Neurodivergent Gaming by Conall, Peer Support Worker.

Gaming is a topic that carries numerous preconceived perceptions and social stigmas. Mental health while gaming is also a common concern for autistic individuals, parents, and healthcare professionals.

I game regularly and find that gaming has been highly beneficial for me in several ways. Firstly, I utilize gaming as a form of escapism. This means that gaming allows me to take a break from ‘reality’ and dive into a virtual world which doesn’t carry the same expectations and pressures. I mask in social situations, and therefore gaming allows me to be myself and not have to exert energy attempting to submit to social norms. Escapism is a positive thing for me, but too much escapism is also unproductive, and I have to find the right balance. Everyone’s balance will vary, and sometimes it takes time and focus to figure out how to manage this.  

Gaming is also a form of socialisation for me. It allows me to socialise with my peers in a way that is relaxing and comfortable. The topics we chat about can vary from the game itself and our experience of it or may be focused on our personal lives and relationships. The deepest conversations I’ve engaged in have been while I’m gaming, and this is probably because of how relaxed I feel.

It is also reassuring to be a part of a community that shares a similar passion for a specific game, and this allows individuals to openly discuss aspects that they like and dislike about their gaming experience. For instance, one aspect of gaming I like is the ability to lower the volume of certain game sounds. However, I don’t enjoy skill-based matchmaking, which means you match with players who have a similar skill rating as you. This is because sometimes I want to game without exerting too much effort and energy.

Lastly, gaming allows me to enjoy a sense of achievement. I enjoy the competitive side of gaming, and when I focus my attention and win or progress in a game, I feel rewarded. Multiplayer based team games are also highly exhilarating for me and allows for the opportunity to utilise strategy, including managing each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. Some individuals might have quicker reaction times or increased patience, and it’s about incorporating and organising these strengths so that your team has the best chance of winning. This is why a leader can be beneficial in team-based games.

However, unfortunately, gaming isn’t all positive for me. Occasionally, I feel worse after a gaming session, and this is usually because I hope that gaming will ‘fix’ a certain emotion or thought process I am experiencing at the time. Gaming can’t switch off emotions or thoughts. However, it can allow individuals an outlet for these thoughts and emotions. Gaming can also occasionally cause more stress if I am already exhausted or physically unwell. Other individuals in the community might report experiencing eye strain or headaches after gaming.

It is important to be aware that gaming isn’t perfect, and your gaming experience won’t be either.  However, hopefully by being aware of these things, we can begin to manage our gaming in a way that is productive for our mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, there are several misconceptions and stigmas about gaming. Gaming may be perceived as lazy or unproductive. It may also be seen as something that only teenagers engage in and a distraction from what’s ‘truly important.’ These perceptions simply aren’t accurate. Gaming possesses numerous cognitive benefits, including improved memory and decision-making. Gaming is also something enjoyed by people of all ages and genders, and many older individuals find gaming incredibly important as a way to unwind and relax after work. By precipitating and encouraging these social stigmas and misconceptions within society, we are taking away something that people have a real passion for.

Individuals might be afraid to share that their gaming habits, and what types of games they enjoy because they don’t want to be stigmatised and labelled. By encouraging open dialogue between individuals and communities, we can begin to dispel these myths and misconceptions and ensure a less toxic environment. For instance, my favourite game is Modern Warfare 3 because of the fond nostalgic memories I had playing this with my friends growing up. A game I am excited to play soon is Hogwarts Legacy.

It can be argued that the game’s industry also has an important part to play in the mental health of gamers. Encouraging gamers to take breaks within the game itself is something that may lead to improved mental health while gaming. Additionally, providing warnings that a particular scene might be particularly graphic or violent can give gamers the choice on whether they want to engage or ‘skip.’

Below are some resources from research I was involved in, including a gaming log template. This research investigated the gaming experiences of 24 UK gamers, aged 18 to 60 (Mind, 2022). Their interactions with gaming and their relationship with their mental health was examined over 3 weeks. I assisted with interviewing gamers who elaborated on their answers from their gaming logs. I was also a part of a gamer’s workshop where players called on the game’s industry to make five fundamental changes for their mental health. This included incorporating meaningful representation and inclusivity within games and improving gamer’s awareness of their relationship between their mental health and gaming habit (Mind, 2022). Additionally, this project challenged social stigmas around gaming using detailed quotes and transcribed interviews (Mind, 2022).

It is clear that the game’s industry has more to do to improve people’s mental health while gaming. The recommendations from gamers themselves should be translated from research into practical change in an effective and swift manner. However, as a society we should also constantly re-evaluate our perceptions around gaming, challenge social stigmas and stereotypes and create a culture where gaming is accepted just like any other interest.

Conall Jackson
Peer Support Worker
February 2023

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