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Access Granted: how video games are improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum

By Laura Francis. Posted

Of all the tools and techniques that can help people on the autism spectrum, video games often take a back seat. Yet games are a perfect way for autistic people to engage with others and build connections – and an increasing number of games, both in the triple-A and indie realm, are acknowledging and including people on the spectrum.

Recent years have also seen an increased focus on helping autistic people find careers in the games industry. UK charity Autistica, for example, is leading the charge when it comes to helping studios recognise the importance of inclusion and accessibility for people on the autism spectrum. It’s still a new area of advocacy, but as we found out after speaking to those making these games, and to those hiring for industry roles, it’s a narrative that’s shifting, slowly but surely, in a more positive direction.

Defining autism

Autism is a neurological condition that can affect a person’s ability to socially interact, make eye contact, or read facial expressions. Other signs of autism can include sensory issues and repetitive behaviour. Autism can affect people in a multitude of ways, then, and people on the autism spectrum can also be affected by mental health issues, including loneliness and anxiety.

Video games can, however, play a significant role in the lives of autistic people. While the media sometimes paints gaming as a lonely and isolating pastime, there’s some evidence to suggest that people on the spectrum can find solace and a sense of community in gaming, whether it’s via streaming, online forums and groups, or on social media. “In my experience, games aren’t just games to someone with ASD (Autism spectrum disorder),” says Gemma Johnson-Brown, COO of Dovetail Games. “They’re an integral part of their lives, their connection to the outside world, their release, and their fun.”

Dr Sachin Shah, who is part of a collective of mental health professionals called Gaming the Mind, concurs. “It makes sense that games could be appealing (to people on the autism spectrum),” says Shah. “(Video games offer) a world with solid rules and predictable, controllable events, in which social interaction, whether with NPCs or online with other players, is easier to navigate with less emphasis on non-verbal communication… Compared to a neurotypical person, autistic people will have some degree of difficulty with social communication and social interaction, which can make it hard to get by in society.”

“I think playing games can help people who are on the autism spectrum learn about the world and how to socialise with others in a safer environment,” says Xu He, founder of Grand Neuron Studios. On the autism spectrum herself, Xu He is a 2018 BAFTA scholar who’s currently developing Disconnected, a “narrative documentary” which tells the story of an autistic girl. Rejecting common autistic stereotypes, as often depicted in movies like Rain Man, Disconnected illustrates that autism just means having a slightly different brain.

A ten-minute demo of Disconnected was showcased at EGX 2019 and at the London Games Festival in 2020.

Xu He interviewed four autistic people for the voiceover, which gives the game context; as they progress through the game, players hear real autistic people tell their stories. Accessibility has also been a huge priority when it came to working on this game, particularly when it comes to visuals. “To make Disconnected accessible, I used a very pure art style, made the game mechanics easy to understand, and there’s very little text in the game,” Xu He says. “For example, a simple or desaturated background can help autistic players focus on the characters in the foreground easier.”

Represent

Overwatch is a rare example of a triple-A title that features an autistic character: the Indian architect, Symmetra. In response to a fan question, the game’s director, Jeff Kaplan, confirmed that Symmetra is indeed on the autism spectrum – something that Shah welcomes. “With autism representation, there’s the aspirational kind, like Symmetra from Overwatch, which shows an autistic person as a powerful hero,” Shah says. “Symmetra is a role model, (which is) important for autistic people, and also to reduce stigma towards autistic people.”

To the Moon, a 2011 adventure by Canadian studio Freebird Games, also features a character on the autism spectrum. River isn’t presented as a hero, but rather an ordinary person who experiences similar struggles that autistic people can face in the real world. “(The game) shows that the communication difficulty is on both sides of the equation: River’s neurotypical partner needs to learn to understand her, not just the other way around,” says Shah. “She’s still someone with needs and desires, and has worth as a person. She’s someone for autistic people to relate to, and for neurotypical people to empathise with and care about.”

Symmetra’s place on the autistic spectrum was underlined in the Overwatch spin-off comic book, A Better World.

