It’s National Autism Awareness month, and we asked community member Dead Sparrow of Duelist101 to touch on the subject for us.
Growing up on the autism spectrum, I often found the social world to be a confusing place. Interactions involve so many unwritten rules and hidden layers that a simple conversation can feel like an endless minefield.
For this reason, I avoided online games when they first came out. Specifically, I avoided MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games): large, virtual worlds where players can interact in an intensely social environment. For me, the whole point of games was to escape the social world…why would I play one that contains all of the elements I wanted to avoid?
One day, however, I was talked into playing Wizard101. I grudgingly made a character and began the quests. I braced myself for what was sure to be a long line of confusing, negative interactions with random players. Instead, something unexpected happened: I quickly discovered many in-game features that made it easier for me to manage the social difficulties I often ran up against. I was having fun. More importantly, I was having positive experiences with others, not in spite of this online world, but because of it. Years later, I’m still playing Wizard101, as well as its sister game Pirate101.
As an adult on the autism spectrum, I couldn’t help but think that these in-game features would have been even more helpful when I was a kid, a time when I was struggling mightily to navigate the social world. To help explain what I mean by this, I thought I would share just a few of these gaming experiences with you.
Here are 4 features of MMORPGs that I believe can be beneficial for those on the autism spectrum.
One of the primary struggles I had growing up was understanding the structure of conversation. I was not developing the ability to intuitively understand social cues- the “unwritten rules” of interactions, so to speak. This made it difficult to navigate even the simplest of discussions. For example, knowing how to begin and end a conversation; knowing when to speak and when to listen- these are things most people can do without having to think about it, but for those of us on the spectrum it can be a real challenge.
This is what drew my attention to a feature common to most online games, including both KI games: the chat menu. This is a list of pre-written statements that players can select in order communicate with others. As I played and utilized this menu, I was struck by how useful and easy to understand the menu options were.
It’s not merely a list of random statements…it actually provides a structured overview of how conversations work. There are greetings, farewells, statements that provide info about a player’s progress. All helpful ways of sharing information…but for autistics, it’s also an easy way learn those “unwritten rules” that can be so difficult to intuit.
I think the menu chat feature can be a great way to look at statements, identify where in a conversation they belong, and practice navigating the subtle twists and turns of a conversation.
2: Finding Your Style
People on the spectrum can be very different from one another. It has become a cliché, but one so true that it’s always worth repeating: if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And one thing I like about online games is that they offer a huge variety options when it comes to how one chooses to engage with that particular world.
For example, some people on the spectrum have a very strong need for structure. The repetitive observance of clearly defined rituals and tasks can help provide an enormous sense of comfort and stability. Online games are filled with linear quest lines and well-established goals. They are filled with items that can be tracked down, obtained and collected. For autistics who seek out structure, checking off these to-do lists can be both fun and comforting.
For others on the spectrum, it can be the exact opposite; lack of structure is a source of comfort, since it allows one to establish their own internal rules and forms of play. I fall into this 2nd camp. When I was a kid, I was often frustrated by the “rules” of traditional video games. I didn’t want to work through a stage or beat the final boss. I just wanted to roam around and make up my own set of goals. I was particularly fond of discovering glitches. If I could find an area where I could jump off the screen or trigger visual errors in the game, I was thrilled. That was my definition of a good time.
Back then, most kids wanted to rescue the princess. I wanted to break the game. (I’m a natural born beta-tester, in other words.)
It wasn’t until I played Wizard101 for the first time that I found a game that was ready-made for someone like me. You have all the freedom in the world to simply walk around, sight-see and create unique goals that are separate from the quest line.
Autistics can have a hard time finding settings where they are allowed to play based on their own preferences. With online games, that can be less of a problem. If you need structure, they have it. If you’d rather avoid structure, that’s okay too. Whatever your style, the ability to customize your play experience is a pretty awesome thing.
3. Crowd Control
This one might be my personal favorite. In both Wizard101 and Pirate101, you have something called “realms”. This is a feature common to many online worlds, though it can go by any number of names (e.g. servers, areas, zones).
Here’s how it works: in order to manage the immense volume of players logged into the game at any given time, there are actually many identical copies of the game that are running simultaneously. As one “realm” fills up, other players are logged into a 2nd realm…or 3rd or 10th realm, just as many as they need to accommodate the players and leave them with plenty of elbow room.
Why am I describing this? One common challenge people on the spectrum can face is processing social cues. Most people do this instinctively, but for autistics, trying to piece together what is said, what is meant, as well as the overall context can be mentally exhausting. And if you are around a large crowd, where even more social cues are being expressed, it can be a painfully stressful experience.
Which is where “realms” come in. Not only are there a variety of realms to choose from- but they are sorted by crowd-size. Check out this screen shot from Pirate101. The highlighted realm is currently “crowded”. But as you can see, the lower realms are “perfect”, meaning they have a smaller number of people.
