video games and autism

Video Games and Autism: Helpful or Harmful?

3

It can happen to anyone. You start playing Minecraft or Skyrim, and before you know it, hours have passed and you haven’t had dinner or done the laundry, but the temptation to continue playing stays strong. Although this can be a problem for neurotypicals and autistic people alike, people with autism can be more susceptible to this happening for a variety of reasons. At the same time, video games are a source of great joy for many and can facilitate social interaction, both online and offline. Being aware of the costs and benefits of gaming illustrates how video games can be effectively integrated into an individual’s life – meaning that tossing out that Playstation or Nintendo DS is not the answer.

There are no definitive statistics on the prevalence of gaming among autistic adults, but it has been found that 41.4% of children and adolescents with autism spend the majority of their free time playing video games versus 18% of youths in the general population (Mazurek, Shattuck, Wagner, and Cooper 2013). These numbers underscore the importance of taking a look at the amount of time spent on video games by autistic gamers and paying attention to any potential side effects. Video game addiction and excessive time spent playing games can result in health and behavioral issues, such as sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, irritableness, and several other problems. On the other hand, as explained in the following video by Asperger Experts, video games are viewed as a safe space by some autistic people, in addition to their entertainment value. Both the negative and positive need to be considered when we take a look at the use of video games by autistic people, or we risk making faulty judgements.

 

 

As Asperger Experts explains, it is necessary to set reasonable limits so that playing video games does not come at the detriment of everything else. An effective strategy discussed by Asperger Experts in their article What Really Causes Video Game Addictions: What To Do About it is playing video games with others, particularly family members. Here, video games can help strengthen relationships by providing something familiar and valued to bond over. Another useful strategy explained by Asperger Experts is the formation of an agreement or schedule where a limit is set on the amount of time spent on video games, which is understood by all parties involved. These strategies also demonstrate the beneficial effects of video games; they can be used to expand what is considered a safe space, improve relationships with family and friends, and increase self-control, among other things.

VIDEO GAMES + SOCIAL INTERACTIONS

So, do video games really have a positive effect on social interactions and relationships for adults with autism? Video games with an online component can be helpful in broadening social interactions for adults with autism as found by Mazurek, Engelhardt, and Clark in their study of autistic adults’ experiences with video games (2015). While this is a study that has too small of a sample size to draw any overarching conclusions, it does present interesting information. As summarized below, the autistic adults in the study briefly discussed how social interactions and video games intersect for them.  

  • Can play/talk with friends who may live far away
  • Meet and interact with more people online
  • May have few face-to-face social interactions, so can make up for that through interacting with new people online
  • Can discuss video games with others as an acceptable topic of conversation
  • Can play video games with family and friends, improving relationships

Online interactions, especially on social media, can also be easier for some autistic adults to navigate, as discussed in Mazurek (2013)’s article Social Media Use Among Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. These interactions do not require the same high level of attention to facial expressions and nonverbal body language as face-to-face interactions. Social Media and Autism: Building Community or Creating Isolation? by Sydney Roulhac on the MHAF blog discusses the use of social media by autistic adults in further depth, explaining that there are both good and bad aspects to social media. For example, some participants in Mazurek, Engelhardt, and Clark’s study noted that they had had negative online interactions, such as other players insulting them. Unfortunately, while this is always a possibility with anonymous online interactions, it may be possible to avoid harassers through the use of blocking and muting tools available in-game.

The free Minecraft server Autcraft, only open to people with autism and their families, is an incredible example of how communities can be formed online to support autistic people. Autcraft also offers Autcraft Obsidian, a server solely for players over the age of fifteen. Although no research has been done on Autcraft, the unique and accepting community that it presents, as well as its protections against hate speech, harassment, and other negative online behaviors, show how video games can be used to foster positive social interactions.

Update 3/16/17: We were incorrect in our statement that no research has been done on Autcraft. Kate Ringland of the University of California, Irvine, published Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism in 2016, which looks at how players have used and modified Minecraft to encourage self-regulation and community engagement. Thank you to Stuart Duncan, founder of Autcraft, for letting us know about this great piece of research!

 

However, social media use/online interactions alone do not play a significant part in reducing the loneliness felt by adults on the autism spectrum (Mazurek, 2013). Although there is little research on the role of online video game interactions in reducing loneliness and increasing social connections, it may  follow similar patterns as social media use because it is entirely digital. On the other hand, it is stated by Mazurek that “the extent to which social media use encourages the development of new or closer offline relationships for adults with ASD appears to be the most important consideration” in the amount of social support they have. It seems that this finding goes hand in hand with Asperger Experts’ recommendation that autistic adults play video games with family and friends, strengthening offline relationships. Ultimately, in order to utilize electronic and online media, especially video games, to their fullest benefit, offline relationships should be a major part of the use of this media when it is possible.  

