and sounds (which were admittedly very well done), but the isolation. The fundamental incompatibility with other human beings – even if they were just immobile, AI-free cardboard cutouts. The effect was still palpable.

Granted, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the illusion’s very breakable. One time, I hopped on the merry-go-’round, and it flung me clear out of the playground and into a nearby endless plain of nothingness. It was, er, very quiet there as well.

So Auti-Sim isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a super interesting (and much-needed) experiment in experiential education. It’ll only take you a couple minutes to try out, so get to it. Also, protip: use a decent pair of headphones and turn up the volume until it starts out just a little bit uncomfortable. Happy pained fleeing!

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34 Comments »

  1. Rian Snuff says:

    Uh, interesting yea.. But if this was it was like for me, who has autism. I would of undoubtedly killed myself a thousand times over by now. No it’s not easy and it’s pretty damn confusing but this -game- is pretty much pure insanity.. HA. I understand it’s not supposed to be literal however.

    I just don’t think this is the kind of thing you can depict through this type of media so easily.. Also, there’s a lot of really great aspects of this condition that maybe these creators didn’t consider. I can honestly see beauty in the smallest of things that most people just pass-by on a daily basis.. I’m an artist. I see things differently but it’s by no means a bad acid trip nightmare. : P

    Anyways, I can’t wait to smoke a funny cigarette and play around in this..

    • JimTheDog says:

      It does resemble a full on panic attack though, doesn’t it? (Well, it did for me. I had a lot of those in playgrounds.)

    • Gnoupi says:

      There are several kinds of autism, different perceptions, different severities.

    • FrankTheCat says:

      Autism is a spectrum, not black and white. Common misconception, even among people who have it.

      I’ve got it very mild, but I also have trouble with touch and light hypersensitivity in addition to the more common auditory issues.

      • Rian Snuff says:

        Ahh yes, this is true. I was merely speaking through my own experiences but I find it hard pressed that many children’s experiences are that terrifying. Fuck, I hope not.. HAHA. That sort of freaked me out more than any game in my life. Heh.

      • Baines says:

        I don’t know if it is autism related, but I’ve got a touch of light and sound sensitivity. It mostly shows up as pain.

        Certain sounds are…like fingernails on a blackboard I’d guess. It is not constant. I’ve encountered a few people whose voice sets it off. I might can be around them 9 days out of 10, but on that 10th day I have to leave the room, close the door, and bury my head under a cushion if they are talking. The sound of someone eating can also set me off. Maybe I’ll be fine. Or maybe it is just annoying. But then there are times when I cannot stand to be around someone who is eating. If I have to be, I just grit my teeth and bear through it. But I’ll also look for some excuse to leave the room, or some way to drown out the noise, or even try to get the person to talk so they can stop making eating noises.

        And it isn’t like you can say “Please stop eating”, or “You are eating too loudly”… People don’t respond well to that. Nor can you tell a family member “Your voice is driving a railroad spike into my brain”.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          I used to be a lot more sensitive when I was young, from being disturbed by hymns as an infant (too many voices all at once) to having panic attacks over balloons (the seeming absolute unpredictability of when is it going to pop). Most of it I grew out of, but I’m currently still hypersensitive to flour on cardboard.

          If you take an ordinary pizza box, put some ordinary wheat flour in it, then rub another piece of cardboard along the flour, the sound feels like having an icicle hammered into my face, and/or fingers. Which is why I cannot ever work at a pizza place, though eating pizza is fine if I’m careful with the container. As for chalkboard, I don’t usually have any adverse reaction to it.

  2. Syra says:

    Oh my god… That was actually terrifying.

    Screaming children… so many screaming children. I thought a bomb had gone off, then realised it had IN MY HEAD.

  3. faelnor says:

    Autism: A machine for kids.

  4. Dudeist says:

    King is naked. This is shit.

    • Tssha says:

      Spoken like a man who has never experienced sensory sensitivity in his life. I think they did an admirable job conveying this horrible experience. Granted, I was already suffering before they really cranked it up to 11, but I’m not the intended audience now, am I?

  5. mikmanner says:

    That was great – especially the part where I jumped onto the spinning thing and was fired 5 miles into the landscape hehe, seriously though that was very uncomfortable and yeah being alone was the only solace to be found.

  6. InternetBatman says:

    Yeah, I’m on the spectrum and that’s obnoxious but absolutely nothing like what it feels for me. The target might someone a bit lower-fuctioning, but I don’t think it’s remotely like actually being hypersensitive.

    One of these days I’ll make an RPG where you play a character with a one of several learning differences chosen goes through a day at school.

    • meatshit says:

      It’s a pretty decent approximation of what I went and, to some extent, still go through. I used to hate free time during class because it was like being stuck in a cage full of shrieking chimps.

  7. Nick says:

    Now everyone on RPS has autism will pop up, just like depression.

    • JFS says:

      Absolutely. And the psychologists and physicians. Like me. But seriously, is mental disorder gaming a new trend on RPS? Not that I have anything against it, but these really seem to pop up. Maybe it’s got to do with this being the darkest and longest winter since 1759 or something.

