PBS Kids launches Cousin Hodie Playdate, a free online game targeted towards neurodiverse children [INTERVIEW]

This low-pressure sandbox game provides an interactive and educational experience for young players.
Cousin Hodie Playdate
Cousin Hodie Playdate /

It’s game time at The Parent Watch! PBS KIDS has a new, free online game that’s made for both neurodiverse and neurotypical children alike, featuring the characters from the series Donkey Hodie, from Fred Rogers Productions and Spiffy Pictures. The “sandbox experience” game from Fred Rogers Productions and Curious Media was created with neurodiverse children in mind. The game offers opportunities for kids to learn about expressing and understanding big emotions. 

For Cousin Hodie Playdate, we spoke with Carleá Jean Magee, a user experience researcher with a background in psychology, clinical counseling, and applied behavior analysis (board registered) and Melanie Harke, an interactive producer at Fred Rogers Productions.

Read on as the duo talks about developing Cousin Hodie Playdate, play-testing with neurodiverse kids, and what makes Cousin Hodie so impactful to the next generation of young gamers. Read on to learn more!

The Parent Watch: Please introduce yourself and give us some background on your role on Cousin Hodie.

Melanie Harke: I am Melanie Harke, and I'm the interactive producer for Donkey Hodie. From the very start, we knew we wanted to make a game for neurodiverse children. We also knew we wanted to make a game focused on empathy. We weren't sure what topic or what type of game. But because we knew we were going for that neurodiverse audience, we immediately knew we needed an advisor - someone who knows neurodiverse children and who also are themselves neurodiverse. That was our goal because we really wanted to be true to the ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra. We need someone who can speak on that experience, both for themselves, but also for the children - since, of course, they were at one point a child as well. I signed on as the producer for the game at Fred Rogers Productions and that's how I connected with Carleá.

Carleá Jean Magee: I'm Carleá Jean, and I am a user experience researcher, mainly in gaming and interactive media. I was super excited to hear that they [Fred Rogers Productions] were making a game specifically for a neurodiverse audience. I have a background in behavioral analysis and psychology, working mainly with kids, so I think that this is a perfect partnership. I've been working as an advisor from the beginning, before even the concept came together. Seeing the game now, I'm just so excited I got to be a part of it, and I'm super excited for this interview, too.

Carleá, I'm really interested in your role. I wanted to ask if you could give some details into what the research process was like for the game as it was being developed.

Magee: Yes, of course. I pull on my background of being a user experience researcher in the industry. I came on as an advocate. I wanted to make sure that if we were making something for this demographic, they were involved in the process. We wanted to work with kids who could tell us, in different ways, if something was usable and fun for them. This is a game that I personally think could be used in therapeutic settings, even though that's not what it's specifically for in classroom settings where kids can learn a lot because it is educational, but we just wanted to make sure it was fun, so we pulled on a background of understanding the science of play and motivation to make sure the game is fun for players. I think [the team] did a great job of that!

I also wanted to advocate for a specific feature for players so they don't have to opt in to the emotional identification aspect of the game. This was really important for me. I think a lot of times neurodiverse people fit into this box of “what you're doing is wrong, and you need to be more like everyone else”. Players can throw the ball. They don't have to catch it, and that's okay. I wanted to give them that opportunity as well. I was there mostly for advocacy for neurodiverse audiences and neurodiverse kids. Once upon a time, I would have loved a game like this, honestly.

It sounds like so much fun! Melanie, could you speak to the process of what it was like being involved? It's a “low-pressure sandbox” experience game, so I'd love for you to expand upon that.

Harke: That was one of the things that we talked about early on. What kind of gameplay do we feel [this] could be? When we say neurodiverse, we really do mean neurodiverse in the sense that neurodiverse is a pretty broad statement. We talked a lot about creating a very flexible game that could give people challenge and excitement if they want it, or they can get a calm experience if they want that. How do we do that? We talked a lot about settings to get that flexibility. Originally, we landed on doing a marble run-type game. Then, we thought about a game board featured in the Donkey Hodie series, and we thought that it fit a lot of that same open-ended, sandbox-type play that we felt would be very flexible for players. Even before we really had much of a game and before we had any emotional exchange, we started play-testing with a local early childhood center that serves as a special education school.

We did not gather anyone's diagnosis. I want to be very clear. We don't have any of that information. Instead, we asked the school to select children who were capable of using an iPad, since we knew this was going to be an iPad or mobile web experience. Generally kids play on the iPad. We asked for children who their teachers knew, either diagnosis-wise or through experience, had some cognitive difference. We just tried to get a good breadth of children. The very first play test was really just play testing a little bit of the gameplay itself. What did they find compelling? What was interesting or not interesting for them? We could then adjust the gameplay and add settings. 

