by Patricia C. Baxter, continued from this post published on Jan 12, 2017

The Good

For me video games have been a source of empowerment for a number of reasons.  As stated above, games can be a medium where the things autistic people excel at, such as memorization and attention to detail, can be assets to a player’s gaming experience.  This is one way that games personally empower me, as they make me feel that my skills and capabilities are something positive, which is different from the standard of living in a world where many still view autism as a negative.  Furthermore activities that would normally cause me stress or anxiety outside of the gaming world instead give me enjoyment and satisfaction.

For example, I find holding conversations with people very stressful for several different reasons, but most of them are connected back to my autism.  While I truly wish to make friends and connections with people, societal norms and expectations dictate that I must act in a manner that is uncomfortable for me.  This includes maintaining eye contact, presenting active listening skills, observing the body language of my conversation partner(s), maintaining a voice that is not perceived as monotone, and resisting the urge to stim.  While years of practice have allowed me to become less exhausted when I talk to people, this does not change the fact that I will experience some level of fatigue at the end of each conversation.

In contrast to this reality, video games do not rely on the player’s ability to display correct social norms when having a conversation.  Instead, the player character automatically showcases these skills whenever they enter a conversation.  This is particularly true of adventure games, such as the Monkey Island or Ace Attorney franchises.  The player character automatically faces the person they are talking with, in an appropriate manner, and both parties usually display body language that overtly showcases their thoughts and emotions.  This has led me to explore the various different dialogue options presented to me with a feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction.  Video games are also a medium where it is acceptable to ask the most obvious questions, sometimes more than once, without any negative repercussions to one’s gaming experience.  This has been particularly beneficial for me, as I commonly find myself having to ask for clarification in real life, and often experience perplexed or annoyed reactions as a result. Gaming takes moments of stress and replaces them with satisfactory encounters.

Outside of the adventure game genre, conversations in video games are also an enjoyable experience because the majority of non-player characters (NPCs) only speak about what is relevant to the game’s overall goals.  This serves multiple purposes such as teaching the player how to play the game, allowing the player to learn more about the world they inhabit, and reminding the player of actions that they still need to accomplish.  The need to conform to social niceties is gone, as direct information is the standard of video games.  This is a revitalising difference for me, since going through the process of small talk and metaphors has always been a confusing exercise.  Inhabiting a world where I am able to know exactly what I am expected to do, and how I can achieve those goals, is a small but effective means of assuring my capabilities as an individual and as a gamer.

Finally, there is the importance of encountering positive depictions of autism, both in terms of characters on the screen and developers working to create the games.  One example of this can be found in the cult classic game Earthbound for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).  While not the most popular video game, this game has gained a following by those who enjoy the Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) genre.  While the basic gameplay mechanics of the title hardly deviate from other games in the genre, particularly the Dragon Quest franchise, Earthbound stands apart by providing a colourful, and strange, world to explore, wonderfully composed music, and a quirky cast of characters.

On a personal level, one unique gameplay mechanic stood out to me when I played the game: the “calling home” feature.  The game world contains a variety of telephones that serve several purposes throughout the course of the game, including saving your progress or storing items you no longer need.  One of these features is to call one of the main character’s home to speak with his mother.  This becomes something that the player does consistently, as the character, Ness, will occasionally become very homesick, which in turn negatively affects his ability to fight, and calling his mother is the only thing that will calm him.  Homesickness in Earthbound is very much a process of discovery similar to what I have experienced during extremely stressful situations outside of video games.  First, the process of identification – noticing if Ness has the “Homesick” status or if he fails to attack in battle – is similar to identifying one’s own personal feelings of stress and anxiety.  Determining if you can reach a telephone to call Ness’s mother reminds me of the various coping mechanisms I am conscious of when entering a public space and determining when and how I can cope.  Finally Ness calling his mother reminds me of when I talk with the people who have been my own support network, or when I finally finding a place where I can unwind away from life’s stresses.  The fact that “Homesick” is a status effect requiring consistent support is personally reassuring.  The game does not punish you for seeking help when your character is feeling stressed, instead it encourages you to get the help you need to keep moving forward.  This is a particularly empowering mechanic to implement in the game, as many autistic people, myself included, find it difficult to experience our own coping mechanisms without harsh judgement from our allistic peers.