So, if you find crowds to be anxiety-inducing and prefer to avoid an onslaught of social data, you can transport your character to one of these less-populated realms.
This feature was designed so that servers can better handle the influx of players. But for people on the spectrum, it can be a great tool for managing their in-game stress levels. It’s an option I utilize almost every time I log in, and it’s always a relief. (The real world could stand to learn a few things from KI games; I would love to be able to do this at grocery stores and parties.)
4: Making Connections
Online games have benefits that extend outside of the virtual world itself. They are also a great way to connect with the people in your life.
It’s like I said, social cues can be confusing, and following even the most basic conversations can be a challenge. But with gaming, you have plenty of ready-made experiences to share with others. They give you pre-existing activities to engage in (quests, gold farming, etc) as well as pre-existing conversation topics (gear, pet selection, and so on).
Certainly, one could say this about many hobbies- like sports or extracurricular school activities- but online games can be the more comfortable option. Many people with autism spectrum disorder have sensory issues; this can include a painful sensitivity to lights, sounds, touch, etc. So being able to socialize while remaining at home, in a sensory friendly environment, is no small thing.
Today, as an adult, I still struggle with the ambiguous world of social cues and small talk. But in a virtual world like Pirate101, it’s a lot easier to spend time with friends and have positive experiences.
It makes me wish the option of online games had been available when I was younger. Making friends was a monumental struggle back then. I think having a world to explore and quests to follow would have made easing into playdates a less daunting challenge.
I will close with this reminder: online games are social in nature. Problems that autistics might encounter in the real world can just as easily pop up in an online game. It’s always a good idea to monitor a younger player’s game time, to make sure that they are both identifying and avoiding problematic encounters. Caution is always recommended, but I do think online games provide numerous safety measures that give players the ability to protect their gaming experience. This is especially true in the case of Wizard101 and Pirate101, which have put a huge amount of effort into making their worlds a family-friendly experience.
No two people on the spectrum are alike, but I do think the features listed above can make MMORPGs a positive experience for many autistics.
So, start gaming. Study those menu chat options. And if all else fails…switch realms.
M. Kelter writes for Autism Parenting Magazine, as well as his personal blog Invisible Strings. He also writes (as Dead Sparrow) for Duelist101, an official fansite dedicated to both Wizard101 and Pirate101.
We have lots of fun making cool games for kids of all ages at KingsIsle Entertainment, but we also make sure to spend time playing games of all types. Card games may inspire a new card spell in Wizard101, while new tactics in a land conquest board game can be the seed for units in Pirate101. Plus, games are a great way to let off steam when you are feeling stressed out.
We have several break rooms at the KingsIsle offices, and most of the time these are filled to the brim with people playing games on their lunch hour. We even have several games set up to be played over many weeks, one hour at a time. A recent favorite board game is a cool one called Krosmaster: Arena. This plays almost like a board game version of Pirate101. You command a team of characters who must battle in an arena against other players. The plastic figurines have a great anime look to them and are very colorful. The strategy is nice and light for a lunch game, but there are enough tactical layers to make for an interesting challenge for everyone.
Another game that we have been playing a lot of is VERY old school. Riichi Mahjong, or Japanese Mahjong, has been in heavy rotation at the office for several months now, and there is even a tournament going on as we speak! Every day I swing by the break room to see a great looking set of Mahjong tiles on several custom boards. These gamers take their games seriously!
What do gamers do when they are outside of work making games? Why, they play MORE games! We have a regular Blood Bowl (PC) tournament outside of work that consumes the office like March Madness. It gets pretty intense and you’ll hear colorful stories of wild victories and tragic defeats throughout the halls, the conference rooms, the break rooms, the bathrooms, at Starbucks, etc. If you don’t know Blood Bowl, think of it as fantasy sports (full contact football and/or rugby) played by elves, dwarves and orcs with a tremendous amount of mayhem. You never know who is going to come out on top or whose top player might be killed by an unlucky roll! We even have a bracket tournament system of wins and losses that culminates in a finale that is fought out live between the two finalists while spectators watch and cheer (and also eat a lot of BBQ)!
So we take games very seriously here at KingsIsle Entertainment…. we won’t even mention the round-robin style ping pong that gets played at the close of business almost every day! There is nothing wrong with a little gaming at work, after all! Who knows? Maybe it will inspire people with a new creature, ability, story, or interesting technique for what we do in Wizard101, Pirate101 and everything that is still to come.
It’s Throwback Thursday, so today we’re throwing back to one of the first articles ever printed about Wizard101 in the Beckett Massive Online Gamer magazine. Originally printed in the May/June issue in 2009, this article gives an early look into the Wizard101 world you know and love!
