Shaping me: Autism and computer games

First off, thank you so much for all of the people who have shown an interest in my writing. I’ve been inactive for a while due to multiple reasons, of which the main one is that I got a full time job, which I am loving. I feel really lucky and privileged to have my job, where I am well supported (still need to sort out Access to Work stuff, but that’s getting there) and able to work as me. Funnily, what helped me to get that job was this blog.

I’m now working as a systematic reviewer, which is essentially someone who looks at all of the research for a topic, figures out which ones are relevant to a question being asked, determines the quality of the paper and presents the results with that in mind. This is essentially what I originally aimed to do with this blog, and the work in this meant that when I got into the interview (feeling reasonably overloaded after a rough bit of travelling) I instantly relaxed because it was just doing the things that I was doing here. This is something that I am really thankful for.

Is it easy? Nope. Still lots of challenges and it’s pretty exhausting. However, I feel happy at the end of the day. I work hard and I get to do what I want in my life and support the people around me, which is a huge privilege.

To go back though – thank you for reading this. I imagine I wouldn’t have gone back to write more without seeing that people are still reading my work, and while writing this I’ve been having fun, so thank you for your continued interest. I’ll try to write a bit more (but only as much as time permits and keeps me healthy).

That being said, let’s go to the topic that I really wanted to write about today. Autism and computer games.

A few weeks back I went to the Autism Show conference in London with my partner. We had heard good things about the event from other people, I had looked up everything online and thought that their approach sounded like they were trying to be really inclusive and the talks sounded good. 

However, this day was ultimately not great for me. The event required using the underground and getting on multiple tubes of which one got delayed significantly, which wasn’t a super start. I arrived a bit overloaded but we were excited. We went up to the hall and checked in, which was simple. But then the moment we stepped through the gate an organisation tried to thrust their flier into our hands and shouted out something. We moved away from them and down the corridors (which were supposedly larger than normal corridors at events like this – it felt pretty similar to comicon from my perspective, which is probably the only comparison I have) only to have more organisations shouting things and trying to get us to take their leaflets. We eventually managed to get through to the area where the talk we wanted to listen to only to find the area was completely full and so we weren’t able to listen to that (as the talks took place via headsets rather than over a speaker system – this is a really good idea but not great if you don’t have enough headphones*). We tried to fill some time before more talks started by going around the exhibition stands that were almost completely dominated by services/products aimed towards children (while helpful for a fair number of people, it wasn’t applicable for us coming as an autistic adult and their partner rather than a parent or professional/service provider).

*Note: For future reference – what we could have done was moved to the bigger theatre which had lots of spaces to sit down and lots of headsets. The headsets could switch between the talk and so you could flip over to the talk you wanted to listen to. You probably weren’t meant to do this, but it would have been possible in this situation.

This was a pretty disappointing start and given my excitement I felt deflated after this. My partner and I went out and we got some (expensive) lunch. I was very close to telling us to leave (as my partner really wanted to do some shopping in London) but we talked about it and felt that we should give it another try and see whether we could make it a better experience. So we pressed the “continue” button (I’ve got to keep to the theme somehow) and went back for more talks in the afternoon, which were super. We heard from some fantastic presenters talking about their work (including Callum Brazzo, who was really interesting to listen to), an excellent talk on autism pride (by Joseph Redford) and then some good bits generally providing interesting perspectives (with Georgia Harper and Sam Ahern).

Overall, I felt the event wasn’t really aimed at me and was more aimed at parents, professionals and service providers looking after autistic children. This is fine (not everything needs to be aimed at me) but I believe we were sold something different to that and it failed to deliver on what we expected. I felt like the talks were interesting, but I likely wouldn’t want to go again for the effort it took to get there when I can listen to interesting talks online (and I didn’t feel like doing any networking, for which this event would have likely been useful).

To finally get to my point, the last talk we attended on the day was by Keith Stuart, author and a video games correspondent for the Guardian. They provided a really interesting talk on how computer games can be really beneficial for autistic people. This talk really resonated for me, and I felt like I wanted to talk a bit about that.

