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  • Writer's pictureJo Richardson Au

Why Gaming is Good for Autistics

In this article 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 from gaming at night in order to sleep. But they may not be aware of the benefits their child is getting from playing.

Video/Console Games

Arguably the most popular games format and most diverse in the type, genre and style of games that can be played on each console.

I have been a gamer since I was 4 years old and 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 and sometimes, it crashed before fully loading and you had to start all over again!)

As I got older, I was either bought 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 reduce and all I had to think about and focus on is 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 games nowadays 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;

The skills that are built on 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 and listening skills being developed during play.

Further benefits include; learning about taking risks, rewards, emotional and anxiety regulation through immersion in the game; shutting out the world for a while, relief from frustration or aggression, socialising and making friends if playing an online multiplayer.


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

Now this game will always have a very special place in my heart. I spent 6 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 your 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 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 was 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. Some may benefit greatly from socialising in guilds, I found that it detracted from the escapism element of playing.

I could talk about this game for hours so I will swiftly move onto the skills that are developed through playing this 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 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 escape fix or procrastination tool while I avoid doing what I’m meant to be doing.

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, emotional 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 skillsets, 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.

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 Cluedo (not that there’s anything wrong with them but there are literally hundreds of thousands of better games available), 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 ones.

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 game 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 think of what it’s doing for those who may 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 playing 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 LARP

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, using dice rolls to see if their action was successful or not. I.e picking a lock or moving sneakily passed people.

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 full.

Skills that are developed are; imagination, time and resource management, risk taking, decision making, dexterity (rolling dice), 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; emotional and anxiety regulation, relief from frustration and aggravation, 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 whoever 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!

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 whoever 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 is 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!

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Jan 17, 2020

Excellent article and I couldn't agree more! I started homeschooling my daughter when she was 9 due to anxiety and depression issues that were exacerbated by large classes. Her uncle introduced her to WoW and that became her escape - a world in which she had control. She has always been averse to risk. She didn't even learn to ride a bicycle for fear of falling and getting hurt. But in games, she could take risks without danger. And she learned how to strategize to minimize risk. Studies have also found that RPG players have greater empathy - something that autistics sometimes struggle with because they have difficulty interpreting social clues. When she was 16, I suggested she try Dungeons &…

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