Central Delaware
Virtual ‘trash house’ helps students detect abuse
This screenshot of the virtual “trash house” that game design students at Wilmington University built shows how users can take notes of what they see as they explore the house. (Submitted photo)

NEW CASTLE — There’s no running water. Dirty diapers are piled in the corner. A rat scurries across the floor.

Students in the child advocacy program at Wilmington University must step into a virtual squalid apartment staged by their professors.

Their job is to report what they see, smell, and hear — searching for signs of abuse of neglect in the “trash house.”

It’s a key requirement for “Sociology 426: Responding and Investigation: Child Maltreatment” — and soon, students may be able to complete the assignment online.

Game design students at Wilmington University are working to build an interactive, virtual trash house.

Scott Shaw, who teaches the game design and development program at Wilmington University, met with a focus group to test the simulation last week.

Students in the classroom read a made-up case study and then navigated through the virtual house on their computers.

When something dangerous or suspicious caught their eye in the simulation, they could save a picture of the evidence.

They could pull up a dialogue box and, like real-life law enforcement or welfare workers, log what the noticed.

Using their findings, students determine if the child needs to be removed from the house or the family needs counseling; then they write papers about the investigation.

It works just like any other video game — but the subject matter is darker than Angry Birds.

Players may notice suggestive details like a dog cage strewn with baby clothes, an open bleach bottle or pills in the fridge. Observant students may point out there’s no food in the fridge either.

Last week, Mr. Shaw quizzed the focus group on their reaction: “When you interacted with something, when you opened a door, did that seem natural?”

They also tossed ideas back and forth — let users crouch to check under tables, maybe, indicate smells with waving lines, or add realistic details like peeling paint and stains on the wall.

The departments may even work together to videotape witnesses for the case, offering students details from a landlord or a nurse.

Lori Sitler coordinates classes for the Child Advocacy Studies certificate. The program is offered on-campus at New Castle, Dover, Georgetown, and Cumberland, N.J. — but she wants to expand its reach to online students.

Ms. Sitler approached her co-workers in the game department: “I know the technology exists. Can we create a virtual garbage house?”

The project is still in its design phase, but Mr. Shaw said, “I’m pretty confident to say, yeah, it’s going to work pretty well.”

The group of child advocacy students he met with last week caught on quickly, intuitively handling the controls.

Work-study students Jason Moranno and Christopher Wright helped Mr. Shaw create the game. An advanced game design class, focused on the game engine Unity, also worked on the trash house.

The project takes an understanding of 3-D art, 2-D art, programming, digital asset management — “Everything that typically goes into their big projects,” Mr. Shaw said.

His students tackle many projects like the trash house, but working with the child advocacy program makes a difference; instructors have a specific vision for the trash house.

“That motivates our students quite a lot, when they have a client that’s not one of their instructors,” Mr. Shaw said.

Wilmington University began offering child advocacy classes in fall 2009 and last semester, 141 students were enrolled in the program.

Three classes are required for the Child Advocacy Studies certificate. The first, which teaches students to identify child abuse, is already available online.

Staff writer Eleanor La Prade can be reached at 741-8242 or Follow DSNEleanor on Twitter.