With their permission, here’s a quote from one of our wonderful Gentle Autistic Facebook Community members, who sums up the appeal of video gaming so perfectly:

I’m a big online gamer I like the big fighty shooty things – wonderful for a de-stress. Since taking up the finger painting, it’s made me realise colour is a massive fascination for me – so I think that was the original appeal – a whole different world full of bright colour. I know the real world is full of colour but games are more intense in general, so colour is more so also. From it – I get to de-stress, I can disappear into it – it distracts me enough. I think a big thing with them is it is always the same they don’t change each time you play them which is wonderful for auties – unless of course they update them & move the goalposts!”

Some of us will have spent years and years of video gaming with a degree of guilt – stealthily sneaking in the odd hour (or four) in order to get our fix, before returning to engaging in more socially acceptable pursuits, all the while itching to get back to our game.

And then, along comes the revelation that we are neurodivergents, doing our best to cope with the daily challenges of life in a neurotypical world. And guess what? Gaming is, for many of us, considered a bona fide special interest – a much needed outlet to reduce our anxiety and enjoy some much needed downtime.

I became aware in my teens that I spent a much higher than sociably reasonable amount of time on the TV video game Pong and my treasured handheld video games. By the end of Christmas Day I would hold up whichever one I’d been given and declare it complete. Back in the 1980s, Tandy’s handheld Space Invaders only went up to a score of 999 and that was that – no big fanfare, it just froze – game completed! To reset it I had to take the batteries out and reinsert them, so that I could play again, and again, and again.

It wasn’t until my son got very heavily into all things Nintendo that I started to play the odd game with him and immediately detected my internal warning voice: Emma, if you don’t stop now, you won’t be able to stop. Fortunately, my utter lack of hand-eye co-ordination meant that games such as Mario Kart were off limits for me as I was (and continue to be) so abysmal at them that they only served the purpose of providing incredulous entertainment for others. The same was true with my son’s Guitar Hero. Actually, in that case I didn’t stop, I bought my own and played it for at least 4-6 hours a day in an attempt to improve. Feeling like I was producing music gave me such a buzz, as real guitar playing has always been too hard for me.

But oh, I’m forgetting that my Sims phase came in here somewhere – oh boy that was a good period. I became so invested in my in-game life, and the family I’d created there, that I cried real tears and felt genuinely traumatised when my in-game son died from a microwave fire because I hadn’t prioritised his need to learn to cook. My real life adult kids still laugh about that now!

Then there was the highly addictive The Simpsons: Tapped Out that I played relentlessly on my iPad for months and months. I’m not exaggerating, and my daughters and husband would verify this, when I confess that I had it on my desk at work and interrupted whatever I was doing to do the tap tap tapping every two minutes at the start, to build up my XP, cash and donuts! This phase came to an abrupt end when I made the mistake of buying a cheat from a guy in France. The cheat worked – I could buy everything instantly without building up my donuts. It killed my love of the game instantly. All incentive was gone,

Oh and let’s not forget the Nintendo Switch – I tried and enjoyed lots of games on there. The one that persisted was Chess Ultra with its beautiful graphics and calming music – oh that was a period where very little else got done! But I am now a pretty good chess player and that’s surely a social skill?

And then on to Virtual Reality (VR) and my love of Beat Saber. It’s just so hard to stop. Not to mention the number of injuries to myself and my property that I’ve caused by ignoring the very important requirement to plot my play area.

I won’t generally let myself play anything more than Solitaire on my phone now, because it takes over – such an dopamine rush and I confess that even just writing all this has made me reach for my Switch!

It may be no surprise, therefore, that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises video game addiction as a mental health disorder, as defined in the ICD-11. But let’s not panic just yet. The ICD-11 states that the negative impacts of gaming must be evident for at least a year and must be causing negative consequences in all areas of life, in order for it to be classed as an addiction under their definition. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple to assess for autistic gamers, because many of the symptoms of gaming addiction across all of neurodiversity (that’s everyone in the world) are aspects of our daily lives anyway, and gaming is what actually helps to address those.