Computer games get a bit of a bad reputation sometimes. Last weekend was the (pre-)release of the latest Final Fantasy XIV expansion, Shadowbringers (which is brilliant – I’ll get into more later). Final Fantasy XIV is an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game) and my partner and I spent a lot of the last weekend playing the game with many other people around the world trying to explore this new world, completing quests and seeing the story play out (all while on the back of a chocobo). If I tell people that I spent all weekend playing a computer game, then they may think that is awesome (I would) or think nothing of it (probably the most likely). However, there are a fair number of people who would think that is a waste of time and not very social. Questions on the theme of “why didn’t you go outside? the weather was lovely!” (on that note: the weather was very hot and sunny – this is not my idea of lovely) and just a general feeling of it being a childish thing to do will pop up. However, during this weekend I probably talked with more random people that I had never met before from a range of different cultures and backgrounds then I will do spontaneously in a year. Yes, it was on chat servers rather than face-to-face, but for someone who struggles to talk to other people, this is a big achievement.

I’m going to bring you through some of my history with computer games and how much I have gained from playing them over the years. I’m going to tell you how computer games helped me to develop connections with other, how they taught me the value of hard work, and how they kept me going during the worst points in my life and helped me to make the best times. This is a pretty huge topic and so for it I am going to focus on the main special interest that has flowed throughout my life, the Final Fantasy game series.

Warning: I am going to have a lot of fun talking about this. This is my special interest so I may end up writing a lot. I’m going to try to keep it succinct, but I am loving the opportunity to talk about this so bear that in mind. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy hearing about something that is really dear to my heart.

Additional warning: Spoilers. Mostly for Final Fantasy VIII. Nothing for Shadowbringers though (if it was originally released in the last couple of years then I haven’t got spoilers for it).

Final Fantasy VIII – my beginning

The first Final Fantasy game I played was Final Fantasy VIII. I spent a lot my childhood watching other people play computer games. My brothers enjoyed gaming and had consoles so I spent a lot of time watching them but not able to play myself. This is my first point of how computer games helped me connections. I love my brothers very much, they are super and incredible people generally. How we connected a lot as kids was through games (including board games). I celebrated my 27th birthday a few weeks back by going out with them to a board game bar and playing the night away – thankfully some things never change.

I had watched people playing Final Fantasy VII, but I wouldn’t get to play it myself for several years later as I didn’t have the money to buy the game and my brother wouldn’t get a Playstation I could use for a while longer. However, my aunt and my grandma had a computer and had bought Final Fantasy VIII as something for us to play when we went around their house.

I watched my brothers for a while. When I started writing this article I planned to start writing about my game playing experience, but actually watching my brothers play was a truly special part of my childhood and is one that thinking about fills me with a lot of joy.

Going on a small tangent, if there is something I want to emphasise with this it’s the idea that you should do what makes you happy (as long as it’s not going to massively hurt other people). Life is a hard thing, and I think for autistic people it can be particularly difficult. There are so many challenges that people face on a daily basis that other people don’t know about and cannot necessarily understand. Therefore, find the moments that are beautiful and cherish them. Allow yourself to do what makes you happy in whatever form it may take. For me, watching my brothers play was one of those beautiful times that I will always look back on with a soft fondness.

My most memorable moment in gaming occurred for me when my oldest brother was playing Final Fantasy VIII. He had made it through to the final battle. As we were at my grandmother’s house and she hadn’t really figured out the internet (still hasn’t needless to say) we didn’t have access to gamefaqs and didn’t have a game guide. Therefore, my brother hadn’t completed a lot of the optional bosses so was going into the fight a bit limited (this being said, he still had access to limit breaks and magic, thus Aura, so had a decent enough strategy). However, there was a point in the final phase of the battle where his party was completely decimated – three party members were lost to the void never to return and the other three lay on the floor with 0HP. He had lost.

But then, he hadn’t.

A spark ignited (literally) and the summon Phoenix arrived and restored the party that had appeared to have lost. My brother had another chance, and took this to deliver the final blows and win the fight for the first time.

In films you see this sequence of events a lot, as it encapsulates an important part of the hero’s journey trope (look up the hero’s journey if you don’t know – it makes the basis of a lot of stories). However, the difference here was experiencing it. Phoenix activating is a random event based on you using a certain item (a phoenix pinion) earlier in the game. Therefore, when my brother had lost we expected it to be just that. He had fallen to an insurmountable enemy. Hope (and a few hours of gameplay) was lost.

