Video games and autism – what is the attraction?

Taylor Cross

By Taylor Cross

Something you should ask yourself before continuing on with the rest of this article is “Why do people in general play video games?”  With that, I would tease “Why do people go the movies?” or “Why do people read horrible gossip magazines?” It’s because they want to escape from their daily lives and ignore their current problems or challenges. It is a form of pure escapism.

Now how does this impact people with autism? The answer is actually a lot simpler than you think. It’s two-fold. First, it’s a case of how an individual with autism is hardwired primarily for logical/ deductive thinking. Otherwise known as the “If this happens… then this is the result” method of thinking. Think of it, in a Mario game, one button is always going to be the jump button and in a shooter game, one button is always going to be your shoot button. That’s just in the basics of good game design. 

Think about the original Super Mario Brothers, for example. It revolutionized platform games with the idea that you basically did everything outside of movement by jumping on or over something. Need to take care of some Goombas? Jump on them. Next to a bottomless pit? Jump over it. Need to swim? Press the jump button. This idea was greatly expanded upon in other games and even crossed into other genres of video games. You can always trust that one button to perform the exact same function over and over again and alleviates the anxiety that comes with all the unknown things in a new game franchise you’ve never played before. This is a metaphor for life.

That level of stress relief leads right into the next point, which is how video games help a person get a sense of control over things in their daily lives. This is increased exponentially when you are an individual with autism and struggle with doing tasks that seem so simple to everyone else, such as interacting in a social environment.

As an avid gamer myself, the degree of control that a game gives me varies depending on the genre of game and how much/ how little the people who make the games want you to see. It’s weirdly alleviating to know just how in control of a game you are. For instance, if I play a horror game such as Silent Hill or Resident Evil I know I’m not in control of my environment at all because being in control detracts from the fear those games are trying to instill in me. If I play an epic open world game like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Mass Effect I’m in control of my character right down to the minutest of details because the game maker wants me to feel like I’m a powerhouse who goes through enemies like a knife through butter. However, that’s also part of the fun, because they are just fake amusement park attractions at the end of the day used to incite thrills … and that’s the way we gamers like it.

How all this relates back to people with autism is that video games provide a basic human need that just so happens to encompass people with autism such as myself. So having complete control over a virtual environment when it’s so difficult to maintain self-regulated emotions and behaviors is, and I cannot stress this enough, INCREDIBLY appealing not just to those with autism, but to many individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

My next article will be what I think about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recognition of “Gaming Disorder” as a diagnostic criteria.

This is Taylor Cross signing off.

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Taylor Cross is a professional video game journalist from Ventura, California who spent years working with the disability community before switching to a career in video games full-time.

5 Comments

  • Very well done. Getting emails and comments from people who know us both saying how your article gave great insight and relativity. I’ve shared

  • This is most important: Autistic patients are primarily used for logical/deductive thinking through hardwired connections. what ever we use language, music, painting or dance. Of course video game, But we have to make sure, the video game is related the point of Autistic patients need to heal.

  • there are quite a few reasons… one of which is that video games are very appealing to lots of people. you don`t have to be autistic. but there are specific things that make video games useful tools for autistics. stress reduction and predictability are definitely a couple of them. also, sensory management. for instance, if it`s too quiet, you have sensory input. or if it`s too loud, a video game can be like an anchor to focus on.

    they can also be useful as a social tool. not only because you have a topic to talk about that there are plenty of other people who can relate to it, but you can also make and keep friends online in a manner much more conducive to how autistics operate. in other words, not in person. it evens the playing field quite a bit when you remove the nonverbal aspect of communication. it`s also useful to have a portable system to help with boredom. and those systems can do almost everything a phone can plus more.

    then there`s pattern recognition and manipulation. that is a very satisfying thing for most autistics. video games are an ideal way to explore very complex pattern manipulation in a controlled environment. you may not recognise that is what is happening if you don`t have the same kind of aptitude. very few people who aren`t autistic do.

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