Another source of empowerment for me is the knowledge that autistic people can succeed in the world of game development.  Satoshi Tajiri, the creator, director, and game designer of the Pokémon franchise, is the most famous autistic person in the video game industry.  When designing the original Pokémon games, Tajiri had multiple goals in mind, one of the principle being to combine his childhood passion, bug catching and collecting, with his current interest in video games.  By combining the two to make a unique game experience, Tajiri hoped to create a virtual world that the children of post-industrial Japan could enjoy.  The games provided a way for these children to cope with the societal pressures placed on them from a young age and with the fact that they could not play outside.  The game added a unique feature, the link cable, which allowed children to trade different species of Pokémon.  This not only establishes a personal connection between gamers, but also allows the gamer to complete the task of capturing every Pokémon.

When thinking back on the game of Pokémon itself, I see a game that would not exist if Tajiri were not an autistic person.  Tajiri’s passions, bug catching and video games, could also be considered his special interests, as they are topics that he devoted a lot of time and energy in throughout his life.  This is showcased in Tajiri’s work ethic, as he is known to work twenty-four hours and then sleep for twelve.  The world of Pokémon itself could be described as an autistic paradise, where individuals can freely define themselves based on their passions, without judgement or scrutiny from others.

Video games have shown that they can be an empowering medium to autistic gamers, with their ability to replicate autistic experiences and to provide us with the means to apply our skills in a positive environment.  However, despite these positive experiences, there are still many examples that showcase how some video games fail when representing autistic identities.

The Bad

While video games have the potential to be a medium of empowerment for autistic gamers, they are also, like the rest of the media landscape, susceptible to perpetuating harmful stereotypes about autistic people.  As of this writing, only a few characters in video games are on the autistic spectrum, and the majority of them are non-playable characters (NPCs).  An NPC is a character who exists in the game to serve a particular purpose in the gaming narrative, but who cannot be controlled by the player.  These characters can serve many purposes, but overall their existence is shaped by the actions of the player and the script created by the game’s writers and programmers.  These roles can range from characters who serve a particular task, such as a shopkeeper who sells items to the player, to characters who support the player from the sidelines and have their own narrative arcs throughout the course of the game.  This creates a unique form of narrative found in gaming since NPCs exist with the sole purpose of re-acting to the player, while following the scripts given to them, as opposed to being completely independent agents in their own personal narratives.

With this definition of the NPC in mind, it is rather troubling for me, as an autistic person, to see that the vast majority of autistic characters are not playable characters.  Similar to what other media critics have observed about video games, lack of representation, or stereotypical portrayals, of one’s identity have extremely harmful effects on both an individual and cultural level.  As a gamer, not having games with autistic protagonists provides a subtle message that stories about people like me are not worth telling, unless the central focus is actually on an allistic person who observes, but does not empathize with, the autistic character.

As discussed by other autistic gamers the representation of the characters is severely lacking.  Autistic characters are commonly given the least amount of agency in the narratives of the games, or they encounter distain and abuse from other characters.  One example of this treatment can be found in Dreamfall Chapters where one character, named Wit, experiences extreme verbal abuse from a co-worker who even goes as far to imply that Wit is “faking” his autism.  This reflects similar experiences in my own life where “well-meaning” individuals would claim that I could not be autistic because I did not meet the specific stereotypes perceived as essential to the autistic identity.  These included “[I] cannot be autistic because [I] am not rude” or simply “[I] do not seem autistic.”  These ideas perpetuate that allistic opinions on autistic people’s lives, and identities, are more valid than the lived experiences of the autistic person.  This is an action that both de-humanizes us and makes autistic identities a restricted set of traits rather than a diverse spectrum of individual lives and experiences.

Furthermore, this game scenario fails to take into consideration the negative experiences that autistic people encounter in the workforce.  Autistic adults find applying for, and working in, the current job market to be a challenge either because our diagnosis causes people to overlook our applications or because the workplace is abusive and unaccommodating to our needs.  I have personally experienced one such abusive job scenario, and while it was not as overtly abusive as Wit’s experience, it was clear that I had been fired because I was an autistic person.

