You are currently viewing Computer Gaming, COVID and Autism; Part 2 by Professor Tony Attwood

Computer Gaming, COVID and Autism; Part 2 by Professor Tony Attwood

This series of three blogs are from a chapter in the book Life After Lockdown edited by Rebecca Silva, Ruth Prytash, Rene De Loss and Carol Burmeister, published in 2021 by AAPC in the United States

Gaming as a coping mechanism

During COVID, anxiety and depression increased for many people, including people on the spectrum. A computer game is a thought blocker for anxiety and depression. When you are engaged in the game, you don’t feel anxious and you don’t feel depressed. Instead, you suppress and compress your thoughts and feelings. Computer games are more powerful than medications or cognitive behavioral therapy because they encourage the classic autistic characteristics of avoidance and suppression. When you are playing the game, you are in a bubble. Your problems disappear and you don’t care about anything else, but when you switch off the game, those feelings come back. Parents become frightened to see how angry their child becomes when asked to turn off the computer. What is actually happening isn’t really anger: It is the fact that their powerful feelings have not been dissolved or resolved. Once the game is gone—boom! The feelings are back, and they flood you with fear and despair. 

A substitute for social interaction

In autism social emotional reciprocity is a core issue. In a computer game, you don’t have a real conversation going on. You don’t have to worry about reciprocity, you don’t have to read body language, and you don’t have to be involved in social chit-chat. One of the interesting things is that there are often chat lines in computer games, and they provide a means to communicate through typing, rather than talking. Clinically, that can be very valuable. When a client sends me an email, I may receive far more information and insight into the individual’s world than I do in person, because it involves typing, not talking. There is a greater fluency and disclosure of thoughts, feelings, and revelations of the self through typing, rather than talking.

The games have very clear and simple rules that aren’t like social rules. Social rules are inconsistent and complex, and there are always exceptions. Neurotypical kids do things that that are against the rules and get away with it, even though you’re not supposed to get away with it! But in gaming, there are simple rules that are always enforced. There is no inconsistency and no uncertainty, so you are secure in the rules of the game.

A sense of pleasure and enjoyment

If you ask a neurotypical about the greatest moments of excitement and joy in their life, it usually involves another person–giving birth, getting married, falling in love. But with autism, other people can be a source of confusion, so pleasurable memories rarely involve them. Computer gaming, on the other hand, gives you experiences of pleasure and enjoyment when there are very few in your life. This is incredibly intoxicating. Gaming is addictive because it feeds into pleasure-seeking and enjoyment. For someone who may have few pleasures in life, experiencing such a high level of excitement—perhaps the greatest enjoyment you have ever received—is euphoric.

Creating an alternative world

In the real world of daily life, the teen with autism is often not respected or included. But here in the computer game, you are in a world where you are both respected and included. The special interests of people on the spectrum are often an attempt to find a world in which to belong. Anime, Pokemon, Manga–another culture, another country, another time in history where you fit in. Science fiction–you go to another planet where you are recognized and valued. The game creates an alternative world where you have a sense of belonging. The real world may not value you or respect you, but in this world you are remarkable, and that’s why you want to stay.

Avatars are virtual selves that you can create in a computer game. An avatar allows you to experiment with personality, analyzing the interests and people who are important in your life. This is what most teenagers do in the real world. I’m going to be an adult, so what kind of adult am I going to be?  Who do I value, who are my heroes, and can I borrow some of their characteristics? In a computer game you can experiment with that even further. If you’re concerned about your weight, your avatar is slim; if you’re concerned that you’re not smart enough, then your avatar is a genius. It is very powerful. 

The dangers of computer gaming

Immersion into computer gaming can mean that individuals are not learning to cope with emotions. Instead, they’re learning to avoid them. They are compressing and suppressing, and are not processing their feelings appropriately. This means that when they start playing the games in earnest, their emotional maturity freezes and levels off. Emotional regulation is stunted. Individuals learn to rely on the game rather than the actual social skills which will serve them in the real world.

When we look at the long term effects of gaming, we see medical issues. Individuals become overweight, with poor eating habits. Junk food is quick and easy while you are on the computer. Some individuals will spend enormous amounts of time online—from 10- 16 hours per day. There is a lack of exercise and exposure to sunlight, so health effects arise.

It is also very disruptive to sleep patterns. One of the effects of extended screen time is that a person’s thoughts increasingly spiral once the game is turned off. Thoughts become incoherent and chaotic, and sleep becomes more and more elusive. That’s why there should be no screen time for one to two hours before bed. In autism, sleep is always been a problem, from infancy on through senior adulthood. Sleep is important for processing intellectual information and processing emotions. When you have a good night’s sleep, inappropriate behaviors diminish. With too little sleep, the opposite is true.

One of the inherent dangers in gaming is a potential tie-in to gambling. In computer games there are commodities called loot boxes. These loot boxes pop up during a game, offering the opportunity to purchase something that may or may not contain useful items. Most boxes have ordinary items, but the gamer will continue to buy them, lured by the possibility of scoring something big. The odds of it having what it advertises are very rare, but the possibility keeps gamers buying more, and so gambling becomes embedded in games. Parents should be aware of this connection, as it is one more avenue to addiction.