We were also testing the actual art in that original playtest, so we brought a bunch of little Donkey cards that had different emotions on them. I have one here [shows picture of Donkey Hodie]. We had all these different Donkeys [with] various pronounced facial expressions and poses. We laid them all out on the table and we asked kids how they thought each character was feeling. For some of the kids, we did have a teacher’s aid come help us in order to communicate what we were asking of them. We tried to meet them where they were. Some kids were very timid and it took a long time. Some kids were very excited to tell us lots of information. In fact, one of the emotions we ended up adding to the game was “silly” because multiple children came in and said, “Oh, that character is feeling silly.” We asked, “What makes them feel silly? When do you feel silly?” We got information like, “when I'm laughing, or when I'm playing around.” 

This is a very important emotion to these children that their parents have really communicated to them, that they've picked up on, and that they see with their peers. Well, “silly” needs to be one of the emotions we put into our game! We also did observational play testing with a local daycare. We just watched how kids played with a marble run we brought and what emotional reactions they would have. We knew at that point we wanted to recognize emotions. That was one of the things that came through talking with Carleá.  A lot of our emotional scenarios came from observational play testing with kids. 

Magee: I just want to finish out by saying a lot of people would have foregone that type of research, as well as all the little details the teamput into this game. It's so powerful. As a researcher, I know that a lot of people think that what I do is just coming in and validating whatever they do. Everyone at Fred Rogers Productions was so open: “Hey, is this okay?” or “What do you think about this?” Just the back and forth was such a beautiful process. Thank you, Melanie, for doing all of that. 

What do you think parents can take away from introducing the game to their kids and possibly even playing alongside them?

Magee: With being a parent, caregiver, sibling, a loved one of somebody who is neurodiverse, has a cognitive difference or a physical difference, there is this want to emotionally connect, and sometimes that doesn't happen. So there's a lot of the bid for emotional connection in the game. I have this vision of a parent who has been trying and trying to connect with a child, and they're playing this game, maybe on their phone next to them, where - sorry, I'm getting all emotional - a child [is] choosing to opt out, but then they hear Cousin Hodie interacting in a new way, and they choose to opt into that emotional situation. There's the piece where, after they do identify the emotion, they are rewarded.

That piece, I think, is so important. A lot of the times when we have that bid for connection and we do make the connection, there is not going to be a physical reward. It's not going to be a toy. It will be a smile, just having the moment, a little bit of connection, or even saying, “I love you” orThanks for helping me out.” That is an intrinsically motivated reward. That is just something that I can see as being such a beautiful moment for so many parents who may have had a hard time connecting with their kids to see them really opting into that emotional connection within the game. There is a setting within the game where you can choose more emotional connections.

Harke: Frequency.

Magee: Emotional frequency, from every 45 seconds to no frequency. I think it's just a really special moment [for a parent] to say, “Hey, I want to connect with you,”’ and the child is like, “Not right now. I'm playing my game.” That's okay, because we'll try again in 45 seconds and just show them that it's okay to take some time and it will come. 

Harke: It's great. It just speaks to the power of the game. I think just to add on to what Carleá said, we see this as a tool that parents and educators could potentially use with children to help engage with them when they're having emotions. One of the things we saw, even in the observational play test with the children, is when a kid would break down crying, we could ask them to remember how Cousin Hodie was feeling and how Cousin Hodie was expressing those emotions. The hope would be that that kids could spot those big emotions in a friend or in themselves. [Kids can think] “Now I'm feeling really tense and I'm doing this just like Cousin Hodie was.” 

Just modeling that exchange between Donkey Hodie and Cousin Hodie as an older child with a younger child.’ Donkey Hodie doesn't ever say, “Oh, it's bad that you're feeling that way.” Even when Cousin Hodie is potentially feeling mad or sad, it's okay to feel that way and they can re-engage. [It’s important that we include] having that modeling, which hopefully children can look back on and model as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can play Cousin Hodie on pbskids.org and the PBS KIDS games app.

Additionally, some exciting news for all fans of Donkey Hodie: a new short-form series, Donkey Hodie Bedtime Stories, will premiere May 27 on PBS Kids. Donkey Hodie Bedtime Stories consists of eight, 5–6-minute videos where the characters of Donkey Hodie including Purple Panda, Duck Duck, and Bob Dog will read a bedtime story to the viewer. Stay tuned for that!

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