Video games often get a bad rap. Though they can be addictive in nature, video and computer games, specifically massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), can present developmental benefits for individuals who fall on the autism spectrum. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 1 in 68 kids nationwide has autism spectrum disorder. Psychologists and specialists within the gaming community agree that these children, who largely struggle with social development, can uniquely benefit from the “sandbox environment” that MMORPGs provide.
Many aspects of MMORPGs can aid the development and social awareness of children and young adults with autism, particularly Asperger’s disease. Ian Bates was a teenager struggling with Asperger’s when he began playing World of Warcraft and quickly became enveloped in the alternate world of Azeroth. In 2010, he discovered that a character mentioned in one of the World of Warcraft novels did not appear anywhere in Azeroth, a rare inconsistency in the MMORPG’s complex storyline. The character was added to the game following Bates’ attendance at Blizzcon, a World of Warcraft convention, where he brought the inconsistency to the attention of the game’s lead writers and developers.
Paying attention to minute details, as in the case of Ian Bates, is common among those with Asperger’s and other forms of autism. The ability to analyze and understand the complexities in new realms and storylines can help this population thrive in the world of MMORPGs, while learning how to build relationships, forge alliances and maintain leadership positions throughout the course of playing. This gives children on the autism spectrum, who often struggle with debilitating social anxiety and a lack of understanding regarding social cues, an opportunity to develop interpersonal skills and learn how to communicate effectively in a safe environment.
Though there are benefits to MMORPGs for autistic individuals, there are also drawbacks. While the virtual worlds of many of these video and computer games are less stressful than dealing with social situations in reality, individuals with autism can still feel extreme anxiety or agitation surrounding the communication-heavy aspect of gaming. Additionally, this population is even more sensitive to the addictive qualities of MMORPGs. Chloe Jordan, behavioral neuroscience specialist based out of Boston University, explains, “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.”
Individuals struggling with autism spectrum disorder often experience severe social anxiety. If you or a loved one is struggling with social anxiety, depression or any other mental health issues, support is available. Sovereign Health Group specializes in helping those struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. Call (866) 819-0427 to be connected with a professional in your area.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer