Lucy Stevens ’18 and Charlie Anderson ’18 named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list

Anderson, Stevens, and their fellow co-founders of the start-up Social Cipher were recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Education category.

Greta Hardy-Mittell ’23 Feb. 4, 2020
Social Cipher founders

When Lucy Stevens ’18 and Charlie Anderson ’18 were seniors at Carleton, they couldn’t have guessed that their favorite side project—making a video game called Ava—would define their post-college careers. According to Stevens, “we really did not know what we were doing at the time.” But last month, their game took off in a big way: Anderson, Stevens, and their fellow co-founders of the start-up Social Cipher were recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Education category.

Ava is a game about a young autistic girl who travels through space on a quest and recruits a team of space pirates. Envisioned by CEO and co-founder Vanessa Gill, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, the game seeks to provide positive representation of autism onscreen and empower a neurodiverse audience.

Stevens, who was a Cinema and Media Studies (CAMS) major at Carleton, is the lead artist for the project; in her words, she does “everything visual besides animation.” Anderson, a Computer Science (CS) major, acts as both the game designer/developer and the manager of the Social Cipher team. Speaking with them, I heard first-hand about their journey to achieving the top honor for millennial entrepreneurs.

You both started working with Social Cipher during your senior year here. How did that happen?

Charlie Anderson: The original idea for the whole thing came from a woman named Vanessa Gill from Claremont-McKenna College. She’s on the spectrum, and she’s our CEO. When she was younger, she gamed a lot and worked through the emotions she saw onscreen with her mom. She had this idea to make a game about someone on the spectrum with a friend named Amy Wu, who I met and started dating when I went abroad on the AIT Budapest Off-Campus Studies program. Amy and Vanessa needed a developer, and they asked if I wanted to do it.

Lucy Stevens: Then Charlie approached me—I remember being in Burton, actually—Charlie and I were getting dinner. We’ve been friends since freshman year, when we were on Third Goodhue together. So we were just catching up, and he was like, “You like video games, and you like to draw, would you be interested in helping me with this project?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course!”

CA: I didn’t even go into that meal with a plan to ask her—it just came up.

LS: It was some kind of sign.

Tell me about the game itself. What is it about? Who will be playing it when it gets released?

CA: So, we’re actually totally redoing the game. We were pursuing a full-scale game, about five hours long, an experience of this space pirate named Ava going on an adventure. We had produced a demo and started to send it out to publishers, and we were not getting the funding we needed, so we decided this month to pivot to a different platform. Now, we have been receiving money from education technology investors and different groups who are interested in the education side of it.

LS: More like folks who are interested in impact, and the fact that it’s a game is incidental. Rather than “this is a cool game with this cool impact.”

CA: So now we are trying to build a short-form game that’s more like 40 minutes, that someone could use in a counseling session. It will still be an entertaining game—still a game first and foremost—but it might contain a curriculum wrapped around it, so a counselor could talk to their student about the story.

LS: The setting is intact, Ava is still in it, it’s still about space pirates and about recruiting people to your crew. So it’s not a completely different project, just a different implementation.

Neurodiversity isn’t a term that gets thrown around very often, but it’s all over your website. Why is it important to your company in both your game and your work setting?

CA: Our game is about an autistic protagonist, so neurodiversity is important to us so that we’re accurately representing someone who isn’t neurotypical. We’ve hired autism sensitivity consultants, who are two people in the community who will check our work. We happen to be the ones making the game and we are not on the spectrum, so we consult them and Vanessa to make sure we’re telling an authentic tale.

LS: In terms of why neurodiversitiy is important to our company, there are twofold reasons for that. In video games, there’s very little neurodiverse representation. But also, a lot of slurs about people on the spectrum are used in game space, so it’s an active, toxic part of the community. So providing positive representation there is important. The second reason is that games engage people, especially people on the spectrum. They’re a way of storytelling and communicating a message of self-empowerment that they care about.