But then it was restored. Random chance meant that he could carry on and rise above. In the bleakest odds, the heroes managed to win.

This was a hugely significant moment for me and helped to build one of the main lessons from RPGs (role playing games) over the years – keep on trying. RPGs do not depend on quick or precise button presses that a kid with dyspraxia would struggle with (and an adult, tried playing classic Mario the other day. Let’s just say it did not go well). They depend on determination (insert Undertale music). They depend on you building up your characters and going on a journey with them. If a boss is too hard, then you keep on trying to build them. You do different bits and pieces to make them stronger. If you put in the effort you can beat the insurmountable odds and (with a little bit of good timing) you can win.

This lesson has been hugely important for me throughout the years. Without this I imagine I wouldn’t have gone to medical school, let alone complete it. I wouldn’t have managed to get my current job. I wouldn’t have managed to make my life what it is today.

Playing computer games taught me how to keep on going even when it is tough, to be ready to try another day and to keep on getting better. Know that your friends and loved ones will be with you to try again.

Of course in reality you can’t always keep going. I stopped working as a doctor because limitations do exist that may not be worth trying to beat. That moment still mattered though for making me into the me I am today. Having this message built into me throughout my life has been hugely important. Put in the effort and do the best you can.

RPGs are story based games. Not only did I form connections with people outside of the game through them, but I also connected with the characters. Today, I am a person who still loves to hear the stories of other people. People are fascinating and there are always different ways of thinking about things that are really interesting. The Final Fantasy series was a way for me to develop that growing up. I learnt about the characters and invested in them, through this trying to understand what they were thinking. Learning that good people and bad people don’t truly exist, but actually there is a lot of people who are capable of doing things.

Final Fantasy VIII brings this out with Laguna (yep – I’m not going to focus on Squall, not Seifer. Laguna – that wholesome so and so). Laguna is a nice guy. When we first meet him he comes across as goofy and loveable, trying to find love and happiness in the world while serving his country as a soldier. We meet Laguna through strange flashbacks that Squall and his team are having throughout the game. We see Laguna meet Julia and them have a brief romantic relationship (Julia later going on to marry someone else and be Rinoa’s mother). Laguna’s life progresses and we see him leave the military to settle down with another woman, called Raine, where he helps to raise Raine’s daughter Ellone. Laguna at least proposes to Raine, if not marries her from what we can gather from an FMV with rings. Ellone is kidnapped and Laguna leaves to go and save her, becomes a film actor (yeah…), ends up leading a rebellion and ultimately becomes the president of a futuristic city called Esthar. He found Ellone during this and sends her back to Raine. In the process of doing this Laguna leaves behind a pregnant Raine. There is no certain answer given for this, but it is very much implied that Raine is Squall (the main character’s) mother and so Laguna, who you have been following around this whole time, is Squall’s father.

The part where this is really sad is that Raine died early in Squall’s life (if not after giving birth to him). This leads to Squall being brought to an orphanage to be raised with almost all of the rest of the main cast (the plot is a bit odd) by the main bad person for the first half of the game (again, the plot is odd, but I love it XD). This leads to Squall becoming a member of the Garden and after some weird memory stuff (Guardian Force related, the plot is weird ect.) leads to the plot of the story.

Squall eventually meets Laguna when he goes to Esthar and they end up being on the same airship (/spaceship) for a while. This was a moment when the game could have addressed this topic, but instead it kinda didn’t. There is an awkwardness that comes across in their interaction, but Squall is a bit socially awkward anyway (at least the one I played was) and there were other things that needed to be done. Kiros and Ward (Laguna’s BFFs) make comments that strongly hint that Laguna is Squall’s dad (things on the line of “good you took after your mother and not your father”) and Laguna mentions wanting to talk to Squall about something later, but we never find out what that was about. We are left with an variety of questions that aren’t going to be answered.

