Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Evolution of Video Games and Kansas

As with yesterday's blog, I am talking about the Thompson Center's study that states that those with ASD or ADHD are more prone to video game addiction that those who are normal. Yesterday I stated that games often become a 'Kansas' state of being for those on the autism spectrum and from the age of three I craved games. Remember this quote because it's important; within a set of rules everything is known and the worlds of video games have very defined rules.

My experience started in the arcades at a young age with the games of Pole Position and this rollerball bowling game at Noble Roman's (a pizza place) in Indianapolis when I was really young. Then I got my first Nintendo and Super Mario Bros.
This was a very straight forward game; you start with three lives, 100 coins gets an extra life, a mushroom makes you big, a star gives you a short-lived invincibility, and there was just a sense of joy squashing those goombas. Each world had four levels except the last one that had three. When either the end of the levels was reached, or your lives were over, so to was the game.

Over the years games have become deeper and deeper and so to has their allure in becoming a major 'Kansas.' One thing about that study is that it mentions that those on the spectrum are more likely to play action or role playing games. According to the article I linked to on NPR, it states that the researchers (I don't know which study they are talking about because it mentions another) conclude that for ASD boys action and role playing games (RPG) are chosen over first person shooters because FPS's are more audiovisually intensive and faster paced. I must say I disagree with them on their conclusion. Over my journeys talking to students and the students that have admitted that they were on the spectrum there is a wide range of games enjoyed and FPS games are right up there with others. Of course my method is not scientific at all, but let me explain the allure to action, and more specifically, role playing games.

One thing games have done in the past decade is they've become more and more open ended. What that means, going back to Mario, is that whereas when Mario was complete, it was over  Some games today are now getting to the point of where there is no end. Take the hit game of the past few years Minecraft. I personally don't understand the reason why it is such an Aspie magnet because I like close-ended games and I also don't like building things. But while I may not understand many people do. If you don't know what it is, think of it sort of like a mix between LEGO's, a game of survival, and a world where if you can imagine it you probably can build it. Oh, and at night zombies come out in a randomly generated world. But everything has a logic to it. You start the game with nothing but then you go get some wood and with that you can build a pickax and get rocks and upgrade your pickax and then iron and then find diamonds and it just goes on and on and on. And best of (or worst of in my) all (or worst of in my case) there is no end. There is no story, no reason, just mine away and use your imagination.

Another genre that is popular is the role playing game (RPG). These too are getting deeper and got their start from Dungeons and Dragons. My first experience with this type of game was Final Fantasy on the Nintendo, but besides the stats of the games (any gamer will be able to tell you what HP or EXP means) the RPG's of today aren't anything like the worlds that first were created. Take the hit game Skyrim. With the fabulous soundtrack and the world that has more to do than anyone can imagine it is a game that truly packs hundreds of hours of game play. Why is this good? One, it has dragons, but again it's a world that one can play and become engrossed in. The game is one of a long running series and has more lore to it than you, unless you've played it, can appreciate. I believe games are an art form and this game is one wonderfully crafted piece of art. It is also one of the games that a person on the spectrum can become, as one might say, addicted to. Why is this? First, while the game may have a story, once the main story is done the amount of side quests you can do are endless. The game has its own economy so you can try and become wealthy within the confines of the game, or you can commit crime after crime and become feared throughout the realm of Skyrim. Now how awesome does that sound? To have the ability to become someone else in a world that has limits and rules and one can be a hero or villain, without fear or any bit of social anxiety, is certainly an enticing proposition.

Within the past decade social gaming has also become a major factor. I'd be curious to know if the percentage of video game usage has always been the same in the 80's or 90's or if the development of the games of today have added to this. Anyway, with the advent of the Internet, people can now game together. Yes, I'm stating the obvious but this is another factor that if it hasn't been looked at it should because this is one avenue that many people on the spectrum socialize. There are some games where one may only converse as his or her character, or there are services such as Xbox Live in which one can communicate as if it were a telephone service. Most of my friends I have now have come from this and I actually learned how to have a conversation through this method. Think of the safety of it though; for one, if you are playing a racing game like I normally do and am talking to those I'm racing with there's a good chance I already have something in common with those that I'm talking to. Also, if someone becomes mean, I can simply mute them. And another aspect you probably wouldn't think about is the fact that the physical appearance of a person is taken out of the picture which takes out a lot of the processing element of life.

 What does the future hold? I think as games become more open ended without any defined end and as game developers create stories that have the depth of best-selling novels and sparks the imagination of those who play it I think the situation may become worse. In my 2nd book, which is yet to be published, I have a chapter entitled "Faking Kansas" where I talk about this very fact. It's a perfect storm really as we are talking about a mind that has the tendency to obsess on one topic and we're also creating a world that is safe, predictable, and is interactive. The real world is sometimes unsafe, the rules are ever changing, and it is anything, and I mean ANYTHING but predictable. What motivation is there to leave it? I mean, in the Mass Effect universe you get to be Commander Shepperd and your actions will determine the fate of humanity; in each Final Fantasy installment there's a world to be saved, and even in the world of iRacing there are races to be ran and championships to be won. Whatever one's real life Kansas is there's most likely a game that reflects that. As I said, it's a perfect storm and I think there have always been things those on the autism spectrum have flocked to, I don't think anything has ever had the impact of video games and as games become deeper and more complex it is something that I feel we will be talking about for some time to come such as, is this a good thing or a bad thing? I know I've grown within games and my sister says that I actually bonded with her when I was five when we played the NES game of pinball. So within rules everything is known and within these worlds there can be growth. And yet, since "if you've met one person with autism you've only met one person with autism" the next person may become stagnant in these worlds and will not want to leave the safe confines of these worlds.


  1. Ohhhh Aaron! You have just hit my geek nerve! I have been a "gamer" since the days of Pong and Atari 2600. For me, outside play had a definite end during my childhood. It was the year we got the Atari for Christmas. That following summer vacation, instead of being outside riding bikes, building treehouses and playing baseball, my days were spent inside playing Tank Battle, Pac-Man, and my personal favorite, Adventure!

    I have grown up with games ever since, watching the graphics develop, the gameplay extend to the point of never ending, as you pointed out. But I assure you, I was just as immersed in the blocky graphics of Atari's Adventure! as I am in the smooth, lifelike video quality of Star Wars Battlefront or the immersive and addictive world of World of Warcraft. I still remember my first time playing that one. I was up until almost 4:00 am.

    My wife has always stated that, had I been tested as a child, I would have been diagnosed with ADD and/or OCD. So my own experience certainly upholds the premise of the article you quoted in the beginning. I too like the strict rules inherent in the gaming world. Do "this" and "this" will happen. Make a decision and follow the game to it's logical conclusion. Perfect gaming harmony!

    As far as social gaming goes, I don't particularly care for it. Especially all the different itterations of the "Farmville" game on Facebook. I don't want to have to depend on on of my "friends" to send me a nail or a can of paint in order to complete a game of mission. I want to be self-sufficient in my gaming. Selfish, maybe, but it's how I was raised on gaming. Great blog Aaron, looking forward to many more!

  2. This article is really eye-opening and I believe you are really on to something. Thanks for the insights. As an old mother I tend to think the young folks (that is, my young grown kids) spend way too much time in their games, but now I think I understand why.

  3. This article is really eye-opening and I believe you are really on to something. Thanks for the insights. As an old mother I tend to think the young folks (that is, my young grown kids) spend way too much time in their games, but now I think I understand why.