Autism and the Videogame Community

April is Autism Awareness Month and if I’m lucky today is the 2nd of April: Autism Awareness Day. I’m taking this time to not just write one but a couple of posts dealing with issues faced by those with autism, instead of my usual spotlight on myself and talking about what autism is like for me. It’s my 8th Autism Awareness Month so talking about that stuff does get tiresome. The first post will be about autistic people in the videogame community and the second about the state of the autism community and its many divisions within that community.

Recently I made the decision to quit playing in multiplayer worlds such as MMOs and spending a long time in game forums. I felt like it wasn’t a very supportive environment and not an ideal place for someone still learning social skills and dealing with serious mental health problems. I was let down by the fact that the game community and most social online communities are not really about making friends and supporting each other. I’m not saying it should change. I would love it to change but I’m not pushing anything here. It’s just not for me and I don’t think it’s for people with similar issues.

That said, I’m still going to play the DOOM beta later and if I run into the same obstacles I will try my best to get through it. Obstacles, you say? Yes, these obstacles are often the mindset other gamers have when they are looking to team up with another person. They expect you to already know what to do and be just as good as they are. If not they will accuse you of not trying hard enough, even being lazy. They just don’t see that two people may not be alike. It’s actually very autistic. OK, I deserve the abuse I’ll get from saying that. But it’s very true. I had to learn all throughout my early adult life to remember to think of others and even had to pick up in other people how to empathise. So, it’s something I’m always trying to keep in mind, yet others seem to be losing this innate ability.

I don’t play as much as other people. I have many other interests, all of which will individually take my complete focus for weeks and months on end. I can’t really commit to two at a time. At the moment I seem to be trying to juggle writing with my band photography with playing video games with reading comic books so I’m not putting much time on any one thing at all, so I haven’t got that intense attention to detail autistic people are famous for. I expect some abuse thrown at me from playing DOOM because I haven’t played anything like DOOM for years. I’m off my game, as they say.

What I’m really trying to encourage here in my speedy jumpy-brain ADHD writing style is that I wish gamers would open their minds up to the fact that not everyone who is playing with or against them is exactly like them. You never know what kind of stress someone is under or what their challenges are. Most of you don’t care but I believe there’s a minority of people who will still give consideration to a minority of people once they’re made aware of it.

The reason I play video games at all has a lot to do with my poor performance playing platform games on SEGA, PC and Nintendo as a kid and proving to myself that I’ve gotten better since. I have. I use my brain much more now than when I was a kid. The second reason is because back when I wasn’t even playing games but was sorta interested in them thanks to the invention of mobile gaming that I started to research game development to help me write about VR technology in a science fiction novel I was writing. Funny thing was I didn’t actually know another company was creating the same type of technology under the label VR Roaming. Anyway, tangent. Point is my research turned into playing the games and living in the communities and then I got so absorbed into the playing side of the research, I became a gamer myself. Then when I was going through a lot of anxiety over going to see live bands cause of a PTSD issue I found that playing Batman: Arkham City calmed these nerves and maybe beating the hell out of bad guys felt kind of empowering. So, when I was struggling to deal with crippling depression and suicidal thoughts (oops, trigger warning) I would make myself play a game at the very beginning of my depression and the feelings would be alleviated and I wouldn’t go on online rants and lose all my friends in the process.

Now the fact that I was in these mental states while gaming meant any slight abuse hurled at me was deeply felt as my mind wasn’t even seeing the world properly – both depression and anxiety put thoughts in your mind that often do not reflect your current situation, but are both paranoid and delusional, in a mild non-psychosis sense. You’re self-critical, sometimes hating everything about you and losing hope about your future. You start to hate everyone and everything around you too. What were once little annoyances are now the most irritating things in the world. And you believe them, you always believe them. It doesn’t matter how many times you try and put positive thoughts in place of them, they will always sneak their way back in. At least for a little while. Dealing with toxic people in the gaming community just becomes more of a burden when in that state of mind.

Now back to autism. I believe it’s tough being an autistic gamer because our symptoms may lead to playing badly, though sometimes an autistic gamer that has gaming as a special interest can have the upper hand. The old term used by psychologists was ‘little professor’ – it was the fact that a child with Asperger’s or high functioning autism (they’re basically the same thing) could become interested in something and soak that knowledge, mostly facts, up like a sponge and when they talked about it they sounded like an expert in the field. People with autism can teach themselves to do anything this way. I used to read a lot about physics, especially astronomy and spit out facts I memorised here and there and people thought I was a genius. I understood what I was saying but I’m far from a genius. We have a high attention to detail so can pick up on things people may miss. Try to pick up an object with a lot of detail with it and try to pick off every little detail on it. This is what we do naturally. It’s actually a good coping mechanism. When we look at the whole picture (environment) we’re easily overwhelmed. Most of us have extremely sensitive senses (take note Bungie) and need to detach from the world and just focus on one thing. As a result we memorise all the details. I’m just saying, a player like that on your team could be an asset.

