The word “empowerment” is thrown around quite frequently in discussions surrounding identity and representation in media. Seeing or reading a positive and respectful depiction of one’s identity can have a tremendously beneficial impact on an individual, especially if said individual is from a marginalized community.
That being said, what defines empowerment can mean different things to different people — especially within the medium of video games. This can include the ability to choose or, ideally, to customize the pronouns one is able to use when playing a game; the chance to accurately represent your skin tone and natural hair in a game’s character customization; or the option to romance characters who are the same gender as the player. All of these features can be deemed empowering, which results in an extremely satisfying gaming experience.
With this in mind, I cannot help but wonder, as an autistic woman, what images of empowerment come to mind when autistic people reflect on their favorite video games. For those of us on the autism spectrum, video games can be a tool to relax and break away from the stresses and anxieties that everyday life presents — be it sensory overload or the exhaustion associated with social interactions. I, myself, recognize the importance that video games have had in helping me cope during trying times, alongside enjoying them for their distinctive methods of storytelling and engrossing gameplay.
Despite this reality, allistic (non-autistic) writers and developers fail to recognize that their works can be perceived as empowering to an autistic audience. While I cannot state exactly why this is, I believe a combination of ignorance and misinformation is why allistic writers are still far behind in providing positive experiences for their autistic fans. They showcase ignorance through their failure to realize that autistic audiences exist, and probably already enjoy their work, and they are misinformed by only being able to comprehend autistic identities from a stereotypical or ableist point of view.
I have decided to relate on what aspects of video games have been empowering to me as an autistic woman gamer. I cannot guarantee that my experiences of empowerment will be exactly the same as all autistic gamers — especially since both the autistic spectrum and the category of “gamer” are extremely diverse even without the overlap between the two — but I can say that these experiences are important to me because I am autistic.
Growing up as an autistic woman, I have been exposed to the myriad of ways our culture stigmatizes and punishes individuals who perceive the world in a manner that is too “different” from what is assumed to be “normal.” Whether it was as a student surrounded by teachers who were frustrated by my need for additional accommodations, being illegally fired from a workspace, bullying from peers, encountering the ire of ableist relatives, or observing how the words of autistic people have been continuously silenced by allistic “experts,” there were no shortage of ways that other people have made me feel displaced and unwanted.
During this time — especially during my childhood — I had assumed that my brain was not a “good” one. I struggled a lot in school despite my love of reading and research, and would usually return home from classes feeling emotionally exhausted. I honestly did not believe that I would amount to very much of anything.
Video games were the medium that proved me wrong. When I play video games, everything about my autistic self that was stigmatized and ridiculed becomes a source of strength. My memorization abilities was important in fighting Pokémon battles, especially when you have to memorize type (dis)advantages. My attention to detail would help solve puzzles in many an adventure game, as I have a tendency to observe visual details with precision, which is an asset in determining what two items work together to progress.
And most of all, I am good at playing video games. I am able to play different genres with different gameplay mechanics from Dragon Quest to Metroid and Kirby to Monkey Island. I could play these games and I could play them well. The satisfaction that comes from video games make me feel reassured and comfortable with who I am and what I can accomplish.
Adding to this is the satisfaction in knowing that you can play video games in a manner that best suits your needs. Granted, video games still have a long way to go in terms of being fully accessible, and some difficulty curves are still rather high, but knowing that it’s perfectly natural to talk to non-player characters (NPCs) to reorient yourself, choosing your own play style, or leveling up your party before taking on a difficult boss is refreshing to someone living in a world where people raise eyebrows when you ask for clarification or require extra accommodations. My brain is not punished or judged for being autistic when I game; I simply play and enjoy.
I doubt it would be a generalization when I say that many autistic people loath the practice of small talk. Partially due to our struggle to interpret other people’s body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, as well as our common struggle with ambiguous language usage and sarcasm, conversations are not our forte. When I enter a conversation — unless I am extremely familiar with the person I am speaking with — I know with certainty that I will exit the conversation feeling tired in some manner. This is because I have to put more energy into having a proper conversation than most allistic people. I will have to constantly display active listening cues, which include maintaining eye contact and nodding at appropriate moments all while maintaining good posture and hoping that I am gathering all the information I need.
