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Emotions and Online Gaming

Article: Developing friendships and an awareness of emotions using video games: Perceptions of four young adults with Autism, by Gallup and Serianni. In Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 2017, v52.

Another work in a growing body of scholarship about the potential benefits of video games. Traditional parenting is becoming outnumbered and outgunned, so to speak.

This article suggested, based on qualitative data (highly organized and analyzed interviews), that online gaming, and specifically MMOs can help ASD individuals develop social skills and skills in emotional expression and self-knowledge. The author's reasoning is theoretically sound and just happens to match my experience. Part of the problem with social and emotional skill development is that it requires heavy use of executive functioning (EF) skills, and specifically those related to attention. Social and emotional skills are usually developed in the context of interpersonal interactions, and we know that there is way more that we have to actively ignore in such interactions than pay attention to. I think this is where ASD individuals can struggle-using the active focus required for interpersonal interactions.

The authors suggest that MMOs (and probably other online interactions) can dramatically simplify the variables associated with interpersonal interactions. In fact, much "relevant" data (facial expressions, turn taking, etc.) can be isolated, thus making it easier to notice and focus on, and incorporate for the sake of skill development and successful skill use (i.e., productive interactions).

A very simple intervention I use with my clients is encouraging them to talk with people through text as much as they like. Texting people levels the playing field because one can and must use words to describe everything (there's literally no non-verbal communication going on), and the person on the other end, likely a Neurotypical, is limited by the same limited level of communicating and lack of information. Switching to texting instead of face to face interactions has been a boon to many of my clients.

Of course, we have to ask "to what end" are we doing all of this learning/gaming? Many of the statements from the interviews suggest people feel good about the emotional expression that they do in these MMOs with other players. Of course they do; they are humans. We emote because it is what we do. The authors also suggest MMOs help ASD individuals develop skills necessary or useful in post-secondary institutions (e.g., college). I could not agree more. It is still a NT world made for NTs and by NTs. MMOs can be an end in and of themselves (e.g., emotional expression), but their potential to bridge the gap in many areas of functioning for ASD individuals is already signficant, and growing.

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