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April 16, 2014 / KingsIsle Entertainment

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.

1. Chat101

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.

autism1

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.

autism3

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.

autism2

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.

 

Conclusion

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.

130 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Awesome! / Apr 20 2014 10:17 am

    When i first saw this little summary on ravenwood news on this, i hesitated to read the whole thing, but i did. Only because i saw Dead Sparrow and Duelist101 in it. xD So, i read the whole thing and now i know what the word autism means. xD Thanks!

  2. Bob J / Apr 20 2014 2:15 pm

    This is a great blog entry

  3. Hiccuping Dino / Apr 20 2014 2:35 pm

    I understand the panicky feeling around large groups, this weekend especially I struggled with conversation (14 people over, crammed into a living room). Talking with others isn’t my strong point face to face, Wizard101 helps me feel safe because I can type and be who I want to be without being afraid of getting looked at funny when I forget words in my sentences or I add and subtract letters and switch around sounds (along with words). Speech is a pain, Wizard101 helps me to not be afraid to talk and be myself.
    I love the post, it speaks beautifully about challenges that many people on the spectrum face. Thank you for being a voice for Autism Awareness Month, you bring a new understanding to people with similar challenges and people who never had a clue about Autism.

    • Janet Lee / Apr 24 2014 8:22 am

      Your bravery is beautiful! You should always be yourself whoever you want to be! The more ASD people speak out the more who will understand but this is sometimes impossible for the nonverbal or verbally challenged. I have 2 with ASD and I can say beyond a shadow of doubt that people on the spectrum are the bravest people I have ever met! Much love and many blessings AUSTISM FAMILIES ROCK!

      • austin / Apr 24 2014 12:07 pm

        thanks that means a lot to me i have Autism and i thank you very much YOU ROCK!!!! 😀

  4. Anonymous / Apr 20 2014 2:57 pm

    you are the best thanks for the information. I LOVE your videos 😀

    • amy / Apr 28 2014 2:18 pm

      thanks:D

  5. Anonymous / Apr 20 2014 6:07 pm

    love pirate101

  6. Anonymous / Apr 20 2014 7:34 pm

    i thought this was a really touching story because he found out a type of way to communicate with others in the virtual world of mmorpgs and if i had autism my self i would’ve said the same thing as him because i love this game and ill be playing even if a new kingsisle game comes out ,so its like ill never let go of the game

  7. Anonymous / Apr 20 2014 7:59 pm

    OK WIZARD101 ROCKS LOL

  8. Anonymous / Apr 21 2014 1:23 am

    Wonderful Post My Son who Play as well as I do Has Autism

  9. Anonymous / Apr 21 2014 6:41 am

    thank you so much. my friends son has autism and one way we can talk is through the internet and it works for him. so maybe a game might help him with others.

  10. Anonymous / Apr 21 2014 7:26 am

    This really helped me understand more about my friend. He has autism and I wanted to help him from the moment I knew. But now that I have read this blog I can finally help him get through the tough situations that he goes threw at school and even when were out somewhere like a store. Thank you so much and all who have autism I wish good luck and good future! ❤

  11. Legendary Rose / Apr 21 2014 3:20 pm

    Ya know, I can totally relate to all of this.
    My name, Legendary Rose, is actually a fairly well-known name on Wizard101 Central. I’m autistic too, and I understand all too well about the social problems.
    Good to see others who are on the spectrum! 🙂

  12. cameron / Apr 21 2014 4:36 pm

    you should make a underground world with moles the world is called goundatopiea.

    • Anonymous / Apr 26 2014 7:52 am

      ok . I do that

  13. Anonymous / Apr 21 2014 5:01 pm

    i understand its hard too becaus my brother has autism thank you for the blog entry

    • Anonymous / Apr 25 2014 5:03 pm

      wizard1o1 is the best I love it its the best an nobody should forget about wizard101 😀

  14. Archos331 / Apr 21 2014 7:41 pm

    Wow. That is amazing. I love it. Also, I love exploiting glitches and the results can be hilarious, like on Mario (getting to world -1) and when I would sometimes use small hacks to get more glitches. I also like games where you can do whatever you want.

  15. Sydney / Apr 21 2014 11:16 pm

    I am also on the autism spectrum and I had and still have the same problems. When I joined the community of Wizard101 in 2010 or 2009 I felt scared. I didn’t want to play with anyone else, because I was scared or being bullied like I was and still am at times in the real world. I am anti-social and when I need help I don’t ask for it, I will quit playing the game for a while then come back and muster up my courage and ask a friend for help.

  16. Anonymous / Apr 22 2014 7:27 am

    this is so touching! ❤ knowing that he had fun with this game while he had autism just made me smile :] thank you for the great blog entry 🙂

  17. Patrick / Apr 22 2014 4:57 pm

    fantastic entry, love Wizard101 for the whole family

  18. Tricia Stewart / Apr 22 2014 7:07 pm

    Beautifully said.