CONCLUSION

Video games can be a great source of joy for people with autism, but they can also become a source of frustration if they are prioritized over all else. It is important to make sure that the beneficial effects of video games are recognized while encouraging offline interaction and limiting video game play, so that other necessary aspects of life are not neglected. Can we conclude that video games are helpful or harmful? The short answer is, “It depends!”, and the longer answer is that video games are not inherently good or bad; their value comes from how they are used and for how long. So, feel free to fire up that Xbox, but invite a friend or family member to join and learn to love setting limits.


screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-4-01-15-pmAUTHOR
PRACHI KOCHAR
RESEARCH INTERN
MADISON HOUSE AUTISM FOUNDATION

Prachi is currently a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is double majoring in Psychology and Gender & Women’s Studies and plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology. As someone who is deaf, Prachi is passionate about disability issues and spreading awareness of the issues that people with disabilities face.

 


REFERENCES

Duncan, Stuart. [AutismFather]. (2013, December 17). What is Autcraft. [Video File].

Engelhardt, C.R., Mazurek, M.O., Hilgard, J., Rouder, J.N., & Bartholow, B.D. (2015). Effects of violent-video-game exposure on aggressive behavior, aggressive-thought accessibility, and aggressive affect among adults with and without autism spectrum disorder. Psychological Science, 26(8), 1187-1200.

Mazurek, M.O., Shattuck, P.T., Wagner, M., & Cooper, B.P. (2013). Prevalence and correlates of screen-based media use among youths with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(8), 1757-1767.

Mazurek, M.O., Engelhardt, C.R., & Clark, K.E. (2015). Video games from the perspective of adults with autism spectrum disorder. Computers in Human Behavior, 51(A), 122-130.

Mazurek, M.O. & Engelhardt, C.R. (2013). Video game use and problem behaviors in boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7(2), 316-324.

What really causes video game addictions: And what to do about it. Asperger Experts.

Raede, D. [Asperger Experts]. (2016, March 28). Why people with Asperger’s play video games. [Video File].

Roulhac, S. Social media and autism: Building community or creating isolation? Madison House Autism Foundation Blog.

3 Comments

  1. Stuart Duncan
    Stuart Duncan03-14-2017

    Hi there, just wanted to point out that there actually was some research done on Autcraft and that paper went on to win the 2016 SIGACCESS Best Paper award.
    The link to the PDF can be found here: http://kateringland.com/would-you-be-mine-appropriating-minecraft-as-an-assistive-technology-for-youth-with-autism/

    Love your article!

  2. Josh
    Josh02-03-2019

    I googled something to this effect on a hunch.

    I took a crack estimate based on the rate of autism in the general public, applied that to the general user base size of consoles, and then estimated the rule based nature of videogames would be very attractive to those on the spectrum, and made what I considered likely a rather over exaggerated estimate of 20%.

    I was pretty surprised to see 40% here… but after thinking about it. After experiencing autism first hand when my don was diagnosed, and when we went to centers full of children on the spectrum… A lot of things are falling into place.

    As someone who has been a fan of videogames since i was a kid, I have put a lot of thpught into them. Why they are enjoya le, what makes them work, ehat makes for good games, what makes for poor games….

    So I feel I can have confidence in putting my experiences together and coming up with some stance on this.

    Videogames can be fantastic for kids on the spectrum. Or anybody really. Videogames can encourage flexible thinking on a huge scale, coming up with plans, knowing when to scrap them, to cut your losses when the plans no longer working, thinking outside the box, constant repetitive exposure to math concepts (hp/mp bars, power ups,) social concepts, language, humor, colloquialisms, sarcasm, other characters responses to said colloquialisms and responses….

    However… every single game is different, and not all games are great, and even certain great games can be very bad for kids on the spectrum.

    Videogames are rule based and repetitive by nature, they literally function by exploiting us psychologically to control our behavior, since that really sounds extra sinister without context let me leave an example everyone should know:

    Level 1 in the original super Mario bros is a master class of this kind of design. You start the game with Mario on screen all the way to the left. The game rules are set up so that there is literally only one thing a player can do to get a reward stimulus: push the button that goes right. You can’t go left, the b button doesn’t appear to do anything, the a button only jumps in place, only right gives the player a reward by scrolling the screen, showing something new a place to go. So bow the behavior of going right has been established. Now a brown walking mushroom appears, a going a enemy. The player may not know anything about this game or any game, and walk into the enemy character, and lose a life, and be punished by starting the level over. Next time they see that going a they will not walk Into it, but rather jump over it. At which point they hill hit a very specifically placed ‘?’ Box, and come down on top of the gonna, being rewarded with a silly sound, squishing animation, a hundred points, and the removal of the enemy on the screen, plus a coin from hitting the ‘?’ Box.

