Can the Powerful Pull of Role-Playing Games Be Used to Help People With Autism, Like My Daughter?

Jun 09 2016

Can the Powerful Pull of Role-Playing Games Be Used to Help People With Autism, Like My Daughter?

June 10th, 2016

If you were among the 10 million people who tuned in to watch the Season Six premiere of Game of Thrones a couple of months back, you understand the appeal of a complex story that sweeps you into another world, where you want to know what happens next to both good and evil characters. In the role-playing video game based on Game of Thrones, the participant becomes one of those characters—something with potentially an even greater pull.

So it’s easy to see how addiction to gaming—and especially to MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games—is a growing issue. In fact, “Internet Gaming Disorder” was considered for inclusion in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). It was left out, but noted as a “Condition for Further Study.” Currently more than 150 million people in the US play video games, and depending on which study you consult, video gaming addiction rates range from 3 to 12 percent.

When my daughter Kelly went to college 11 years ago, over the course of about eight months she became totally engrossed in the online role-playing game Guild Wars. It became an addiction.

She was so engrossed that she quit going to class, never left her room, and only ate when someone brought food to her at her computer. The game was all she cared about. She had to get to the next level or her avatar might lose her battle gear, get attacked or even die. But it felt great if (by logging more game time) her character won special achievements and the game intensity increased. The emotional “high” came from winning a quest and advancing to the next level.

When we discovered what was going on and Kelly withdrew from college in her sophomore year, my husband and I were at a loss to know what to do. At the time, I couldn’t find anyone at her school or any treatment facility professionals in the US who knew what to do about role-playing gaming addiction. We ended up sending Kelly to an inpatient treatment facility in Texas that had a special program for young adults, but we were disappointed with the results.

She came back home to Arizona and started outpatient therapy. Kelly had had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in first grade, and eventually was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in her mid-20s.

After our experience, it’s no surprise to us that research has now shown that role-playing video games can be especially problematic for those with ASD.  Studies also have indicated that 40 percent of gamers play to escape the real world. Kelly confirms that she used and continues to use games to be someone else—a strong fantasy character with magical powers to control her environment.

With outpatient therapy and discovering she could accomplish things in the real world, Kelly is no longer addicted. But games are still a big part of her life. As you might imagine, her dad and I are not big supporters of gaming, having seen how it can become an obsessive pastime to the detriment of other necessary or important activities.

But what if Kelly’s love of games could be used to help her instead of hook her?

Games have been around since the beginning of recorded history and are a fundamental learning technique. These days, “gamification”—applying game design elements to teach, engage and motivate people, often in educational, therapeutic or work settings—is on the rise. Using game models, such as games for fitness or health apps for smartphones, has been shown to affect positive behavior change.

Games engage parts of the brain needed for critical thinking, judgment and memory. In addition to the cognitive benefits, playing video games with others can also offer social benefits, which can be particularly valuable for people with ASD.

Several websites offer lists of recommended games for people with autism. But most of the games currently available and recommended have been designed by educators and “neurotypicals,” and are being used for children.

The games adolescents and adults with autism and ADHD want to play offer high-quality animation and sophisticated game strategies and mechanics. These gamers want to engage in an alternate universe where they can be the hero and slay the villain.

The challenge, then, is to create games that hold the interest of both children and adults with autism and can improve their ability to socialize with others and navigate the real world in the same way they can conquer obstacles in the game kingdom. These games will require vivid color and sound; high-definition, movie-quality graphics and animation; and most importantly, a storyline with universal appeal, like Game of Thrones.

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Delivering Scientific Innovation for Autism, the venture philanthropy affiliate of Autism Speaks, is collaborating with Akili Interactive Labs to develop a video game platform for children with high-functioning autism and ADHD.

A game that could improve problem solving, social interaction and self-regulation could have a significant impact on the quality of life for people with autism.

Of course, people can become addicted to even the most positive games. While more research is needed on the best use of games for those with autism and ADHD, in the meantime, those who are close to the gamers need to pay close attention to what effect—good or bad—playing is having on their loved ones.

My daughter would welcome a game that could reward her with experience points for completing daily activities, such as cleaning up the kitchen or scheduling appointments. She has some terrific ideas based on her experience with Guild Wars, and the seven games she plays on her phone daily, such as Zen Koi.

Game company educators, psychologists and programmers would benefit from involving young adults with autism and ADHD in game design.

The result could be a game every parent or relative would gladly buy.


Cindy Godwin is a retired marketing consultant in Tucson, Arizona, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.