Video games are arguably the most fascinating, revolutionary medium in modern culture. They hold the power to bring people together, and to help people escape. Players go on adventures, make choices, follow a path or create their own. And, sometimes, video games are able to completely change the player's life for the better. While video games have always been a big part of my life as a form of entertainment, they also harness a certain level of magical power that I have been lucky enough to witness first hand. With Thanksgiving upon us, I felt that this would be an appropriate time to share that experience with all of you.
I am the proud mother of two extraordinary young girls, Mary (6) and Layla (4). In October of 2013, four days after her second birthday, my youngest child was formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Global Developmental Delay, and Hypotonia. The diagnosis was not a surprise to us. Layla was a timid child. On her first birthday, she fell into an intense meltdown due to the level of noise. Her first Christmas after that brought another meltdown. She was terrified of wrapping paper, along with the toys that were concealed underneath. Her closest interaction with most things was to sit back, smiling quietly to herself as she watched her family play with things in front of her. She struggled with any changes in her routine or environment. We had begun therapy for her months before the doctors confirmed what we already knew.
At this point, Layla was completely nonverbal, and her doctors and therapists anticipated that she would remain that way. We began using PECS, a picture communication system, in order to give her a way to express herself and her desires with her family. Once it became clear that this would be a long term process, we applied for, and thankfully were approved for, an iPad grant through a local foundation. This included access to software that would allow for a massive system of PECS in order to help her communicate a vast selection of emotions, wants, needs, and more. The physical picture cards that we held on to were limited: requests for certain foods, drinks, and her iPad in the event that what she wanted was not represented on a card.
She requested the iPad constantly, but it often wasn't for her PECS software. Layla was in love with Fruit Ninja, wanting to play it constantly. It was remarkable to watch her eyes during this time, the understanding of what she was doing, learning what actions resulted in what consequences. She was always one to try to understand something before interacting with it, with more interest in how things worked than engaging in mindless actions.
And then it happened. "iPad."
My baby girl's first spoken word was "iPad."
I exposed her to as many games as I could after that. The following Halloween, she was Luigi to her big sister's Mario. A Wii U followed shortly after. With every new game, be it iPad application or console disk or cartridge, her vocabulary grew. "Mario." "Link." She began to string together words: "I want Earthworm Jim," or "On, please." She even started channeling her inner Navi, saying "Hey hey listen" when she wants attention.
My older daughter desperately wanted a better relationship with her baby sister, and she was able to find that in video games. Much like Mortal Kombat brought my older brother and I closer in spite of our 4 year age gap, Super Mario 3D World did the same for my children. The language barriers that had once separated them were suddenly irrelevant because they were united through a common interest: video games.
Layla's delays could not be attributed to a lack of wisdom or understanding, two things that at such a young age she had shown, repeatedly, that she had in spades. Rather, her delays came from a position of comfort, a position of resistance to change. It was with profound motivation that she was able to form language, and that motivation came in the form of a game. While her vocabulary has expanded to include more, including "I love you" and "Have a good today," it was Fruit Ninja, and other games that followed, that made those precious moments possible.
In addition to giving my child the gift of a voice, video games have helped her deal with many other challenges that present themselves when Layla is dealing with the world around her. Within a single game, the environment that she is experiencing changes rapidly, and often with little warning. There are failures, and there are victories. Layla has learned the result of jumping off a cliff, and she has learned that changing what she is doing will have a different result. She learned that change can be a good thing, and this lesson has impacted how she handles change and disappointment in real life.
I had established early in my parenting life that I would educate my children as thoroughly as possible, and this included limiting time spent with television and electronics. That all went out the window because I firmly believe, with all of my heart, that the only reason I ever heard my baby girl's voice was because of a game. Video games improved my daughter's quality of life and for that reason I will always be thankful for this industry for the magic that it brings to her life, and mine, every day.