Wizards and Pirates on the Spectrum
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.