Michael T. Astolfi: Designing Experience Through Interaction

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Michael T. Astolfi, Digital Strategies Producer at Carnegie Corporation, is a game designer and developer who uses his background in psychology and history of developing engaging user experiences to explore new avenues through which Carnegie might communicate the work of its grantees. As the Corporation embarks on a process of updating its online presence, and expanding its digital footprint, Michael is also helping to design new pathways through which to interact with scholars, policymakers, and the public.

Michael’s educational background includes a BA in Evolutionary Psychology from Boston University and an MA in The Design and Psychology of Video Games from New York University.  In 2011 Michael and his design partner, fellow BU alum Aaron Rasmussen, co-developed BlindSide, an audio-only game for both sighted and visually impaired gamers. In addition to thousands of downloads, the game won the Most Innovative Award at the 2013 Games for Change Festival, which recognizes humanitarian and educational games with a social impact. The game has been the subject of dozens of online articles, from Gizmodo toThe New Yorker, and was recently featured on MSNBC’s What’s the Big Idea segment. Here he answers some questions about BlindSide and its social and educational value as a tool for experiential learning.

How does your background enhance Corporation communications and dissemination?

My knowledge of designing user experiences is an integral part of how we create innovative tools that showcase the valuable work of our grantees and program officers.  This includes projects such as identifying new techniques through which grantees can interact with one another around relevant topics, engaging online visitors with subject-specific interactive elements, and using analytic insights to entice even greater numbers to learn about our mission.  As the Corporation begins the process of overhauling its website, I will be focusing on making the online Carnegie experience as engaging and streamlined as possible.

How can interactive tools and games be useful to the Corporation’s work?

While video games are most frequently used for entertainment, games and interactive elements can be tapped to achieve meaningful goals.  The appeal of video games can be used to convince players to crush more in-game candy, but it can also be used to affect players in more productive ways. Games are a fantastic medium that can be used to explain complex ideas, solve practical problems, or communicate unique experiences. They can offer great educational opportunities when these strengths are properly leveraged. Through the experiences of navigating a complicated, challenging system, or being faced with the touch decisions others face every day, players gain a unique understanding of situations they might not otherwise encounter. The results can be transformative; memorable and affecting learning experiences that could be used to communicate the dangers of loose nukes or vividly present the labyrinthine process of becoming a citizen.

What is the game that you designed, Blindside?

BlindSide is an audio only adventure-horror game that uses stereo headphones and an iPhone to create a virtual world that players can hear but will never see. The game is a fully-immersive 3D audio adventure that creates the sensation of waking up blind in a world filled with deadly monsters.  Players wear headphones and hold an iPhone while turning in the real world. As they do so, their in-game character will rotate the same amount in the game world. To the player, it sounds as if the virtual world is rotating around them, as if they were actually in that virtual place. Players find their way by tapping their iPhone screen to move, while bumping into and sliding along objects in the virtual environment.

How did you come up with this idea?

The inspiration came from the real-life experience of the game’s co-creator, Aaron, who was temporarily blinded after a high school chemistry accident. We wanted BlindSide to convey the feeling of suddenly waking up sightless and having to navigate the world. The goal was to create a game that would be fully accessible to blind players, and at the same time would provide a unique challenge to sighted gamers. Making the gameplay an equivalent experience for both sighted and visually impaired players influenced design decisions throughout the project, including the absence of any kind of map, lack of visual feedback, and a simple, self-voicing menu.

How can games like this be used towards, in the words of Andrew Carnegie, “do[ing] real and permanent good?”

Right now increasing numbers of interactive tools and games are being developed, and are attracting the attention both of influencers in the philanthropy and foundation worlds, as well as in the artistic and indie game communities. It is my hope that these groups come to realize the power of games as tools of change. Ultimately, as the means of making games become more accessible, even greater numbers of individuals will have the opportunity to communicate their experiences, share their stories, and create meaningful change.