Why Gaming Can Be Good for Autistics

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.

Surprised?

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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4 Comments

  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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