My point with this, is that the game taught me that people aren’t simple and you don’t always find out why (nor do you need to). Laguna is presented as a typical hero character (in contrast to Squall who comes across as more antihero and as a person trying their best, which was relatable at the time). Laguna would save the dragon and kill the princess and all that other heroic stuff that people do. However, as the game goes on Laguna appears more human by introducing his flaws and his mistakes. If he had gone back with Ellone then when Raine died (if Raine died) then he would have been there for Ellone and Squall and could have looked after them. There is nothing to say that this would have been better for anyone (probably would have been worse looking at the plot) but he still could have been there for his kids (Ellone being as much his kid as anyone else’s at this point). It also becomes apparent that Laguna and his friends knew that Squall was Raine’s kid. Given this, why didn’t Laguna find Squall before this? Infact Squall ended up finding him instead. Laguna is a hero and has done lots of things to help lots of people, but in a wider narrative he screwed up a bit when it came to Squall. He still tries to protect Ellone during the story (and is devoted to her), but Squall doesn’t get that same treatment. Laguna connects to lots of people but seems to find it difficult to connect with Squall. This then leads me down the hole of thinking why that is.

It was a really interesting thing for me to think through as a kid, helping me to develop the idea that I carry through to the world now of ‘people are generally trying their best at life, they screw up but they are trying to do the best they can’. In this case, computer games gave me the chance to explore these philosophies and think about people, why they act in certain ways and what they are thinking about. All of these things can be difficult for autistic people to do. The way that computer games as a medium is special (in comparison to books which can achieve the same thing) is that it is interactive. In that moment you are living out Squall’s life. You have control of where you go, how many repetitive fights you get into, the amount of time you spend playing card games (Triple Triad is the best full stop) and to an extent what you say. This interactivity makes it more personal and so helps more in the exploration of these concepts.

That was a really long section (it could have gone on longer – I’m a little sad it hasn’t XD).

The never-so-final fantasies

Games give a medium to explore characters and think about how other people think. I can really struggle to think about what people think (find it easy to determine what they feel) so anything that can help me with that is of huge importance to me. 

Games also allow you to have something to discuss with others. As a young person I was a part of a Final Fantasy forum online discussing all of these things. This probably taught me a lot of social skills and helped me to develop my writing. An interest in these characters influenced my creative writing and helped me to develop things there.

Another thing I briefly touched on was the element of choice. Choice is a big thing to computer games (becoming more significant with games like Undertale) and especially in the Final Fantasy series. The first Final Fantasy game you are literally dropped in the middle of a field and not told anything – you need to decide what you want your journey to look like. You get to choose where you are going to go and what you are going to do. There is no one set way to play a game (as much as people on the internet may say there is). When I play Final Fantasy VIII, I normally spend the first 5 hours of the game fighting monsters and drawing magic so that I can go to the mission and defeat the giant metal spider so I can get full marks in the exam. My partner did not do this and would find this approach would wreck their experience. You can choose to play the game in a way that you want to. I love repetitively grinding by fighting monsters and getting all of the benefits from that (helping me to be great at RPGs) but not everyone does. This allows me to use my skills from autism to do something that helps my characters (and so leads to you feeling good about yourself) but also to try making decisions for myself. I’m not always great at choosing things, finding it a bit difficult. Any skills I have in that and in problem solving likely comes from gaming initially.

Playing is important for development – I believe this to be the case at all stages of life. Through play we learn, and from learning we can apply that and do something awesome. I believe that my experiences playing computer games helped me to develop the resilience to carry on when things are tough. They helped me to figure out how to solve my problems and take an active role as the “hero” in my life and to make my decisions mine. The qualities that the Final Fantasy series promotes in characters are things like courage, kindness, a bit of humour, resilience and determination. These are traits that I think are really helpful when going through a life that is tough – and for autistic people it can be really tough.

I continued to play the Final Fantasy series throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. It was a constant throughout all of the changes of life and was always there. Having a rough day? Have a Final Fantasy evening. This continued and I had a journey with each of the games which was special to me. They popped up at certain points in my life and helped me to keep on going when things were tough. Final Fantasy X helped me through my uncertainty when I was trying to get my autism diagnosis sorted out. Final Fantasy XII (Zodiac Age – found the original a bit too difficult when I was playing it as a kid) gave me a problem I could solve when I was in medical school and I wasn’t able to solve the problems coming from that. Final Fantasy VI was there when I was having a fair bit of bullying at school. Final Fantasy XIII was a connection for me and my brother when he was having a tough time. Final Fantasy III…is on my iPad now? Maybe not all of them have a story to them, but it’s still a really charming game!

