By: Patricia C. Baxter
As an autistic woman, video games hold significant importance to me as they provide a medium for entertainment, storytelling, and gameplay, as well as way to unwind from the stresses of “real life.” Unfortunately video games, like most media, have very limited representations of people on the autistic spectrum. The characters that are on the spectrum are usually non-player characters (NPCs) that are depicted in ways that re-inforce stereotypes rather than accurately depicting of what it means to be autistic. Even though a game does not have an autistic character, the autistic gamer can still find the video game empowering. In this article, I will reflect on my experiences as a gamer, taking into consideration my identity as an autistic woman, and how this has shaped the way I view video games as a personal narrative experience through the method of autoethnography. I will also discuss the ways that video games have empowered me and how game developers can improve the representation of autistic people in video games.
Let me first define some of the terms I will be using in this autoethnography. These terms are known to members of the autistic community, but people who are not on the spectrum may not be familiar with them. An example is the term “allistic,” a word created by autistic people to describe those who are not autistic. While some still prefer the term “neurotypical,” it has been argued that “neurotypical” may accidentally exclude other neurodivergences or mental illnesses. As such, allistic will be used instead of neurotypical in this paper. Another term centers on self-stimulating behaviours – also known as “stimming” or a “stim” – something common to many people on the autistic spectrum. This activity can occur in many forms, but the general consensus is that stimming is an activity that calms autistic people in moments of intense stress and anxiety, but it can also occur when they are relaxed and happy.
My Autism Story
Before I received my diagnosis at the age of twelve, my life was extremely confusing and stressful. I remember my elementary school years as a period of great frustration and anxiety, where I would try to make connections with my peers, but would continually fail to establish a bond with any of them. I was constantly stressed, as I had difficulty completing the course material in the same allotted time as my peers because of the combined need to process the information given to me, and the physical pain that came with writing in long hand. Recess, which many of my peers saw as a time of relaxation, was instead a source of added stress for me, a time where I was directionless and overstimulated by all of the activities happening around me. Looking back on these experiences with more knowledgeable eyes, it’s no wonder that I was experiencing extreme anxiety attacks in the school yard and dreading the time each day when I would have to leave for school. My parents saw how I was struggling and decided it was finally time to seek a medical opinion. After some testing I was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, now simply known as a type of autism by the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. With this diagnosis a great weight was lifted from my shoulders, as I finally had an explanation for who I was, and why I experienced the world around me in a unique fashion.
My diagnosis explained why I often feel like an outsider. Throughout my life I have (and continue to) only enjoyed very restricted niche interests when compared to my peers who enjoyed, and understood, popular culture in a way that I could not (and cannot) comprehend. This is because autistic people are commonly, but not always, associated with a hyper-fixation on certain topics, known as “special interests,” that they love above all other things. Not only can it be difficult to think outside of one’s interests, but it is also difficult to discuss one’s interests with others. The “rules” of conversation can be difficult for an autistic person to comprehend and can lead to stress and frustration. For example, an autistic person would prefer to talk about a topic they are legitimately interested in, specifically a special interest, and commonly finds small talk (such as a discussion about the weather) uninteresting or irrelevant.
My diagnosis also explains my hypersensitivity to particular sensations, specifically sounds. Furthermore, my tendency to experience sensory overload, a sensation where one’s senses are over-stimulated, leading to stress and, occasionally, to “meltdowns.” This makes large social gatherings and busy locations, such as a mall or school, sites of frustration for me, and, as such, I must mentally prepare myself before entering these settings. Because I become stressed rather quickly, it was important for me to learn various coping mechanisms and to learn to identify when I have become too anxious. While I occasionally still struggle with the identification process, I believe I have reached a stage in my life where I know what causes me stress and what best calms me during these intense moments.
Finally, being autistic explained why my ability to communicate, either verbally or non-verbally, is different. My non-verbal communication skills, such as maintaining eye contact and showcasing active listening skills, are poor in comparison to the average allistic person. While I have been able to identify and improve upon these skills, it does not change the reality that communicating with others is an exhausting, frustrating, and tiring exercise for me. Furthermore, I am known for thinking very literally when conversing with others, making it difficult for me to understand metaphors without asking for further clarification.
