Heidi Erwin Cartoon Sun Drawing
heidi erwin
PBS Kids Accessibility-Centered Game

WHEN:  Summer 2019
WHAT:  A children's puzzle game with PBS Kids, intended for children aged 5 to 6.
As the company's Accessibility in Kids Game Design Intern, I designed and developed this game from scratch.
SKILLS:  Game Design, Programming, Graphic Design, User Research

Game Overview
This project was centered around employing accessible practices through Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and engaging kids in the Ready To Learn (RTL) Engineering Curriculum.

Project advised by PBS KIDS' Gameplay Creative Strategist Julie Maski, with input from the AbleGamers team.

To learn more, read the Game Design Document here, check out the initial game pitch here, view a progress presentation here, or play the game here.
Fixer-Uppers Title Screen
Fixer-Uppers Puzzle Select Screen
Fixer-Uppers Screenshot
Fixer-Uppers Screenshot

The Concept
This puzzle game was born out of the psychological phenomenon of functional fixedness, the cognitive bias in which people's perceptions of items are limited by the way the item is traditionally used.

Design pillars included puzzles with multiple solutions and the ability to utilize common objects in unconventional ways. Think Ariel from The Little Mermaid using a fork as a hairbrush, or an example from this game: using a bucket as a drum to make noise.

Maybe the biggest lesson of this accessibility-focused project is that accessibility is not as narrow as accommodating a specific disability by, say, testing your game with filters to simulate color blindness (though I did do this, because it can still be helpful). Rather, accessible media is that which accommodates as many learning styles as possible, communicating the same information in varied ways to reach a wider audience of people who either require or benefit from multiple channels through which to receive information.
Microsoft's Inclusive Design Principles outline the ways that accessible media doesn't just only help people with disabilities (e.g. ramps on sidewalks help people in wheelchairs but also people with baby strollers, luggage, etc.).
Of course, playtesting is an important component of accessibility—how are you supposed to accommodate users if you don't know who they are?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
The accessibility focus of this project was employing Universal Design for Learning (UDL), to create a game that supported multiple means of representation, action, expression, and engagement.

While designing a game with universal use in mind from the start is important, there are some preferences which can't be predicted but would help make the game experience more accessible to specific players.

To account for this, I built an Options Menu for this game which features the ability to adjust several features and is accessible to both children and parents. These options include the ability to remove distracting layers, turn off sound effects and background music, and more.
Fixer-Uppers Options Screen
Fixer-Uppers Options Screen

Reflections & Next Steps
Especially because this project involves unique uses for everyday items, I see potential for hands-on activities. tangible activities like "build a costume!" or create mode (mention that presented project / process to PBS KIDS team)

I gained so many new perspectives working at PBS, whether about the impact of children's media through the Producers Summit, research practices involved in playtesting educational content employed by the Johns Hopkins IDEALS Team, building accessible UI in conversation with Bridge Multimedia, or about the truly infinite ways that games can be made more accessible currently being explored by AbleGamers.