CA: Yeah. People on the spectrum are two times as likely as neurotypical peers to play video games. They deal well with goal-oriented structures, and game structures tend to be suited to that. So that’s part of why we chose to make a game in the first place: to better reach our audience.

LS: There’s also something about role-playing games where there’s less risk or tension when you’re choosing to say something to someone in a game whereas doing that in real life.

CA: In a game context, you can play as someone in a safe place and try things out. If they don’t work, they don’t work, and there’s no skin off your nose. Ava can make mistakes, upset people, and it’s a safe place to experiment with that kind of thing.

It sounds like there’s a disconnect, where on the one hand, games engage with people on the spectrum and a lot of people on the spectrum play them, and on the other hand, there’s toxic representation within the gaming community. So what messages would you want to send to people on the spectrum, as well as to neurotypical people who want to be better allies, whether that’s in the gaming community or outside of it?

CA: One thing that we’ve discovered working on this game is that there’s a political arena around the discussion of autism and it’s surprisingly complicated, but it boils down to the kind of therapy that is given to people on the spectrum. Usually, that’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which is focused on repetition and reward, and it’s the only kind of therapy that is covered by insurance. But it can honestly be demeaning, and more focused on the idea of social camouflage—making someone on the spectrum behave like neurotypicals, potentially at the expense of the person.

Our game is not focused on changing the person playing; it’s more about helping the player figure out what’s effective for them. It’s about making them feel like they can do what they set their mind to, like they have value, like they can be self advocates.

LS: I think it’s about shifting the idea away from, “there’s a normal, and we’re all trying to gravitate towards the normal,” and more towards, “I’m this way, and you’re that way, and are there ways we can work this out? Are there ways that I can be a good friend? That we can connect?”

CA: “How do we interface, and not judge the crap out of each other?”

Circling back to Carleton now. How have your interdisciplinary majors and liberal arts backgrounds factored into how you’ve designed the game and run this business?

LS: I have gone to bat for a small liberal arts education since graduating from Carleton. For example, as a CAMS major, even though I was learning all this film stuff, I was able to do a project for my comps where I wrote an original short film screenplay and drew roughly 150 colored storyboard frames for it. That was a big test on my fledgling art skills.

Also, in this project, you have to be super disciplined. You have to drive yourself, and a lot of times it feels like building out into a void. You’re not sure what’s on the other side, you’re trying to get there, you have a hazy idea of what’s going to be there, but you have to get yourself there. I think Carleton gave me the tools to deal with that.

I was super impressed reading about you and seeing, wow, you only graduated a year and a half ago, and you’ve already made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. What advice would you give to this year’s upcoming Carleton graduates?

LS: One: you will find Carls wherever you go. I don’t know if that’s advice, per se, but you find those people. And one thing about Carleton that has stuck with me is that people who are Carls, more often than not, give a crap. They care. I feel like I gravitate towards them. So stay connected.

Then there’s the classic, “this was just an opportunity that happened to fall into my lap.” There are a lot of different paths that you can take, but we’ve found this unusual and really interesting opportunity, and at times we’ve sacrificed things or changed things to stick with it. You never know if it’s going to pan out perfectly, but it’s been an awesome journey anyway.

CA: There might be people out there who say, “You have to follow your passion.” But to be honest, it is a state of high privilege to be able to do that. After school, I moved back into my parents’ house so I could work on this project at no rent, and not everyone can do that. Not everyone can put everything on hold. So take care of yourself, don’t break yourself, because there’s time to come back to your passion later.

LS: I think that’s another piece of advice: don’t limit yourself. In my last class at Carleton, one of my favorite professors was like, “You guys really don’t know anything. You just graduated from undergrad; what do you know? But hopefully you care enough to keep learning.”

Maybe that’s my biggest takeaway from Carleton: you care. You’re open and you’re ready to learn. It was a pretty significant track shift for me, being a CAMS major to doing art. So you can major in something, and that’s all great, but don’t limit yourself to that. Be open to figuring out what you actually want to do.