How video games are providing pathways for the neurodiverse

By Cherie Gilmour

How video games are providing pathways for the neurodiverse
The neurodiverse are turning to video games, role-playing games and gaming groups to improve their social skills and resilience and to discover safer, friendly, more inclusive spaces that understand and respect them and their needs.

The sign on the door says, ‘We are currently negotiating with dragons, smashing pixels and other awesome things!’ … and with that, you step into the parallel universe of Geelong-based genU GAMER, where neurodiverse people can ‘level up’ social skills and resilience through gaming. You quickly sense that these gamers have a finely tuned radar for fun.

The walls are papered in posters: Super Mario Bros, X-Men comics, Halo, Zelda and the classic ’80s game River Raid. Bursting muscles, Elvish sirens, apocalyptic wastelands and bouncy Italian plumbers pepper the colourful landscape. A row of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ manuals line a shelf, with titles such as Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.

There are worlds beyond worlds here, ready to explore. But the one I’m most interested in is the world of the neurodiverse person. When you’re on the spectrum, life isn’t a level playing field. “It’s as if I am an alien who has been abandoned on Earth and left to muddle my way through life, without a reason, a mission, or any memory of home,” comedian Hannah Gatsby wrote about her autism in her memoir, Ten Steps to Nanette.

“You know that time you said something stupid and everyone looked at you like you grew a second head? Imagine feeling like that every time you talk to someone,” a Reddit user wrote in a discussion about what autism feels like.

Another wrote: “If an alien appeared before me and told me I’ve done an amazing job at observing this species called homo sapiens but now it’s time to go back, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.” The phrase ‘wrong planet syndrome’ is thrown around. The term ‘neurodiverse’ was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998 to wrap language around everyone; as in, ‘we as a species are neurodiverse’. Someone who is neurodivergent might have autism spectrum disorder (now including Asperger’s syndrome), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or attention deficit disorder, but it’s not limited to these.

‘Gaming’ can encompass anything from chess to Candy Crush to shoot-’em-up video games and tabletop role-playing like Dungeons & Dragons. From the early days of Pong to the immersive VR worlds you can now plug into, games have come a long way.

Growth of gaming

COVID-19 created new gamers, with people turning to games to alleviate boredom during lockdowns. In 2021, New Zealand’s gaming industry’s annual revenue was $276 million, having grown 36 per cent in the last four years. Meanwhile, according to PwC’s 2021 report on the Australian entertainment and media industry, video game revenue was A$3.41 billion in 2020 and is expected to be A$4.9 billion by 2025, making it the fastest- growing sector in the industry.

Pâris Conte describes his role at genU GAMER as ‘Head Dragon Wrangler’. He finds the word ‘manager’ intimidating and doesn’t feel it’s the role of staff to be telling the participants what to do. “Our role is to create social environments through gaming for individuals to discover, test, practise and reflect off their peers,” he says.

A former care worker, he experienced a ‘hallelujah’ moment, when switched roles to head up the fledgling programme bringing neurodivergent people together to play games. Many of them had been isolated, gaming alone. He realised he’d learnt things his whole life through gaming, and perhaps a tailored programme could do the same for others.

His instinct was right, with genU GAMER becoming a popular programme with a long waitlist. They drew support from a similar programme in the US called Game to Grow, which helps youth and adults become more confident, creative, and socially capable through gaming experiences. Their goals align with Conte’s vision for genU GAMER – to help people flourish socially ‘on their own terms’ rather than aiming to ‘fix’ the person or help them fit into the mainstream.

GenU GAMER’s tagline is ‘Using imagined worlds to help build better realities’. On offer are Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo games, board and card games, Warhammer, model-painting and terrain building and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. The staff of genU GAMER, many who are professionals in the gaming industry already, work on goals with participants and come up with a programme to help achieve them. For example, if someone wants to improve their social confidence, they might engage in role-playing games which require lots of verbal initiative.

Geelong man Geoff has been part of the genU GAMER programme since its inception and he’ll soon start using what he’s learnt to help others as a volunteer.

