Why Gaming Can Be Good for Autistics11 min read

I’m going to take you through the dif­ferent gaming types and explain how playing these games reg­u­larly can be very ben­e­fi­cial to autis­tics, both old and young!

I imagine that there are a few dis­be­lieving faces looking at the title of this article. Parent’s can go through the hardest fights with their kids regarding how much they game– or even just trying to stop their child(ren) from gaming at night in order to sleep. But those par­ents may not be aware of the ben­e­fits their child is get­ting from playing!

Video/Console Games

Arguably, the most pop­ular gaming format and most diverse in the type, genre, and style of games that can be played is con­sole gaming (like the PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox con­soles).

I have been a gamer since I was 4 years old when my dad bought a Spectrum ZX. I can still remember the feel­ings of excite­ment and com­fort watching the mes­merising yellow and black lines move on the screen during the 20-minute loading time for each game. Yes, you read that right – 20 MINUTES to load a game! What’s worse is that some­times it crashed before fully loading and you had to start all over again!

As I got older, I was either gifted or bought myself most of the dif­ferent games con­soles as gaming was my pri­mary method to escape the world that was so con­fusing and scary. By immersing myself into a game, I found peace; my erratic thoughts and anx­iety would sig­nif­i­cantly sub­side, and all I had to think about and focus on was what was hap­pening on the screen.

Yes, it meant that I wasn’t being sociable or spending a great deal of time with my family, but I badly needed that escape from reality and to have a way to reg­u­late both my emo­tions and my anx­iety.

Nowadays, games are so much more advanced than the Amiga games that I loved back in the early 90’s. The graphics, game play, con­trols, online and com­mu­nity aspects in modern games is incred­ible – as are the oppor­tu­ni­ties to develop impor­tant skills and dif­ferent types of thinking.

Let’s take a first-person shooter game as the first example!

Screenshot of a realistic battle scene in a European village. The perspective is in first person.
Video game screen­shot

The skills that are built by playing this type of game are: hand-eye coor­di­na­tion, problem-solving, crit­ical thinking, dex­terity, rapid analysis, adap­ta­tion, timing, plan­ning, organ­i­sa­tion, fine motor, spa­tial aware­ness, speed, and resource man­age­ment. If the game is an online mul­ti­player, then you also have com­mu­ni­ca­tion, social skills, coop­er­a­tion, team building, and lis­tening skills being devel­oped during play.

Further ben­e­fits include learning about taking risks, rewards, emo­tion reg­u­la­tion, and anxiety-regulation through immer­sion in the game. Many of these games are historically-accurate, too, and pro­vide so much con­text for the lessons learned in civics classes. What better way to learn about WWII than living it in first person? Shutting out the world for a while, relief from frus­tra­tion or aggres­sion, social­ising and making friends if playing an online mul­ti­player– these can be vital for sur­vival.


Let’s now look at a dif­ferent type of game: an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game)

Screenshot from World of Warcraft

Now there is one game that will always have a very spe­cial place in my heart. I spent six years heavily immersed in this game, and to be com­pletely honest, it kept me sane. I was having to heavily mask at home as well as at work, had no friends in the area, so spent every minute that I wasn’t either at work or sleeping, playing World of Warcraft. It is still the thing I crave when­ever I am stressed or over­whelmed.

This is a fan­tasy game by Blizzard and you create a char­acter that travels the fan­tasy uni­verse, solving quests and get­ting into bat­tles.

There are hun­dreds of Guilds that are set up by indi­vidual players that others can join, in which the mem­bers can com­plete quests together, chat in their own pri­vate chat group in the game, etc.

For autis­tics, this is often the most com­fort­able way to socialise and the least anxiety-inducing. Being able to socialise whilst in the safety and com­fort of our own home is so much easier and man­age­able for us. It also gives the option that if you do start to feel over­whelmed, you can just either mute the chat side of the game or take a break from the game.

In the future, I can easily envisage that in-game social­ising will be done whilst alone in your own home, with a Skype-style com­mu­ni­ca­tion window so that you don’t have to phys­i­cally be around other people or leave your own home (or have to tidy it for guests!). This won’t suit everyone, but I think that autis­tics, glob­ally, would be far more sociable if this were an option!