    So now within the first 30 seconds the game has established controlling the players behavior to provided stimuli. The player goes right to proceed, jumps on goombas on sight, and hits the underside of ‘?’ Boxes to get rewards… Learning these rules, applying them, and succeeding can be really fun and rewarding. Especially to those on the spectrum.

    However this can also easily negatively effect those on the spectrum. They can reinforce rigidness, inflexible thinking, and poor social skills, maybe a protagonist who’s portrayed as someone who’s not necessarily supposed to be a good person, or online interactions where friends are irreverent or, even, when playfully blowing off steam, rude to each other, acting in ways they would never act outside of this virtual imaginary play environment, but an observing child on the spectrum would not catch on.

    And then…. There is the disturbing realization of a recent trend, with the numbers to seemingly support it.

    Videogames, particularly big production company big mainstream games…. Are by and large becoming less and less the first example, and more and more and more the latter. The games are becoming more rote, more repetitive, more rigid, and more exploitative.

    And the very nature of videogames, as a complex multitiered media art, might make it very hard for people to recognise.

    More and more games today feature a gameplay structure of playing the same handful.of levels over and over and over, doing the same missions, the same actions, over and over and over, and denoting progress by filling level bars, and giving loot Boxes with a cosmetic item, like a hat, or a new appearence for a gun or other item, called a ‘skin’. The point of these games is not to go on an adventure or journey, which has a beginning, middle and conclusion, but to infinitely repeat the same action, for never ending and always updating supply (this design model is called live services by publishers) pointless digital trinkets, like trophies or hats for the character to wear. And of course, if the player is unable to get the trinket they want, which is rewarded at random via a lottery system of hundreds or thousands of possible outcomes…. called a loot box, then they can buy more lootboxes with more money.

    This business model has become incredibly lucrative for publishers, bringing in more money than the sales of the games themselves…. However the breakdown shows a very disturbing trend. The vast majority of these ‘in app’ purchases comes from a smaller pool of repeat customers, the publishers have not so lovingly dubbed whales. Often spending in excess of thousands of dollars in the pursuit of these trinkets. And that screams preying on individuals on the spectrum and addictive personalities.

    Since this is a business model, and design model, it’s not something you can see by just looking at the game. The game can look incredibly inviting for sensitive people and kids, cartoony, bright colors, ‘safe, yet have an exploitative design model and or business model.

    They can even be incredibly supportive of individuals on the spectrum from an artistic presentation spectrum, while be devastating to individuals on the spectrum from a design perspective.

    One incredibly popular case of this is the game “Overwatch”. This game has a wonderful art and creative team that has made a diverse and inclusive cast of characters, full of great personality, one character, a very cool hero called Symmetra, is on the spectrum. She is a great character, with a great personality (those unaware of autism may think she is just full of deadpan dry humor quips) and just as important, a fantastic move set.

    However, overwatch is a terrible game for kids on the spectrum. It is extremely rigid, inflexible, strictly role based, a repetitive grindfest where you literally play the same level and do the same thing over and over and over to get stuff from lootboxes endlessly…. A trap for those on the spectrum from every conceivable viewpoint on game design. And then, is the business model. This game has one of the most invasive, pervasive monetary systems out there. It is constantly asking you too open your wallet, and constantly teasing the player with stuff they desire.

    And with the realization that 40% of the playerbase of videogames being on the spectrum, being extra susceptible to design like this, I can’t help but get this huge sinking feeling in my stomach telling me this recent huge hard push I to this kind of design territory, a shift th a speed and totality unlike anything I have seen in my 30 years of gaming, was no coincidence.

    I very strongly believe these games, in both game design and business model design, are targeting ndividuals on the spectrum, specifically because of their nature, their desire, for fixation and repetition. Autism has been commodified.

  3. Video Games And Their Relationship To Autism
    Video Games And Their Relationship To Autism02-19-2019

    […] autism are more likely to be at risk for the negative effects of video game addiction, as more than 41% of kids with autism spend a majority of their time playing video games. An article on the Asperger Experts […]

Leave a Reply