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Hard-Wired for Gaming

Jamie Dunston | 12 May 2009 13:20
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Because my brother must limit my nephew's "game time" to ensure that he doesn't play to the exclusion of all else, my nephew has learned to convert his obsession into other, related activities. When he's done playing for the day, he spends his free time reading strategy guides and drawing pictures of his favorite characters. In fact, he recently decided that he wants to make videogames when he grows up, so he's started using paper and pencil to create intricate and detailed level designs.

Through these meta-gaming activities, my nephew is teaching himself complicated concepts about graphic design and game development. More importantly, figuring out how a player will respond to his game helps him learn to anticipate the behavior of a generic "other," an important skill that will help him relate to his peers. The ability to understand that other people may approach the same problem in different ways is part of what psychologists call "theory of mind," and it's a concept many people with autism have trouble grasping. Yet it's a fundamental principle for creating a well designed game.

Social gaming for antisocial people
Anticipating others' responses also plays a critical role in games like The Sims. By distilling human interaction to its simplest form, this game can help autistic people comprehend the complicated nuances of interpersonal communication. When a player interacts with a non-player character, that interaction elicits a response according to the strength of the NPC's relationship with the player's character. If the player's Sim and the NPC are new acquaintances, she might not laugh at his joke, and their relationship will suffer.

If, however, the two Sims are close friends, the NPC will think the player's character is hilarious, and their relationship will improve. She may even reciprocate with another spontaneous positive interaction like a compliment or a hug. These concrete, somewhat predictable social maps, a much-simplified version of what occurs in real life, are an effective way for parents to talk to their autistic kids about appropriate levels of familiarity and interpreting nonverbal cues.

In fact, online games can help autistic people connect with each other and practice their social skills. Amanda Baggs, an autistic adult, has used Second Life to organize a group of other autistic people into the Autistic Liberation Front. The group owns property and holds regular events for its members. And researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health use Second Life to help people with Asperger's - a mild form of autism - learn to navigate real-world social interactions in a controlled setting.

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Playing to win
When I play videogames with Pearce, we're building skills that he's going to use for the rest of his life. He's learning the things other kids learn from games, like hand-eye coordination, problem-solving and flexible thinking. But he's also learning things other kids effortlessly pick up from their parents and friends, like taking turns, non-verbal communication and anticipating another person's actions. And I'm giving him access to a hobby that will help him start conversations and interact with peers when he's older.

Besides, I figure I'd better play games with him while he's young ... when I can still win.

When she's not playing to win with Pearce, Jamie Lynn Dunston reviews videogames and trains her 1-year-old to be a frag doll.

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