We’re also very good problem solvers. Despite thinking mostly linearly, like it says in the diagnostic criteria, some of us can think of unconventional ways to solve a problem. A big problem I have with video games is that there’s usually just one way to play the game. I was once doing a raid in Destiny playing the Dark Below DLC. You have to take down a Hive Prince called Crota. We all pretty much knew the drill. All six of us have to touch a stone, then you gotta fight the Hive minions and there’s just a very set way to go on from there. But there was this one time where Bungie servers were being little buttholes and glitching the whole raid up, so we were impatient to finish the game so we broke protocol. It was only a slight deviation from the plan but we defeated Crota a lot faster than we usually would. So, maybe having a less than conventional member on the team could not only make a boring rinse and repeat raid more interesting but may lead to quicker victories. And I just think if there were at least 3 or 4 possible ways to complete a level then it would make for much more exciting game play. I really like emergent game play where you take over some dialogue decisions and it affects the outcome of the game. Developers need to make the way players actually get around the environment and the decisions they make within be as varied as the many choices of dialogue in story driven game play.

Autistic people may be able to learn a lot of information quickly and rehash that knowledge as though they’ve been into that subject for ten years when really it’s been two days, they may see other things people miss and they may want to shake up the linear way in which you play games, but there are also some cons. One of the most noticeable shortcomings about someone with autism is their poorly developed social skills. I’m here to elaborate on that. When talking to someone with autism it’s best to talk in a fairly straight forward manner and leave the phrases and idioms at home. They also cannot process too much information at once so it needs to be done in step by step intervals. For me, I don’t like too much banter while in a raid. I need to be able to focus on the mission at hand and really focus on the team leader’s directions. I simply cannot hear two different types of dialogue at once. I always have to pause a TV show when someone comes into the room talking. I can no longer follow what’s going on TV. I feel so frustrated I feel like throwing the remote at the people talking, but I know they don’t understand why I can’t hear the TV. They can filter out unwanted noise and focus on one thing. I and most people with autism, can’t. And always remember, people with autism cannot deal with change. A very helpful and awesome person will help them slowly transition to change by revealing that something different is going to happen and a most unhelpful person will just drop that information 2 seconds before it happens. The difference is a calm and contended person eager to do some team death match or a very angry person who is going to rage quit anyway, and blame you for it. Might rant on Facebook about it. Maybe.

One thing to keep in mind is people with autism just want to be understood but still be treated like everyone else. We don’t want pity. We’ve been handled with kid gloves for most of our lives and to be treated that way in your teens or adulthood is degrading and patronising. There has to be a balance between not being an ableist coont and not treating us like we’re in damn kindergarten.

I think one of the big problems facing people with autism and is probably the reason why they remain unicorns to me (hard to find in the gaming community) is because of the fact that autism is used as an insult throughout the gaming community and social media as a whole. Now, I’m not going to tell those people to stop. I know how much gamers hate having to change something about themselves to seem less offensive. I just don’t think autism should be used as an insult. For one, there’s nothing in the diagnostic criteria that says people with autism have an intellectual disability. Anyone who would make fun of someone with an intellectual disability have voided their humanity and are not subject to the same rights as declared in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights in my book anyway. They’re monsters and not worthy of a second thought. Hmm. I may be compartmentalising here..eh. People with autism are not mentally handicapped; it just co-exists in those with severe autism. In the psychological world we call that co-morbid. Like my ADHD. The symptoms of autism are to me personally a set of behaviors developed within the brain as its own way to cope with the chaotic world that the differently connected neural circuits within the autistic brain cannot cope with. But go ahead and think of autistic people as all retarded. It just shows how little you really know about the condition. It’s probably one of the very few mental disorders that give special skills within the frustrating life experience limiting symptoms too.

There are other autistic gamers out there who face the same issues as I do in the online community. I can’t be the only one. I wish to find them and give us a safe place to exist in the game community. If you’re on Xbox One send REDMENACE85 a message. If you’re a troll you will be ignored, reported to Microsoft and name and shamed by the international autism community. If I ever get back into Destiny I’ll make a clan just for us.