So, is gaming a good thing, is it bad for us, and do we care either way? Let’s have a look at what the research says. This list is aimed only at neurodivergent adults that are responsible for our own decisions.

The benefits of gaming for neurodivergent adults:

  • Stress relief after other anxiety-provoking activities – autistic people are thought to spend twice as much time gaming as other neurotypes.
  • An increase in dopamine is enjoyed by everyone, but particularly appreciated by autistics and ADHDers.
    • Improves mood
    • Improves memory
    • Increases response times
    • Reduces anxiety
    • Gives greater focus
    • Increases motivation
  • A recent study has found that gaming provides much needed escapism, provides feelings of joy and helps with burnout.
  • Satisfaction, a sense of achievement – improved self-esteem.
  • Many autistics thrive on visual stimuli and have great attention to detail – both of these make gaming an ideal pastime for us.
  • Social opportunities that are suited to us – online
    • Gamers’ chatrooms and communities where we can share our special interest with similar people.
    • An increased opportunity to meet other neurodivergent people and make new friends.
    • Decreased isolation
  • Many of us struggle with understanding social interactions in mainstream society. Role playing video games (RPGs) are considered to be of real value in improving our understanding of social expectations, but in a controlled environment, and these just so happen to be the preferred genre for almost a third of autistic adults.
  • The privacy that interacting with others as a game character, with a different name, without being seen, can really increase confidence with online communication.
  • The Mindful Gamer makes several good points about how appealing the predictability and control of game play can be for us autistic folk – the same controls producing the same moves and, within the realm of that game, the same outcomes. Real life just isn’t like that and that’s what makes it so hard for so many of us.
  • Another one of our soothing comforts is repetition. Plenty of that to be found in all sorts of video games. This is a well discussed perk in Pete Wharmby’s book (detailed below).
  • The Mindful Gamer also adds that it can teach us perseverance against the odds, learning from our mistakes, and flexibility – all traits that are difficult for so many of us.

The potential drawbacks for us

  • It’s the dangling carrot of dopamine again!
    • As explained by The Mindful Gamer, like the dopamine hits we get from drinking caffeine, over time it takes more in order to achieve the same dopamine hit. We drink more coffee, cola, tea and the same is true of gaming. We need to play for longer and longer, as our bodies adapt to the increased amount of dopamine that it’s become accustomed to, in order to achieve that same rush. This is where the addiction comes in.
  • Neurodivergent people are considered to be more susceptible to addictions more generally too.
  • Whilst having a fulfilling pastime that we can participate in on our own terms is great, it’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation because gaming further decreases our willingness to go out into the world. Only you know if you see that as problematic or not.
  • The activity that calms us can also be the one that causes us stress and anger – when games aren’t going so well or when we are unable to play for whatever reason. Gamers are also known to suffer from depression but it’s almost impossible to know which came first: the depression or the gaming.
  • Video games for consoles can be expensive to buy initially, though they give many, many hours of play. One of the real drawbacks for those who get hooked on mobile gaming apps is being constantly tempted to spend real money in order to escalate our progress in certain games (known as in-game or in-app purchases).

So where does that leave us gamers?

Here’s a really positive little post (much shorter than mine!) on striking a balance as a gamer: Gaming for good: healthy habits for autistic people.

I’d really recommend reading Pete Wharmby’s recently released book, What I Want to Talk About. He is a huge proponent of gaming, and has been for as long as they’ve been in existence. He describes, far more beautifully than I can, the positive experiences and feelings associated with them.

This is the link to The Mindful Gamer website. It’s actually flogging their online course – aimed at video gamers who feel they need help overcoming addiction. I’m not endorsing it or dismissing it. They also use some rather questionable language around autism. If you can put all of that aside, there are some interesting articles on there.

Wow, this was a long one.