“It actually feels like we’re getting valued because we can take these skills into real life and get hands-on learning,” he says. He used to play a lot at home and talks about how no-one was taking gaming seriously 10 to 15 years ago. Geoff doesn’t have a formal diagnosis but identifies with autism. “With autism, you think a hundred thoughts in under a minute,” he says, “so with gaming you can go into a different world. You’re not thinking about financial issues or your mental health or even physical pain.”

The importance of play

‘Play’ is defined by Dr Stuart Brown as ‘pleasurable and apparently purposeless activity’ and is an essential psychological function in children and adults. Dr Brown has dedicated his life to understanding ‘play’. He studied the brains of murderers and noticed a pattern; a lack of play in childhood, which led to a deficiency of empathy.

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” he said in a TED talk. “Try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise without play … no humour, no flirtation, no movies, no games, no fantasy.”

The benefits of ‘play’ aside, the battle to define whether video games are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ plays out in politics, schools and in the minds of worried parents, and science offers inconclusive results.

A 2017 study from publisher Frontiers in Human Neuroscience analysed 116 academic articles on the neural and cognitive effects of videogames and found definitive links to attention, cognitive control, visuospatial skills, cognitive workload, and reward processing. The type of brain changes depends on the game so it’s difficult to make a blanket assessment.

For example, a 2013 study found that players of Super Mario 64 had increased activity in the hippocampus, which relates to spatial processing and navigation, whereas ‘shoot ’em up’ games showed decreased activity in the hippocampus due to the different skills required.

Many games are played online with other people, creating virtual communities – which can be less intimidating for those with social difficulties. For someone who is neurodivergent, games can give a sense of control that may not be felt in the ‘real world’. Conte describes it like a sandbox: “It’s a defined area of play, I know the barriers and the boundaries. If I don’t know how to play, there’s an instruction manual or cheat guides online. I can meet people without fear of going outside and if the person on the other end is obnoxious, I can disconnect.”

Games can offer a safe space to role play real-world scenarios (minus the dragons). “With gaming you’ve got to think things through,’ says Geoff. “People with autism don’t always think about the ramifications of their actions, but gaming gives you a chance to practise and understand consequences.”

In his book The Gaming Mind, psychologist Alexander Kriss refers to a fellow psychologist describing a potential patient as a “gamer kid”, with indifference, as “a concept that merited no scrutiny”. Kriss challenges her description, claiming that many storytelling games have become an art form: “They might offer more than immediate gratification of unconscious desire but could also be utilised to explore complex aspects of the human experience – from love to grief to alienation and beyond”.

But the lingering perception of gaming as frivolous entertainment, or just plain ‘bad’, lingers. The Australian National Disability Insurance Scheme has been clunky in its roll-out with a mix of good and bad stories and everything in between. The concept of ‘reasonable and necessary supports’ leaves a world of interpretation, often left to the person dishing out the money. Are video games reasonable and necessary in the lives of people with disabilities?

Bill Shorten, the recently sworn-in NDIS minister, is determined to “restore trust in the NDIS” since its inception and roll-out in the past nine years. While the scheme has been beneficial to many, its flaws have been widely documented including in a 2010 Productivity Commission report.

The Facebook group NDIS Grassroots is a forum for some of the thousands of Australians with an NDIS plan. When one member asked if an Xbox were a valid purchase for an autistic person, the responses were mixed, further highlighting confusion around what is reasonable and necessary. Some people had received gaming devices as part of their plan; others were denied. ‘Want’ vs ‘need’ comes up a lot, with debate over whether gaming devices are necessary to the lives of someone with a disability or should be classified as a personal expense.

Luckily, this is changing, and it’s programmes like genU GAMER that are making strides in this field, challenging the attitudes and unconscious biases towards gaming. The world can be an unforgiving place, even for those who know how to play by the rules. It’s nice to know there are alternate worlds out there that are a little kinder and more inclusive.

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