      • dreadpirateryu says:

        It likely has to do with the general taste of the RPS staff. If you haven’t noticed, they tend to discuss video games in a… I don’t know if “mature” is the right word, but it’s the only one I can come up with, way. So talking about violence, sexism, or even mental disorders seems to fit right in with what they’re interested in.

        On top of that, I think this is partly due to the medium “growing up” a bit, so to speak. It is also more accessible than ever for any random person to grab something such as Unity and make something. This leads to a couple things: video games which explore more mature concepts (rather than “lol lets go shoot that dude in the face”) and a higher diversity. I think also that people are realizing that the medium is unique with the interactive aspect, and so things such as this game can be made, and be more interesting, than a video trying to depict something similar. I think the video game field is going to start seeing even more of these types of games as time passes, because they can be much more informative to how someone with a mental disorder interacts with the world, than a simple video. It’s like Nathan said, he found a quiet spot to keep the painful noises away, and was struck by the loneliness of it all. How much more powerful an experience is discovering that feeling yourself, over a movie which just tells you? Which one is more likely to stick with you as time passes?

        • The Random One says:

          I wouldn’t call RPS mature as much as I’d call nearly every other video game site as immature.

          • MadTinkerer says:

            Haha, THIS is pretty much what I was going to say.

            Imagine Kotaku attempting to have a serious discussion of depression or autism.

      • mouton says:

        It could be worse, it could be *GASP* feminism.

        Seriously, there are hundreds other game-related sites and blogs that don’t touch anything more difficult than player gratification.

  8. mollemannen says:

    walked trough the park for a while. sounds like a recording of a childrens playground put trough distortion and a compressor. after that i jumped over the fence and went exploring. reached the end of the map and leaped into oblivion.

  9. sinister agent says:

    One time, I hopped on the merry-go-’round, and it flung me clear out of the playground and into a nearby endless plain of nothingness.

    Oh, that happens all the time round here. We’ve all written to the council about it, but they never do anything.

  10. Williz says:

    I don;t know about you guys but I thought this was Aut-astic.

  11. Bishop says:

    Found a bug – Left click doesn’t fire my gun and my gun seems to be offscreen. Dunno how such a show stopper bug got through testing!

  12. Bhazor says:

    Wow. A first person unity game that doesn’t lock the cursor to the screen. Why does everyone seem to do that? It’s one line of code for Pete’s sake.

    • Sam says:

      I don’t use Unity myself, but I’m fairly sure if the cursor is unlocked and the user clicks outside of the plugin’s box then it’ll lose focus and stop receiving keyboard and mouse input.
      Which is fine for this game with no clicking. But most first person games also use the mouse buttons, so every time you click when the cursor isn’t within the plugin’s screen area the game would stop hearing your input. And you’d probably have just clicked a link or something on the page its embedded in. A bad user experience.

  13. Citrus says:

    Now download option? Nevermind then.

  14. Muzman says:

    There was a little ‘sim’ a few years ago that was trying to give the experience of schizophrenia. People’s faces used to warp into weird shapes, shadows would do strange things, you’d hear what seemed like character’s thoughts telling you you were ugly and pathetic etc.
    More unsettlng than many a proper asylum horror game.
    It’s definitely an interesting thing for games (or game technology I guess) to try and do.

    • Tssha says:

      It’s the interactivity of this sim that really sells it. You have total control over what you do, and you find yourself reacting to the environment; until, at last, you find some wonderful peace.

      The quiet. The absence of The Noise. That’s the end goal of this game, and you have total control over whether you end up there or not. Hell, the game doesn’t even end when you get to the swing set. It just feels like you’ve won.

      You define your own victory condition in this game. That most everyone defines it as finding the swing set is striking, and very well done on the creator’s part.

  15. Arkhonist says:

    Apparently being autistic reduces the influence of gravity. Interesting.

  16. Servicemaster says:

    I’ll be honest that I love reading (and only reading… for the most part… sorry, heh) these mentally unstable game forays. I feel that a game can be the most immersive form of media we have. Better understanding anybody, especially those who have a predisposition to loathing most parts of their own life, is imperative.

    This game is awkward. On every level. So much so that it literally hurts, and that is fucking fantastic. I used to get on my brother about feeling so awkward while watching Louie, that he had to stop watching. (The part with Matthew Broderick, ‘Your dad is dead?’) That was, until I felt the same way watching Mysterious Skin. And not during the parts you may think, it was when the blond teen was writing in his dream journal. Just… hit too close. I couldn’t do it.

    The fact that RPS even glimpses at such games makes me extremely excited for our future and I honestly see the Horror genre slipping into more awkward situations than inherently spooky or scary ones. Which I think is a very telling social construct of how we deal with the day-to-day. ‘We’ being the anxious, over-thinking nerds who can’t remember parts of our childhood due to abuse.

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    Joshua says:

    It’s a bit late, but what you should do is basically this:
    Play this.
    Play Mass Effect 2′s Overlord DLC.

    And suddenly you have a much better understanding of the game’s antagonist.