If you’re looking for a family style MMO that has a unique method of combat, you’ll want to sink your teeth into Wizard101. Released in the summer of 2008 by KingsIsle Entertainment, this game is friendly towards all ages and provides some great content and entertainment no matter the player. Not to mention you can try a large helping of the beginning content for free before deciding if you want to upgrade your account and access other areas through subscription (or you can also purchase Crowns and use those as currency to unlock zones one at a time).
The basic combat system is a turn-based card game. Each player has a deck of cards to use against various opponents that you come across. Walking on the sidewalks is considered safe, while in the middle of the street, vicious mobs roam around intent on sweeping you into combat with them. AS you enter combat, a playing field will show up on the ground with positions on one side for mobs and the other side for players. Each time it’s your turn you automatically draw a selection of cards from your deck, and then gain the ability to play it against the creatures you’re facing or use buffs on yourself to protect you from future attacks. More players can be drawn into the combat field along with you, and this allows for other creatures to also join in on the fights. Traditional grouping is not used in Wizard101, and it’s refreshing to see something as innovative as open groups.
Don’t let the bright colors and cartoon0like graphics fool you. This game may be aimed at families and children, but a large percentage of the players are adults who are drawn into the Wizard story. Character creation is fairly straightforward: you pick your hair and facial features along with the color of your clothes. Because this game is safe for families, you choose your name by means of a scrolling wheel with pre-approved names. There are parental controls for everything; children cannot even talk to others in-game without first turning them off. The public (and private) chat channels work much the same way. Any word that has not already been pre-approved will be blocked out. While some may find this frustrating (especially if you’re an adult trying to communicate with a group of your friends), it’s a great feature to keep this game safe for all users and it doesn’t take much time to get used to it.
You start off as a young Wizard in Wizard City; there are 15 sub-zones within the one world. 11 of the 15 zones are free, allowing you to spend some time leveling up and getting a grasp of the game before deciding on whether or not you’d like to subscribe or purchase Crowns to unlock future zones. Once you’ve completed the quests for Wizard City, you’ll move on to Krokotopia, which is home to 20 smaller areas. These areas will either need Crowns or a Membership to unlock. The worlds following are Marleybone, MooShu, and the newly released Dragonspyre.
Each world has a unique feel to it, along with some great graphics. The spell effects from the cards you use in your decks are also quite impressive, and if you’re looking for a game that has low time and computer requirements but looks amazing, Wizard101 is certainly the one for you. Speaking with resident Wizard Tara Mythcrafter, I asked what drew her to the game and she had this to say:
“The card battle system, casual feel, and low computer requirements make it perfect. Plus I love dressing up and collecting pets, do other things or just relax while playing; most other games demand constant and continued attention.”
There’s constant work being done on Wizard101, and some of the new changes that have been introduced to the game are the new player versus player arenas. There’s a special arena for PvP located in Unicorn Way, right by Diego. You can join matches, create matches, and even watch ongoing battles. You’ll earn arena tickets for partaking in PvP, which can be spent at Diego for rare clothing (something everyone loves: looking unique). There are tournament seasons that last for 3-4 months and once they’re over, a new season will begin. All pervious ranks will be erased and the items that you can purchase will also change, so it’s best to take advantage of it while you can! I spoke with Tara and her friend Thomas Lionblood to see if either of them had gotten a chance to play with the new PvP aspects. Thomas said:
“I have a few times, but I want to get to fifth tea first.” (Note: remember, there is a chat protection in place which restricts the use of numbers, so fifth tea is fifty.)
There was a line up around Diego when I happened to wander by, so it’s obviously going to be a very popular aspect to the game. It also helps things branch out a little – if you’re tired of running around completing quests and vanquishing foes, you can take a time out and do something different. Having more avenues open to players is never a bad thing.
When I asked about the chat filter and whether or not it was an issue in-game, Thomas was very honest with his answer:
“I like it because I know that everyone’s safety is a top priority in the game. You don’t find that kind of consideration in other MMOs for the most part.”
PvP is not the only new aspect implemented in Wizard101; they also recently released their newest world: Dragonspyre!
As the story goes, Dragonspyre is where Malistaire has been spotted, in an ancient haunted world that used to house an academy that rivaled the Ravenwood School. The people had a special interest in fire magic, and somehow the world was destroyed when the great Dragon Titan was summoned. Now the world is covered with lava, fire, and ghosts just waiting for young Wizards to explore and conquer!
Each real world holiday also brings around special events held in Wizard101, proof that the world is always evolving and changing in order to keep players interested. The forums are a flurry of activity with feedback and special notices; Wizard101 is certainly one of those games you’ll want to try at least once. Before you know it, you may just be hooked!
This article originally appeared in Beckett Massive Online Gamer Issue 18 on May/June 2009 and has been reprinted with permission from Engaged Enthusiast Media by Beckett.