While some games do not state outright that a character is autistic, it is clear from the underlying tone of the game implies that a character is coded as being autistic or neurodivergent.  One example of this can be found while playing Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, an episodic game where the player conducts investigations to solve a series of crimes.  I had enjoyed the game until I reached the last episode where the two protagonists discuss the game’s central villain and state that he saw reality differently from everyone else in his life.  I have commonly heard the expression that autistic people “see things differently” from allistic people, causing me to associate this line of thought with neurodivergent thinking.  This insinuation in the game, of associating neurodivergent thinking or mental illnesses with a serial killer, is sadly a common trope found in the crime genre where ableist misconceptions about mental illness and neurodivergence flourish.  I quit my game shortly after hearing this dialogue, a bitter taste remaining in my mouth.

I have encountered another issue not only in the games but within gaming culture.  Throughout a decade of occupying online spaces I have observed the words “autism” and “autistic” used as synonyms for the word “stupid.”  Misconceptions surrounding the autistic spectrum have also been perpetuated, such as assuming that autism is a “disease” rather than a neurotype.  This is particularly prevalent amongst some fans of the Pokémon franchise, who insist that Satoshi Tajiri is not autistic, or should not be categorized as autistic, despite credible sources claiming otherwise.  These microaggressions re-inforce that autistic people are viewed as “others” by members of the gaming community, and that our presence is not welcome.

What Developers Can Do Better

I believe that despite the failings of developers in the past, there is still a possibility to create games that embrace and accept autistic people, both as gamers and characters.  My experiences as an autistic gamer may not have been entirely positive, but I have played enough games to know that it is still possible for me to feel empowered.  I believe that, if done correctly, a narrative about an autistic person is not only possible, but could be a great way for allistic people to empathize with individuals on the spectrum.  The majority of contemporary games involve the player experiencing the world from the perspective of a particular character or set of characters.  Having an autistic character be that central figure in a game could allow allistics to realize what it is like to live as an autistic person in an allistic world.

Furthermore, it would not be difficult to create an autistic character as several protagonists, ranging from Link in The Legend of Zelda franchise to Chell in the Portal series, are mute or non-verbal communicators.  Therefore, it would not be too difficult to create an autistic character who communicates in a similar manner as many playable characters have been known to communicate through their actions as opposed to their words.  This is not to say that all autistic people are non-verbal, but video games can be a medium where such characters have been treated with agency and respect in the past.  Furthermore, status effects centered on the player character’s level of stress or anxiety, such as “Homesickness” in Earthbound, can be incorporated into the gaming system to showcase how stress manifests in an autistic person’s life and how it can be mitigated.

Most importantly, however it is essential for game developers to actively work with autistic people when making video games centered on an autistic character.  All too often autistic characters have been represented by what allistic people consider to be autistic “traits” based on media representations and texts written from the allistic perspective.  These fail to take in to consideration what it means to be autistic, as experienced by people on the autistic spectrum.  This also makes the assumption that autistic people are not the best authorities on their own lives, and that allistics are the “experts” on the subject.  A similar metaphor would be to assume that heterosexual individuals understand what it means to be bisexual.

Furthermore the experiences of autistic people may be somewhat similar, but they are also highly individualized based on the personal experiences of each autistic person.  Some autistic people may find noises to be extremely aggravating, while others find it is easy to tune out noises and instead find smells to be more stressful.  Some autistic people are especially skilled at memorization, while others experience memory issues.  Just as there are no two allistic people in the world who are exactly the same, it is important to showcase that autistic people are part of a spectrum of lives, skills, and personalities.  Therefore, it is essential that game writers and designers consult with actual autistic people before moving forward and developing their characters.

Concluding Thoughts

Video games are a medium that have provided me with a great deal of comfort over the years, as they have provided me with a coping mechanism, a tool of empowerment, and a means for me to apply my skills.  They have shown me that my autistic mind is something that can flourish and thrive in an environment that encourages exploration and problem solving.  Video games still have a long way to go, in many forms of representation, but I believe that if developers take the opportunity to listen to autistic gamers, they will find a new way to approach the medium.

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