For Gamers With Autism, Online Worlds a Cycle of Attraction and Fear
- 6:30 AM
You might think you know World of Warcraft, but you don’t know it the way Ian Bates does.
Like many of the millions of players of the massively multiplayer online game, the Florida teen obsessed over WoW’s fantasy world. He devoured all the non-fiction books written about Warcraft, and tried his hand at writing fan fiction set in the land of Azeroth.
One day in 2010, when he was 17, Bates was reading another Warcraft novel and noticed that something was out of whack. There was a character described in the plot of the novel, Falstad Wildhammer, that should have appeared within the game’s world, but he was nowhere to be found.
So when Bates went to that year’s Blizzcon, the annual weekend event where developer Blizzard meets its fans, he had one mission. During a Q&A session, he stepped up to the microphone to demand an explanation of the discrepancy from the lead writers of Warcraft lore. Clearly amused but grateful, Blizzard’s story leads promised to fix the plot hole.
Video of the question went viral, earning millions of views. They called him “Red Shirt Guy.” But it wasn’t the color of his clothes or the content of the exchange that caused people to share the question, it was Bates’ cringeworthy awkwardness: the stammering, the unusual rising and falling pitch inflections of his voice, and the intense concentration on remarkably minute details.
Bates has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that he says makes him feel extreme anxiety in certain social situations. Speaking at that microphone, he said, was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. His voice sounds “robotic and weird” if he has to initiate a conversation, Bates says. I point out that he seems comfortable talking to me on the phone. “You started talking to me first,” he says, matter-of-factly.
For many gamers with autism, MMOs are a double-edged sword, according to experts interviewed for this story and anecdotal evidence from the gaming community. The extremely complex game systems can be particularly attractive to the autistic mind’s love of minute details. And for gamers dealing with social interaction problems, MMOs can let them talk to people in more abstract, less stressful environments. But their addictive nature and social elements might also cause players with autism spectrum disorders anxiety, fear, or paranoia.
“The predisposition of people with [Asperger’s] to develop restricted special interests may put them at greater risk for withdrawing from ‘real life’ in favor of playing the game,” says Chloe Jordan, a behavioral neuroscience specialist at Boston University.
Psychologists say games and autism can result in a vicious circle — but that if used in the right way, they might be very helpful.
About one in 88 children are affected with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Males are five times as likely to have it. Different conditions exist within the autism spectrum, and the severity can vary wildly, but generally suffers have difficulty communicating with other people and forming relationships, and challenges dealing with language and abstract concepts.
Because people with autism spectrum disorders tend to show more interaction with objects than with people, they may be more attracted to videogames, says Julie Crittendon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. People with autism, Crittendon adds, can also process information far more quickly if it’s presented in a visual way.
“So if you have autism, you find your way to video games, and you find that you’re really good at them,” she says.
Additionally, those with Asperger’s syndrome are often very good at understanding systems, notes Jordan. That could create a special attraction to complex games like MMOs that reward mastery of many different elements.
“A person with [Asperger’s] might be really good at figuring out how to best outfit his character by studying the statistics, strengths, and weaknesses behind different kinds of weapons and armor, since this involves understanding rules and manipulating a system,” says Jordan.
But, Jordan says, MMOs could also pose something of an addiction risk to players with autism spectrum disorders. Aspects of a game that could become highly addictive include having to complete daily tasks, or spend an inordinate amount of time increasing a character’s level.