I per­son­ally have never played in guilds because I do not like playing games with others, but that is purely my per­sonal pref­er­ence. I found that it detracted from the escapism ele­ment of playing. Some may ben­efit greatly from social­ising in guilds. Many mar­riages and fam­i­lies started in online guilds.

I could talk about this game for hours, so I will swiftly move onto the skills that are devel­oped through playing this type of game: problem-solving, hand-eye coor­di­na­tion, dex­terity, tac­tical thinking, focus, fine motor, crit­ical thinking, cre­ative thinking, imag­i­na­tion, patience, slowly working towards an achieve­ment, timing, plan­ning, organ­i­sa­tion, spa­tial aware­ness, time- and resource-management, social, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

This is all on top of the relax­ation, relief from frus­tra­tion or aggres­sion, emo­tional relief, and anx­iety reg­u­la­tion from immer­sion in the game.

App Games

Such a vast range of dif­ferent types of games at your fin­ger­tips!

I love app games, if for nothing other than they can be a quick-fix escape or pro­cras­ti­na­tion tool while I avoid doing what I’m meant to be doing. This might not be an ideal selling point, but it keeps me from self-destructive behav­iors when I’m expe­ri­encing demand avoid­ance.

Skills devel­oped through playing include hand-eye coor­di­na­tion, dex­terity, patience, analysis, problem-solving, time- and resource-management, and crit­ical thinking.

Benefits include: a quick gaming fix, relief from frus­tra­tion, boredom, or aggres­sion, and emo­tion and anx­iety reg­u­la­tion.

The addi­tional bonus with app games, for me, is that you can have simple brain games like Sudoku, Mah-jong, chess, jigsaw puz­zles– all of which help exer­cise your brain and build on impor­tant skill sets, as well as role-playing games, shoot-‘em-ups, and plat­form games; all that can live in your phone or tablet so you can play them on-the-go– or when you’re out and about and feel over­whelmed, you can just play a game for 10 mins and feel calmer and more reg­u­lated.

Many app games now have a social aspect where you can have Guilds or teams that you can chat pri­vately with on the game, which then increases social and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills as well.                            

A cluster of recog­nis­able board game pieces

Board Games

I can hear you groaning, but read on…

I am also a big board game player, but not main­stream games like Monopoly, Scrabble, or Clue, more like Arkham Horror, Lords of Waterdeep, Firefly, Forbidden Island, etc.

These have a lot more depth and char­acter to them, I find, than the main­stream board games avail­able, but if you feel most com­fort­able with games like Monopoly, that’s com­pletely fine as they also improve skills like the more diverse games.

Board games have also come a long way in the past few decades. Now, games can have dif­ferent mechanics that are indi­vidual to that spe­cific game (methods of playing the game, such as area con­trol, social deduc­tion, dex­terity, card col­lecting, try your luck, etc.) which means that you learn dif­ferent skills and ways of thinking by playing dif­ferent games; even if they are in the same genre of games such as tile place­ment, deck building, or resource man­age­ment games.

These are some of the skills that you can increase by playing board games: turn taking, sharing, timing, patience, lis­tening, problem solving, dex­terity, fine motor, tac­tical thinking, focus, crit­ical thinking, con­ver­gent ana­lyt­ical thinking, plan­ning, organ­i­sa­tion, resource man­age­ment, deduc­tion, social, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and speed.

It’s already been sci­en­tif­i­cally proven that playing board games can stave off cog­ni­tive decline in older people, so imagine what it may doing for those who have cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment delays or dif­fi­cul­ties!

I find that board games are par­tic­u­larly good for autis­tics, in terms of social­ising, in that you can play with other people but not have to worry so much about having to have con­ver­sa­tions that aren’t about what is hap­pening in the game, or that you can just focus on your cards or play area that you have dominion and con­trol over. There is far less pres­sure to par­tic­i­pate in con­ver­sa­tions that you may not be con­fi­dent in joining or that would be over­whelming.

Yet, by playing games with others, it is still increasing your social and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills simply by enjoying the game and dis­cussing game moves or by observing others without pres­sure of joining in the con­ver­sa­tion.

Having a small social group with a common pas­sion and drive for playing games can reduce the poten­tial anx­iety con­sid­er­ably.

Another way in that board games are often enjoyed by autis­tics is that once you have learnt the rules of a game, the game­play becomes pre­dictable in that you under­stand what you are doing and can do during the game and each round has the same struc­ture.