  19. Tricia Stewart / Apr 22 2014 7:14 pm

    I’m not on the spectrum, but I struggle with major social anxiety, so I can relate to the problems with large groups of people or situations where I’m required to socialize a bunch with others… I have to admit that playing Kingsisle games like Wizard101 and Pirate101 have helped me learn how to handle myself better in a social environment. I made my first friends playing Wizard101, and I learned from that how to use these social skills in real life as well, and now I am a lot happier and I’m slowly learning to come out of my shell. I have even made a few really good friends along the way. 🙂 If I could thank Kingsisle, I definitely would, and not only would I also recommend this to those on the spectrum, but it also may help others who have struggled with bad social anxiety in the past like I have.
    Thanks for the wonderful article.

  20. Maddi / Apr 23 2014 10:29 am

    I ❤ WIZARDL101 and everyone on there!!! It's a blast!!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

    • Anonymous / Apr 24 2014 8:10 am

      it really is I love it two

  21. Kim Whitman Broome Henderson / Apr 23 2014 1:18 pm

    I have an 8 year old daughter that is autistic and she LOVES playing wizard 101. It makes me smile knowing that there is a game that the both of us can play and enjoy. Thank you Kingsisle

  22. Anonymous / Apr 23 2014 1:36 pm

    this so cool that your do this wizard is to cool

  23. Brandon gonzalez / Apr 23 2014 1:41 pm

    Really good blog, made me have a smile 🙂 some times i dont do well in school i get really mad and get thoughts that no one wants to hear of if they are really close with the person. I also have allot of problems too. When i first started playing wizard101 i fell in love with it ❤ . It gave me the freedom i needed and the excitment i needed also in my life. it let me acomplish so many problems in my life. i just felt like it was my world when i started playing wizard101. Really great blog keep it up.

  24. Kate J / Apr 23 2014 1:54 pm

    I really appreciate this article as I place on the Autism spectrum as well! Wizard101 and Pirate101 are by far one of the most enjoyable games for those on the spectrum as it not only addresses many problems we wish to escape in real life, but it also encourages us to embrace them, in a safe environment.
    (My only downside to this article are those puzzle pieces up top. They are the bane of my existence)

  25. Shawn Courtain / Apr 23 2014 3:22 pm

    I have a form of autism called Asperger’s. and I can safely call Wizard101 a brilliant and fun game. Pirate101 is no less entertaining.

  26. person / Apr 23 2014 3:36 pm

    Oh wow.. so inspiring and beautiful *cries happily * 🙂 OMG YAYAAYAYAYAY

  27. Liz Loporchio / Apr 23 2014 4:15 pm

    As the grandmother with a child on the autism spectrum I was extremely interested to read your blog. All the info I’ve gotten focuses on our kids’ struggles but I’ve come across very little that talks about what happens as they grow up. Hearing the voice of an adult on the spectrum was both highly informational and very comforting. I love my granddaughter and trying to help her navigate the world to become her very best and happiest self is my goal – but it can be confusing for those of us who offer support. The insights you shared were enlightening to say the least. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint.

  28. Darion Holmes / Apr 23 2014 4:54 pm

    I have a few friends who are autistic, as do I, i just have a minor case i think this article brings up a plethora of good points except for the fact that people with autism are extremely smart, I am happy that you guys wrote this good article, there are several famous people with autism, such as the creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri. So even if your autistic, you can do amazing things.

  29. Kirsten / Apr 23 2014 5:20 pm

    This was a great article! My little brother has had autism since he was 4 years old and is actually nonverbal (or so the doctors say). Back in 2009, my brother saw me playing Wizard101. From going to school, he learned of some ways to speak, but its not much. After seeing me playing Wizard101, he questioned me of what I was doing. I was actually stunned because my brother rarely ever spoke to me unless he wanted something to eat. I explained to him what I was doing and he became really interested in trying Wizard101. I soon helped him make an account and got him all set up to try it on our dads computer. As soon as my brother started playing, he was hooked! He plays Wizard101 everyday now with me, my little sister and our mom. From him playing Wizard101, he has actually learned more words and how to communicate better in reality! I am so greatful to Kingsisle for ,making Wizard101 because it has gotten my brother to speak more in life. 🙂

  30. Rabitt / Apr 23 2014 6:14 pm

    Loved the post. Even just having simple anxiety and social difficulties; this post was right on target. Feeling lonely at home ; log in and socialize. Get overwhelmed; change to a less populated Realm & still be connected via your friends list. Need some structure and direction ; follow a quest. Need some relaxation time; go site-seeing. Gardening and Crafting allow opportunities for Play without external stresses of combat or socializing; yet crafting Treasure Cards offers the opportunity to interact in a Treasure Card trading session with another Player. At every turn you can find a quiet place or a busy place to satisfy your current needs and desires. I would like to be able to leave messages to friends who are not currently online in the game (offline messages)… Wizard101 is where I go for simple comforts of play (and if you do not mind; I will say; Second Life Game is where I go when I feel I can handle or want more interaction and more free will non structured play – AND – Wizard101 is where I run back to when all else gets to be too much)… Thanks KingsIsle; my friend’s List is longer in the game than it is in Real Life ☻

  31. Luz Echevarria / Apr 23 2014 6:46 pm

    Both my son and my husband are in the spectrum and they have the same problems, they are dealing with them and we play wizard and pirate together. Thank you for this article I will share it with my friends.

