Autism and Me (and RPGs)

Last week, I talked about the brilliance of how the recent Power Rangers movie handled its portrayal of autism and the effect it had on me. The piece received a response that I found emotionally overwhelming, I was even invited to write a guest post for a website called GeeksGamers.com, which can be found here. Such positive feedback has inspired me to start a series of sorts, linked by title and what popular culture components have done for me and my autism. While last week was focused on my own interpretation of the representation of autism, today, I’ll be exploring my own integration of autism into role-playing games, more commonly referred to as RPGs.

Video games in general have always played an important role in my life. Along with autism, I also have dyspraxia, a neurological condition that drastically hinders my motor skills and hand-eye coordination. My earliest video game memories involve Spider-Man on the PS1, an action-oriented game and a fan favourite. Through relentlessly playing this game and teaching my brain how to associate the movements made on a controller with the actions that were happening on screen, video games were rewiring my neurological connections. My dyspraxia is not as severe as it once was, but it’s changed the way I live exponentially. I couldn’t walk in a straight line on my own until I was 14, for example, and my right foot still twists at an awkward angle whenever I take a footstep. I’ll most likely never learn to drive, either, so relying on the temperamental luxuries of British public transport is my only real option.

Those early developmental stages of my gaming life planted the seeds for a world I was yet to discover, one that would spark my creativity and love of narrative storytelling. I’m not sure what the first RPG was that I ever played with an emphasis on character creation and influence over the story itself (I, like most in my generation, was a Pok√©mon addict as a young boy), I just have a whole host of favourites. I can remember being 8 and the hype surrounding the hotly anticipated Fable. Despite Peter Molyneux pulling a, well, a Peter Molyneux in hyping up his game far too much (trees growing in real-time, come off it mate), I was still about to devote my life to this game.

Fable opened my eyes to a world in which I could control what happened. I could be good or evil, thin or fat, a mage of extreme power or a warrior wielding his sword with deadly precision. In retrospect, Fable’s approach to RPG mechanics was relatively one-dimensional, ultimately condensing every decision down to whether or not you wanted to be naughty or nice. But if you put that aside, a video game love affair had begun, I was having an influence, I felt important. The biggest issue I’ve faced throughout my life has been social interaction. Initiating conversations scares me, making friends and keeping in contact with them is not a natural instinct. I’ll go long stretches without talking to my friends, not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t understand how friendships work.

My life is defined by rules, the fact that our time on this Earth isn’t dictated by rules, but rather by having to understand the complexities of the human mind has always been a source of distress for me. There is no real step-by-step programme on getting a girlfriend (aside from ones that expect you to already possess¬†the ability to read other people) or getting friends, we’re just expected to know how to navigate this elaborate minefield. The clearly defined rules of video games are comforting to me and stimulate my very human needs of social and romantic fulfilment. I can have a strong circle of friends that look to me as a leader if I play Mass Effect, I can have a wife and a home in Skyrim.

Purpose is something we all search for, even though I don’t believe we all have one. It sounds bleak, but sometimes there are people that are born, they live and then die, having never achieved anything of note or making a lasting impact on anybody. Was their purpose to be a forgettable face in the crowd? No, they never had a purpose to begin with. RPGs endow the player with purpose through their very nature, the sense of empowerment one gets from creating an avatar and being granted with a mission of great importance is like a high for me. The world is looking to my guidance to save them, along the way I’ll meet people who I can choose to love or fear me. The intention of an RPG that relates to providing a sense of power is an escapist fantasy for neurotypicals, but for me, it’s an alternative lifestyle in and of itself.

In terms of character development, I’ve been presented with the chance to retroactively add autistic representation into the games I play, creating an environment of autistic empowerment. I particularly enjoy the freedom afforded to me by Bethesda’s Fallout games, most notably Fallout 3. Through the dialogue options in the game, the personality of my character can be shaped into an ASD badass that roams the Capital Wasteland of Washington D.C., executing tasks and threats with the cold efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Legends quickly spread about a man who has no connections, drifting from settlement to settlement, accruing bottle caps and lending a helping hand to the good, preferring to terminate the evil. The life I want to live will never be accessible to me in the real world, but that blow is softened with the soothing digital splendour of gaming.

With the sheer volume of RPGs currently out there on the market, there’s a lot of putrid waste to sift through in the search of a true diamond in the rough. I still have my criticisms of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, as for whatever reason, I’m even more critical of video games than I am of films. But the sense of escapism I’m given through the genre gives me purpose in a realm that I have full mastery of and, most importantly, I get to feel like a normal guy.

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