When I think back to those times in my life, I don’t remember everything about the horrible stuff that was happening (and thank goodness for that). I think about those games and where those took me during it. In retrospect for me it’s quite beautiful – I didn’t realise how much I did that until I started writing this.

The key thing to the Final Fantasy series in this is that it underplays a lot of the relationships that I hold dear to me. This is at it’s clearest when I look at the relationship between myself and my partner.

Final Fantasy XIV – My love

Final Fantasy XIV was a game that I thought I wasn’t going to play. MMORPGs were not really my thing – I enjoyed playing World of Warcraft as a kid, but didn’t really want to keep going with it. The Final Fantasy MMOs seemed like a way to pay continuously for a Final Fantasy game when I already owned a lot of Final Fantasy games…and it is this. Without including the micro-transactions (of which there are a good number of beautiful things), there is a monthly cost and costs for each expansion and if it is having a poor time then it could shut down completely and all of the work you put in could be lost and become inaccessible. It’s something that worries me because I find it difficult when things end and my other games aren’t going to have that problem (unless the disc breaks and all consoles that can play the disc breaks … let’s not go there).

Bringing up b`ck, I was introduced to this game by my partner early into us dating.

My partner is a wonderful person who I love very much. We originally met online and started to meet up in person. It was fair to say that a lot of our connection started from computer games. They told me about a game they loved either before or during the first date and then I quickly went out and purchased the game and ran through it before the next date (my introduction to the Persona series through Persona 4, one of the best games I have played). The time when I would say I knew I was going to be with my partner for as long as time would permit was when we went to comicon together (I left with a novelty sized keyblade from Kingdom Hearts and was all in all satisfied). Overall, they are a lovely person that I cannot express properly in this paragraph.

After dating for a little bit they introduced me to Final Fantasy XIV. They were already significantly ahead in the game at this point so I had to do a lot of catching up to reach them. But I managed this with a fair amount of work and some collaboration between the two of us. We spent a lot of evenings talking while playing the game, allowing us to further connect with each other while having a good medium of interaction. We solved problems together and deepened our relationship.

This is something we continue to this day. We now live together, have a setup with two TVs so we can each have our screen up at a time, and we play the game and talk through it most evenings. This has especially been the case recently with the latest expansion to the game. Whether it is going into high level content where you need to do a bunch of actions at the same time (not my speciality, but this has probably helped with my motor coordination) or making up outfits for our characters and making our house pretty; we did it together. We’ve been frustrated by it and we have been relaxed by it.

My partner doesn’t have autism, but has their own stuff to deal with that this helps with. Final Fantasy is a way for us to connect, to distract ourselves from our challenges, and to find a solution to something where a solution was achievable.

MMORPGs are brilliant games for people with autism. They foster an environment of collaboration and interaction. While playing it I speak to more people than I would ever want to otherwise. The important thing about this is that I generally feel relaxed when talking to these people, because I know what I am talking about. There is a structure, there is something you need to do, and you can achieve it by working together. This is how social interactions work best for me. Yes, there are occasional jerks on the game (while writing this I had a particularly unpleasant moment with someone yesterday which has left me really sad and is still playing on my mind a little bit) but generally people are nice and want to enjoy the game. The more people who play it, the more the game will be expanded and so continue to be enjoyable for years to come. Without other people in this game, it will not continue. Therefore, there is a good reason to be nice to other people in the grander scheme of things.

Therefore, for me this game manages to deal with a fair number of the ‘core’ autism symptoms. It is easier to interact with others when it is focussed around your interests. Repetitive running of dungeons is kinda encouraged so that you can learn all of the bits in it and get you gear/job level up. No one cares if you are stimming (because they can’t see you). Your sensory environment can be controlled while you’re at home (the game can be a bit overloading at times, but that’s when you take a break from it). The game also rewards you for all of your efforts and so helps to promote all of these things.

