Video games have come a long way since the ’80s, when “Oregon Trail” had kids act as wagon leader, guiding 19th-century settlers, and friends duked it out over a match of “Pong” on their Atari. From 3-D graphics to portable gaming systems to virtual reality, developments in the gaming world have been fast and frequent. But in all that time, there has never been an American Sign Language accessible video game. Until now.  

Reminiscent of the pioneer game of yesteryear, “Deafverse World One: Duel of the Bots” is a free, online, choose-your-own-adventure game. It was launched in September by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, an institution housed in UT’s College of Education that aims to help deaf individuals succeed in and after high school. With actors signing onscreen and captions throughout, “Deafverse” is the first-ever video game specifically designed to accommodate deaf players as they experience a first-person gameplay through different worlds.  

The game begins with the player, whose character is deaf, having just escaped from retrieving one issue in a series of magical, sacred comic books called the Deafverse. With a mysterious organization on the hunt to gain knowledge from the Deafverse, the player meets narrator Justin and is transported into the comic book. With a sidekick named Catbot, the player is tasked with making decisions both fanciful—like helping stop a rogue bot from wreaking havoc—and ones that deaf teenagers face in reality, like what to do when an ASL classroom interpreter isn’t experienced enough for them to understand a lesson, when a movie theater doesn’t have captioning, or how to communicate with a store clerk who doesn’t know sign language.  

With the motto “Choose Your Future,” NDC Director Stephanie Cawthon says the game is meant to encompass the idea of self-determination, the process by which people make their own choices and decisions. The game is equally focused on education as it is on enjoyment, and includes downloadable material for players and teachers with more situations like those seen in the game. “Self-determination is your capacity to make decisions for yourself and figure out strategies when there are problems you need to solve,” Cawthon says. “Those are the tools that deaf people need, especially deaf young people, to navigate what can be a very inaccessible system.”  

The NDC focuses heavily on the years between middle school and the first year of work for deaf people. “Crucial years,” Cawthon says. Therefore, the game introduces characters and resources along the way to familiarize players with the center. “It builds a relationship with these teens not just when you’re playing this, but six months from now, when you graduate, come back and talk to us,” she says. Cawthon adds that they hope teens gain self-confidence through their accomplishments with the game, but also through their mistakes, as deaf youth typically have few opportunities to make and learn from them.   

The decision to present teens with a video game for learning was highly intentional. Gaming coordinator Kent Turner worked as a teacher at the Texas School for the Deaf for five years and used games in his curriculum. He utilized strategies of gamification, overlaying game concepts in a classroom, and game-based learning, using an actual game to teach skills. Following his years as a teacher, he brought the latter practice to the NDC and worked on everything from storyboarding, the look and design, and casting the actors in “Deafverse.”  

I think that either of the gaming approaches are more effective,” Turner says. “We all like some lectures at a minimum, but kids, adults, everyone likes more hands-on activities, to get to do something while you’re learning.”   

NDC Associate Director Carrie Lou Garberoglio, MA ’12, PhD ’13, Life Member, says more than 3,000 people have played “Deafverse.” “This is a huge number when considering that deafness is a low-incidence disability—only around 0.1–0.7 percent of students in K-12 settings are deaf,” she says. She also oversaw the game’s completion and like every member of the “Deafverse” creative team, she is deaf. From its engineers and designers to its writers and actors, the game demonstrates the deaf talent and showcases their experiences.   

Garberoglio, says the game is deeply personal to her as she’s had to advocate for herself in all educational experiences, spanning high school through her time at UT earning her PhD in educational psychology. “I wish I had learned more about my rights and options when I was younger,” she says. “For the most part, I learned after the fact, after being thrown in situations I had to figure out how to navigate.”  

Garberoglio’s father, Walt Camenisch, filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas in 1980 for the school’s refusal to pay for sign language interpreters for his graduate studies. The case went to the Supreme Court, and although declared moot, was a part of other legal cases and disability activism that contributed to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “I’m grateful for those that came before me, and for the fact that I have so many more choices available to me than my parents did,” Garberoglio says.  

The NDC works with campus offices to ensure accessibility is a priority. With a large staff of deaf people and a mission to close the gaps between deaf and hearing peers, the NDC continues to make plans to raise awareness and provide resources. “Deafverse” is a step in that direction. The team plans to release a new world each year going forward. The next game, expected in late summer, will focus on the workplace.  

“For many deaf people, decisions that affect our future are often made by hearing, able-bodied professionals, and not in partnership with us, or even led by us,” Garberoglio says. “We aim to change that in our work with ‘Deafverse’ and beyond.”