Citing Hellblade as an example, Shah suggests that game designers are becoming more open to exploring different “neurodiverse experiences” in their work. “The success of Hellblade shows there’s interest in exploring different states of mind,” he says. “Ideally, such games shouldn’t just encourage pity from players – they should address the social and political challenges autistic people face, and inspire the need for societal change… Studios need to realise that there need not be a ‘reason’ for a character to be autistic; autism doesn’t need to fill a plot requirement. Some people are just autistic, so some game characters should be, too. As with all forms of diversity, this shift will be easier with more diverse creative teams.”

Joining the industry

Although we’re beginning to see greater representation and accessibility within video games themselves, the wider industry has been slower to catch up when it comes to job opportunities for those on the spectrum. “Only a third of autistic people are in any kind of paid work, though most unemployed autistic people would like to be in work,” Shah points out. “Autistic people may be attracted to the games industry for the same reasons as anyone, stemming from an interest in games, art, or programming. They may have traits more suited for the industry, such as attention to detail, need for routine, or having specific related interests.”

Dr Sachin Shah says that autistic people should be involved in playtesting in order to receive relevant feedback on a game and its accessibility.

Shah also argues that studios should take positive action to recruit more autistic people and increase representation among employees – indeed, the 2010 Equality Act (or the Northern Ireland Disability Discrimination Act) make such action a legal requirement. “Employers shouldn’t discriminate against autistic people, as autism is considered a disability,” he says. “Employers must make reasonable adjustments so that autistic people are not substantially disadvantaged at work… This could include steps such as ensuring all qualifying autistic candidates are given an interview. Experience and educational requirements can also be a barrier to recruitment, and studios could consider developing roles, such as apprenticeships, to encourage autistic candidates who are able to do the work but lack formal qualifications. Greater representation brings greater awareness of inclusivity adjustments that need to be made, and better collective security for workers to request these changes.”

“More needs to be done to challenge negative attitudes about disability,” Gemma Johnson-Brown concurs. “The full possibility and power of games is yet to be realised because the industry isn’t diverse enough across the spectrum, including neurodiversity. Dovetail Games are working with a local organisation called Bemix that works with people on the spectrum and supports them in the workplace. We view them as long interviews; our first supported internship has resulted in the individual being offered a permanent position, and we have a number of employees on the spectrum. I have found time, acceptance, understanding, and minimal adjustments have opened up a tonne of value and (more) fresh perspectives than we have ever experienced.”

Says Jake Mackey, “As a medium, gaming can be a way for autistic people to socialise, connect, and interact in a more controlled environment.”

A New Initiative

Specialising in autism research, Autistica launched Autistica Play in March 2019. It’s an initiative that sees the charity liaise with various professionals across the gaming industry in order to promote more inclusivity and neurodiversity. “By raising awareness, understanding, and involving more neurodiversity in the games industry, we can increase representation and inclusivity,” explains Jake Mackey, Autistica’s gaming partnerships manager. “We also know that 79% of autistic adults have had a mental health problem, with over 50% of autistic adults experiencing anxiety and/or depression in their lifetime. Combine this with the fast-paced nature of the games industry, with work cultures like crunch or potential sensory overloading environments like expos and events, and it becomes clear that the games industry is currently not the most inclusive environment for the neurodivergent.”

Helen Carmichael, a long-time games industry professional and an Autistica Play ambassador, also believes that industry conventions and events could do more in terms of support for people on the autism spectrum, such as designated quiet areas. “Many people would welcome more quiet or less sensory challenging areas at industry events,” she says, “and more social or networking opportunities that are not parties in noisy bars.”

A moment of calm in the charming 2011 adventure, To the Moon.

Making progress

Overall, it seems as though the gaming industry is continuing to take steps towards promoting more diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility for those on the autism spectrum. Companies like Dovetail Games are working closely with local organisations to help autistic people into employment. A growing number of studios are avoiding overused autism stereotypes and caricatures in their games. Social media and streaming mean it’s easier for autistic people to see there are others like them who share a love of gaming.

Inevitably, however, there’s still more work to be done in the games industry to make it more inclusive to all types of people. Hopefully, employers across the gaming sector will recognise the benefits of recruiting someone on the autism spectrum, and appreciate the fresh ideas their unique minds can bring.


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