Take that all you sham treatments! Where are my randomised controlled trials on computer games in Autism? XD

All of this is presented while having great music (music and Final Fantasy is a whole other topic – it was why I got interested in music and learnt instruments), a fantastic story (Shadowbringers has been brilliant!) and a beautiful world (again, Final Fantasy is partly why I got interested in drawing and do all of the bits with that – That one is also inspired by manga, but I can give Final Fantasy a good bit of credit).

All of this happened while I deepened my relationship with my partner. Dating is hard – flat out. It’s hard for anyone, whether you are neurodiverse or neurotypical. Dating is awkward and is a process where you are trying to take someone that you barely know (in my case, don’t know at all) to someone that you trust as one of your central people (in terms of social circles). Dating is to an extent trying to rush the start of that process in a way that can be unnatural (when done poorly). Strangely, Final Fantasy probably helped us to have a more gradual process to facilitate the general development of our relationship. As we continued to work together through this we learnt more about the other person and how we could trust them with things (or in our case, how my partner will be ok even if I mess up due to there being too many things to think about or a bit of poor coordination).

Some of the most memorable moments of our relationship were centred around computer games. Whether that was visiting the Eorzea cafe in Tokyo, going to the Distant Worlds concert, to taking days off together to play a new release of a game, and the simple quiet times of seeing each other after a hard day and just sitting down to watch a gaming related video. Games have been there for us to help connect with each other.

It was there when I proposed to my partner (one of my best event planning performances). For this I booked out a house for a weekend and transformed the inside into a Final Fantasy style cafe (inspired by our trip to the Eorzea in Tokyo, which was amazing). We had moogles and chocobos and all sorts of things everywhere. I let some Kingdom Hearts slip in every now and then (our rings are themed on the papou fruit with a little bit of Steven Universe thrown in for the colour of the central stones). Then I designed a menu themed off of Final Fantasy dishes (and a three tiered cake based on the papou fruit with the rings topping it off). Ultimately I proposed by bringing that cake out while the song ‘Suteki da ne’ from Final Fantasy X was playing in the background. It was a goofy event, and my partner knew bits of it were going to happen anyway, but we loved it (and I can’t help but tear up a little when Suteki da ne plays now).

Our relationship has forever been shaped by the Final Fantasy gaming series and I love our relationship. My partner and I have been through a lot of struggles and hard times over the year, but we have made it through and continue to carry on each day supporting each other. Would we have connected without a shared love in the game? Probably. After writing this I have learnt that I have depended on Final Fantasy a lot over the years so actually I think it was probably quite important to have it as a shared interest. But what we have gained from this has made our relationship something really special.

A message I want to pass over to parents with this is that whatever your child’s special interest is (as long as it is not endangering them), it’s ok. The more important thing is trying to connect with them through it and trying to link it to the world around them. My mum never discouraged me from gaming and over the years listened to all of the ramblings, looked at all of the attempts at artwork, listened to any music I was composing inspired off of it, and generally was just aware with it. That has always been something I appreciated, and so I think that having that connection with your child is really important. So if your child is massively into Minecraft or falling for Fortnite (love some alliteration) then that’s alright, celebrate that they have found something that they love. Use it as a way to learn more about them and connect to the world around it. For those of you who do that sort of stuff with their children, you are wonderful and doing a great job. Life is a wonderful thing and a lot of my life has come from my interest pushing me forward, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Gaming is not the root of all evil. I don’t believe it is something that is making people worse than they would be without it. Everything needs to be used healthily. If you are playing the game to the point that it interferes with your daily function, then that isn’t great. But the same can be said with any hobby or interest. I believe that there is so much good to gaming that can really help people to develop into fascinating people. Or even just to be a bit happier in life, and we could all use being a little happier. The world is a tough place, and anything that gives people some respite from that is something that I support.

I also support long discussions about Final Fantasy. I completely support this.

Thanks for reading – it took me a couple of weeks to write this up, so I hope that I can keep on doing bits and pieces while on the train before work and write a bit more. I’ll try to have a look at some research bits again soon (not going to lie – the prospect of this does feel like I’m going to work, but I do enjoy the system so would be happy to do it). Until then, I hope you have an excellent time!

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