If you or the autistic in your life does not react well to losing a game, there are many very good coop­er­a­tive games avail­able for dif­ferent age ranges, where all of the players are on the same team, fighting against a common foe or trying to com­plete the quest together.  There are also games where you play in teams, which reduces the sense of failure com­pared to playing as an indi­vidual if your team doesn’t win.

Roleplay Games and LARPing

A lesser known form of gaming is role­play. This is where one person acts as the nar­rator or sto­ry­teller and the rest of the group play char­ac­ters within the story making deci­sions as to what their char­acter does and says in each sit­u­a­tion within the story. Each char­acter has a char­acter sheet that the player cre­ates which depicts what skills their char­acter has, what they are like, what they look like, etc.

This has been a pas­sion of mine since I was first a teenager and, as a PDAer, it is incred­ibly ther­a­peutic being able to pre­tend to be someone else for a while and using your imag­i­na­tion to it’s fullest.

Skills that are devel­oped are: imag­i­na­tion, time and resource man­age­ment, risk taking, deci­sion making, fine motor, plan­ning, crit­ical thinking, problem solving, turn taking (when each player is saying what they are doing next), patience, lis­tening, social, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

The ben­e­fits include: emo­tion and anx­iety reg­u­la­tion, relief from frus­tra­tion and aggra­va­tion, social inter­ac­tion, and it is a great escape from reality.

One thing that I love about role­play is that the social anx­iety is dimin­ished as you are not wor­rying about what people think of you, as you are playing a dif­ferent person entirely. You can be whomever you want to be.

Although a sociable game, there is little-to-no con­ver­sa­tion out­side of the story, so you do not have to worry about being able to join in or keep up with a con­ver­sa­tion. During game play, there is time to decide on what you are going to do or say, which is very ben­e­fi­cial to those of us with a slow pro­cessing speed!

A person in a very elab­o­rate cos­tume

Live Action RolePlay (LARP) is, essen­tially, the same as tabletop role­play (above) but you are acting out the char­acter in cos­play out­fits. I love LARP as it is com­pletely step­ping inside of the char­acter, and, like in tabletop role­play, you can be whomever you want to be (as long as you can act as the role).

It is like wearing a full body mask of your own making, keeping your true self hidden safely away where no-one can judge you.

In con­clu­sion; if you are wor­ried about your child spending too long playing games and are wor­ried about the harm it could be doing to them, think of the long list of ben­e­fits that it has.

Though it is worth bearing in mind that there is the poten­tial for obses­sion with all types of gaming, par­tic­u­larly con­sole and online games; like with all things, mod­er­a­tion is the key to main­taining a healthy bal­ance.

It can be very inviting to stay in the relaxing and peaceful depths of a game, immersed in a world far from reality’s reach, but spending too long in there makes it harder to cope with the real world. But spending a few hours a day can be far more ben­e­fi­cial than detri­mental.

Until next time, happy gaming but don’t forget to get out in the fresh air every now and again!

Originally posted on www.differentnotdeficient.co.uk

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  1. Very well written and well argued. I have always found gaming to pro­vide the same ben­e­fits as you men­tion. Furthermore, as a teacher, I have always argued that games in the Age of Empires mold hold many ben­e­fits. It teaches his­tory and math for starters. Plus there are ele­ments of sci­ence and geog­raphy that can be learned too.

  2. Excellent post! I just wanted to men­tion guild mem­ber­ship and how those can be detri­mental to autists, if the majority of the guild mem­ber­ship are neu­rotyp­ical. I play Guild Wars 2, a fan­tasy MMORPG, and have had hor­rible expe­ri­ences in just about every guild I’ve ever joined because I do not fit in. These guilds have the same prob­lems online that social groups have in real life, lots of cliques, toxic people, insulting behav­iour and so on. Many active guilds require the use of Discord for voice chat, which is some­thing I cannot do because of anx­iety and often­times selec­tive mutism or dif­fi­culty with word recall when I am stressed.

  3. Slight tan­gent:

    My sister has Down syn­drome and very lim­ited math skills. We started playing board games like Sorry and Trouble with her. All the counting greatly improved her ability to do math with a number line.

    I’m not sure how much that skill will trans­late to real life, but nonethe­less, I’m so glad it helped with her number sense.

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