Then there is the matter of carrying on conversations; if a topic is something that I am uninterested in or know next to nothing about, then I struggle to contribute anything of value. This means that getting to know people well enough to consider them friends or even potential romantic partners can be an extremely frustrating task for autistics. When you already have trouble interpreting what another person is feeling — let alone how that person feels about you — it can be extremely difficult to make new friends or pursue romantic relationships.
Meanwhile, the art of conversation in video games is a practice that is both comfortable and enjoyable. This is partially due to the fact that the most difficult aspects of the conversation — eye contact and active listening — have already been taken care of for me by the game as characters on the screen automatically go through these actions. Body language is also much easier to “read” in a video games, as the characters will commonly portray exaggerated facial expressions or body movements to portray specific emotions. As for conversations themselves, video games take away the confusion and ambiguity of regular conversations and instead present the gamer with what I would call an “easy mode” version of the original.
When a gamer is playing a point-and-click adventure or a visual novel, the game commonly has its own established characters with previously established relationships and personalities in mind. The plot has also been scripted out in advance, which means that the character is only able to really move forward so long as the gamer is able to solve all of the puzzles. When engaging in dialogue with other characters, there are only a set number of things your character can say, and all of the options are relevant conversation pieces that can help the player realize what to do moving forward in the game.
Role-playing games (RPGs) are even easier to participate in, as the player-character is commonly a silent protagonist whose dialogue choices are restricted to choosing to say “Yes” or “No.” Despite the player character’s silence, you are able to progress through the game, comprehend the overall plot, and get to know a large cast of characters.
This leads to one of my favorite aspect of playing video games: the ability to forge connections between different characters. While face-to-face conversations exhaust me, having a conversation in a video game does not have the same effect. If anything, it is the opposite — I love talking with certain characters and getting to know more about who they are and what motivates their actions.
Going from train stop to train stop in the Syberia series allowed me to meet several different characters from across Europe, each with their own lives, experiences, goals, and routines. I was able to know more about these characters by “talking” to them as Kate Walker, the protagonist, while also developing a better comprehension of who Kate was and how her journey had changed her. I have always been a person who has been interested in character development, so the ability to take the metaphorical “driver’s seat” in seeing a character develop and change is an amazing experience in itself.
This feeling is not exclusive to established characters; being able to create a player avatar who talks and interacts with the game’s established cast is an especially enjoyable experience for me. These player avatars typically have their actions speak louder than words, as these characters are commonly non-verbal, which means that just by playing the game, you are able to communicate what type of person your character is and how they relate to others. Overall, engaging in dialogue with characters in video games is enjoyable to me for being “easy” from an autistic perspective, and because it allows me to learn more about unique and engaging people.
Examining what makes video games empowering as an autistic woman gamer is important, but at the end of the day, it is only the discussion of one autistic person’s experiences. I realize that my experiences as a gamer are limited to what I enjoy and what I find empowering, and while there may be some overlap, I surely cannot speak for everyone. So what can we do to change this?
For starters, I think it’s important that autistic gamers are able to share their experiences openly. We should all be able to discuss why we turn to video games specifically as a means of comfort and inspiration, and why we are able to do so. Adding to this, autistic gamers should be able to talk about what they wish they could see in video games.
While I love video games, I have certainly encountered ways in which the medium — and gamer culture — have been exclusionary towards autistic gamers. We need to be able to address these issues and develop methods to problem solve how to make the situation better for us. This can include involving autistic people in the development process, allowing room for autistic reviewers and writers to voice their comments and concerns, or even acknowledging that autistic gamers inhabit the broad and vast gamer community.
There are a lot of things we can do to make the voices of autistic gamers heard, and the most important thing allistic people can do is to listen to us, because we are the professionals of what games mean to us.
To my fellow autistic gamers: please keep gaming and please feel free to talk about or even develop your own games. This medium has meant so much to me, and I bet that it means a lot to you, too. We should all feel like we belong.