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How Autism Reinforced My Gaming Addiction


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I wanted to share my story on trying to deal with gaming addiction in relation to being autustic. As I've come to learn it is not uncommon for autustic people to be drawn into the world of video games as they can bring a lot of comfort in the form of control, routine and sometimes social interaction. This can get out of hand though if there are no boundries set or if no one is there checking in on you to help you shift focus. This is exactly what happened to me and I lost myself completely in what felt like a chore and a mind prison at the end. I continued to play games for other reasons than to become entertained and this is when I realized it had gotten out of hand.

First of all, if you don't know what autism is it's easy to find information online about it. In short: autism is a mental disorder that has varying degrees of traits and difficulties that are commonly referred to as being on the spectrum. These difficulties are categorized in three levels where 1 is the least severe and 3 is the most severe. I am a level 1 ASD which means that I function rather well in society. Most people that meet me wouldn't be able to tell that I have autism because I have a job, friends, a good family relationship and I seem to do "normal" activities. The details lie in how I perform and process all these things in life because that's where my difficulties start to show. In my case I've also worked on trying to hide many of these deviations as I've felt ashemed of them over the years. It was just recently that I discovered that I applied this strategy not to try to fit in but rather not to be pointed out as a misfit. There is a substantial difference between the two as I've come to learn.

Gaming with my disorder is kind of like being in a world of absolute focus and control. It's an environment where abstract things can make sense and where progress can be easily measured. Most games have a beginning and an end and they also have challenges with rewards in-between. This puts my mind in a state where I almost certainly know that there is something good coming my way if I just put in the smallest amount of effort. And if I continue to do so I've created a very potent feedback loop that can potentially go on forever. Well until it collides with regular life that is...

In the case of my disorder I have specific issues with compulsive behavior. When some of you think about autustic people you might think of someone that is a "control freak" and this is a pretty apt discription of how I function. When I game I have certain rituals that I sometimes have to perform in order to progress the game (or even start it up in some scenarios). These rituals can be different depending on the game but in general they force me to experience something in a set pattern before I can continue. To give a clear example I have to sometimes read the main menu text of a game in a certain order and then go on to read every text in the options screen. If I for some reason stumble upon the words or miss out on a certain piece of text I have to start over again. Every time I start over I get slightly more agitated and If I fail enough times I even have to start a routine outside of the game. This can be to wash my hands, go outside for a few minutes to "cool down" or to clean my controller. As you might understand there are games that become harder to approach with this mentality because they don't allow for this routine to happen so easily. An example of such a game is Animal Crossing: New Horizons which has a beginning that consist of a lot of randomly generated elements. The game decides for you, by chance, how your island is going to look, what fruits it will have, what starting clothes you will be wearing and what neighbours will be the first to move to your island. These are probably the hardest games for me to get into because I have to overcome the fact that much of what I want to control is completely out of my control. RPG's with dialogue options and player controlled character and story developments often follow this concept as well making it hard for me not to feel stressed out at every point of decision making in the game. In order to cope with this reality I've become more and more obsessed with following guides and video tutorials to fully uncover all the details of the game.

The game that finally broke me and had me in my knees in tears was Elden Ring. It was a game that I restarted maybe 50 times over the course of 3 intense months. Sometimes I would restart it mere minutes into the game and sometimes 100 hours into the game. In total I spent close to 400 hours in the game just constantly trying to "get things right". And as some of you might know FromSoftware games are designed around the element of surprise and danger; which extends to the way you discover NPC's and their quest lines. There is no clear guidence on how to travel the world and how to speak to anyone in order to complete their tasks. Because of this there are tons of missable dialogue options that's based on where you travel in the world and what characters/objects you interact with. Needless to say I more than often discovered in hindsight that I had missed out on some of these character interactions and it quickly filled me with immense discomfort. I can only describe it as a feeling of fear where my body was filled with adrenaline and all the hairs on my body would stand up. Next thing that happened is that my stomach was starting to twist and my brain was telling me that something unwanted and stressful has happened and the only way to deal with it was to erase it and start over. In real life you don't get this option and you have to live it out and deal with it, but in the world of games there is always the option of erase and rewind; hence the beginning of a problematic feedback loop.

Apart from these more severe forms of compulsive behaviours my friends have also noticed over the years that I'm hard to keep track with because I always take my time doing my own small routines. I like to perfect my characters when there is a character creator, I like to optimize my stats as much as possible, I like to set up my own kind of rules outside of the rules of the game and I also often hunt for achievements. Needless to say I'm a bit slow in my progress and I also lose focus of the goal that is so clear in other peoples minds.

Over the years these patterns have become increasingly more problematic as I've resorted to games whenever there is chaos in real life. This has first and foremost harmed my relationships with my previous girlfriends as they've confronted me on multiple occasions with losing track of the relationship on the basis of gaming obsessively. When I should've opened up I instead shut down and escaped into the only reality that I felt I could somewhat understand and control. Today I have a very clear perspective of this and I'm more motivated than ever to confront it, yet I'm still afraid to enter into a new relationship. I know that these behaviours are not exclusive to gaming and my brain is now in a state where it is trying to find a substitute for means of having control. I don't know exactly where this will lead me but it's my hope that I can be more content with not having full control and not being able to escape hardships like I used to. 

I certainly have more stories to tell in regards to this topic but I think this will be a good starting ground. Hopefully it can give some of you new insights into how it can be to game with autism and if you have any questions you are free to ask them. I don't feel like I have anything to hide anymore and I don't feel ashamed talking about these problems. Finally I just want to state that these are my own issues and they are not necessarily the issues of everyone that has autism. There is research out there that support certain games as a good learning tool for kids with autism. Still, you have to be very mindful about the risks of rewarding the brain with video game logic as it can quickly get out of hand for someone that is struggling with making sense of life in general. Here is a pretty good video from Dr. Paul that weighs in on the subject:



Edited by Wildermyth
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