  32. Anonymous / Apr 23 2014 7:04 pm

    I have autism and I’m one of the best pvp players

  33. Anonymous / Apr 23 2014 7:26 pm

    Great post. I’m on the spectrum myself, and sound sensitivity does make normal extracurricular activities difficult, not to mention that I almost totally lock up in any interaction with more than three or five people I don’t know extremely well. These games are a good exercise in social interaction, and much more comfortable and controllable than normal life.

  34. Anonymous / Apr 23 2014 9:12 pm

    Wow! This Wizard 101 games is in style! Cool and awesome!

  35. samantha sparklesong / Apr 23 2014 10:11 pm

    i like to do that too! where you jump off the screen!

  36. c Nuffer / Apr 24 2014 12:07 am

    Thank you for a beautifully written blog detailing why certain types of on line games not only work for, but are beneficial for people on the spectrum. You expressed many of the positive values of these games for individuals on the spectrum better than I have ever seen them presented before now. As a counselor and teacher I work with many young people on the spectrum and discovered about six years ago how wonderful games like Wizards 101 and similar games can be for them. I was introduced to one of these games by a young student. I now recommend them to both my students and their parents. One aspect I like about the games is that parents and students can play them together. I have been fascinated by how often the adults enjoy the games, sometimes even more than the students do! It also helps bring the families closer together, giving them a common ground. I plan on sharing your blog post with a number of parents and educators to help them better understand how and where such games fit into a student’s learning program.

  37. Anonymous / Apr 24 2014 4:38 am

    This was a great article! My little brother has had autism since he was 4 years old and is actually nonverbal (or so the doctors say). Back in 2009, my brother saw me playing Wizard101. From going to school, he learned of some ways to speak, but its not much. After seeing me playing Wizard101, he questioned me of what I was doing. I was actually stunned because my brother rarely ever spoke to me unless he wanted something to eat. I explained to him what I was doing and he became really interested in trying Wizard101. I soon helped him make an account and got him all set up to try it on our dads computer. As soon as my brother started playing, he was hooked! He plays Wizard101 everyday now with me, my little sister and our mom. From him playing Wizard101, he has actually learned more words and how to communicate better in reality! I am so greatful to Kingsisle for ,making Wizard101 because it has gotten my brother to speak more in life. 😀

  38. Chance Coleman / Apr 24 2014 5:55 am

    I also have autism and this is a great idea to teach young people like yourself! If i were you I would teach people how to get to know autism as much as you do and I play wizard101 all the time. You should look me up My wizard Name is Melissa and I am a lvl 49 death wizard
    Thank you so much for this great info.

    PS, i will be in Dragonspyre doing quests or I will be helping friends.

  39. barb / Apr 24 2014 6:34 am

    a perfect example of why to play!
    well written explanation of the trials and tribulations some people face all day long!

  40. Janet Lee / Apr 24 2014 8:05 am

    I have 2 children with autism and I love how you broke it down for everyday quote unquote normal people to understand! My daughter now grown has loved MMORPG’s for years but struggles with miscommunications all the time. My son now a teenager loves wizard101 but doesn’t like to talk to anyone online but he tries. They both try soo hard to be understood and to understand others it breaks my heart and makes me proud at the same time. They never give up and they know I am right there with them come what may their momma’s love never fades.

  41. Anonymous / Apr 24 2014 10:32 am

    My son is on the spectrum and we love to play Wizards 101 together. It was hard to communicate with him before we started. It became a way for me to get in his world and stay connected. It also helped him communicate with me and learn to cooperate with others. Thank you.

  42. Anonymous / Apr 24 2014 6:18 pm

    thats the best game

  43. EthanTheWarlord / Apr 25 2014 11:40 am

    I would say wizard101, is much better than p101 because p101 is based off a board game….. kids love the graphics of w101 because its not only because of the armor and fantasy world, it unlocked there creative thinking – Ethan

  44. whitesoxs / Apr 25 2014 3:25 pm

    wow that was inspiring I fell you I am the same way. thx for letting me know I am not the only one 🙂

  45. Michael / Apr 25 2014 7:13 pm

    My son is autistic along with having ADHD (combined type), Intermitten Explosive Disorder, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Having Wizard101 and Pirate101 available has been a very positive experience for him. Kudos on this article and hope many others get the opportunity to read it. On Wizard my character is Talon Thunderwalker and his is Devin Battlemask. On Pirate I am Wicked Talon Holystone and he is Brave Jonah Neels. Please feel free to join with either of us as we would LOVE the new friends.

  46. Jack / Apr 26 2014 4:04 pm

    I had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age 3… Until I was re-diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) when I was 5.

  47. w101 pro / Apr 26 2014 7:08 pm

    wizard101 is best

  48. Anonymous / Apr 26 2014 8:45 pm

    i like it to

  49. Anonymous / Apr 27 2014 1:26 am

    Nice post! This really gave me an insight and helped me understand.

  50. anomyous / Apr 27 2014 1:25 pm

    LOVE! IT

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