The knowledge of my autistic identity is a huge relief for me as it allows me to pursue life with a new understanding of my individual self, and with a reaffirmation of the fact that world contains other people like me. I can firmly say that I am proud to be an autistic person, and I am happy for the skills and insights my brain has offered me outside of the allistic perspective.
My “Gamer” Story
Growing up, my parents were very strict about video games. We were not allowed to own any kind of video games, or gaming consoles, which meant that I missed the majority of games released in the 1990s. My siblings and I were aware of their existence, with several of our schoolyard peers bringing their Nintendo Game Boy’s to recess, something that fueled our curiosity for the medium. The closest equivalent we were allowed to play were those on the computer, specifically a variety of edutainment games aimed to teach children at specific grade levels about math, history, and science. Later we were allowed to own our first, non-educational, games: the point-and-click adventure games developed by Humongous Entertainment. These games taught me how to experience the gaming world as a site to play, learn, discover, and explore. They also revealed to me the enjoyment that came from solving difficult puzzles and having the right tools in my inventory to proceed in the game. These games taught me what video games could be, and while the rules were not the same in all genres, the skills they provided were essential in my future gaming encounters.
Even with these fond early memories of gaming, my urge to play Nintendo systems, which was developed and nurtured by my love for the Pokémon anime series, grew stronger. 2001 arrived, and with it a brand new system, the Game Boy Advance (GBA). After saving up several months’ worth of allowances, I purchased my first handheld. This was a pivotal moment in establishing my identity as a “gamer,” as I was able to purchase, research, and play video games based on my own desires rather than merely adhering to what my parents deemed to be appropriate. The first game I bought, alongside my GBA, was another important initiation for me. This game allowed me to further explore how video games could be played, and the franchise is still one of my favourites today. The game was Pokémon Yellow Version: Special Pikachu Edition, for the Nintendo Game Boy. This game would eventually become an inspiration to me, opening up possibilities of how I could enjoy video games and solidifying video games as a crucial special interest for me.
Today video games continue to be a passion of mine, as I enjoy a variety of video games from multiple genres and gaming systems. As the years have gone by, I have become extremely impressed with the increasing levels of in the games, both technically and in terms of storytelling, and look forward to seeing how this medium will continue to develop into the future.
Gaming While Autistic
Being an autistic person in a culture that presumes allistics are the “norm” or “standard” means that I am constantly reminded of my neurotype. My autism is a natural part of who I am, so whenever I access a piece of media my autistic identity is always at the forefront because I am always thinking, and my brain will always be an autistic brain. Media, as a means of entertainment, is one of my major sources of relaxation and enjoyment. My special interests are all based around my love for stories and what happens when you immerse yourself in a narrative. Video games are a notable example of this, as they are a rare medium where the gamer becomes the active force that causes the story to unfold. The narrative present in video games is not just the story of the character(s) the player controls, but also the player’s own personal experience.
Because of all this, video games have always been an autistic narrative for me, because when I play the games I am usually playing as my “self”. Most video games require constant focus and brain power throughout the course of a gaming session. This can include remembering specific details to solve a future puzzle or keeping a character alive so that I can defeat a boss battle. Combined with the reality of being unable, and unwilling, to change the way in which my brain functions, my autistic self is at the forefront of each gaming experience. This has made gaming an extremely empowering medium for me, as it usually does not punish me for my brain working the way it does. Instead, I have found that my specific skills as an autistic person have made my gaming experiences more enjoyable, rather than acting as a hindrance. Despite these positive experiences video games, like most media, have been known to present autistic characters and traits in a stereotypical, and harmful, manner.
With all of this in mind, I will discuss the positive and negative experiences I have encountered in video games from the perspective of an autistic gamer, and I will consider how game developers can make positive changes in the representation of autistic characters in their games.
This is part 1 of 2. The second half of this article will be posted later in the month. (INDG)