The Lure of the Console (Part I) – Quirky Kids and Video Games

“TV is just like video games. But without all the work!”– 15 year old Academy MetroWest participant

During the summer, Academy MetroWest runs a small day camp.  Since we started the camp, I’ve worked not only as a co-director, but also as the counselor for the oldest boys’ group. Every Friday, we go on a field trip or run some type of special event. This past summer, we were looking for ideas for new field trips. We settled on visiting a place called Game Underground in Framingham. Upon arrival, we found that Game Underground’s physical facility has all the charm of a dungeon. It’s really underground – a basement store located in a small strip mall on Route 9. It’s dark and a bit musty and populated by a staff that looks like they haven’t seen the sun in some time. But, within minutes of arriving, I had more than one camper run up to me and shout “Bruce! This place is paradise!”

The boys from group 2 in the midst of a full-fledged video game stupor at Game Underground.

The boys from group 2 in the midst of a full-fledged video game daze at Game Underground.

Game Underground sells video games, video game systems, and video game accessories. What sets them apart is the fact that they’ve got 4 enormous,  high definition, flat screen TVs, state of the art video game consoles, big old comfortable chairs, and a vast collection of current games that customers can use. After a couple of hours there, my campers were practically comatose from the sheer joy of engaging each other in  this virtual paradise.

Anyone who spends any time with quirky kids will attest to the enormous role that video games can play in their lives. During our school year program, we run  social skills groups. In order to make appropriate group placements, we conduct interviews with each child and their parents in order to determine which group is likely to be the best match for them. I always ask parents about their kids’ interests. I haven’t done a formal count, but I’d estimate that 90% of them point to video games or computer games as their child’s favorite activity. Several years ago, when we were contemplating a name change for our camp, we asked our campers for suggestions. One boy shot his hand right up in the air and offered up the idea of “Camp Game Boy!”

Of course, you don’t have to be a quirky kid to be interested in video games but there are certain cognitive traits shared by this population that make video games an irresistible draw.

This past October, I went to see noted author/psychologist Tony Attwood speak at an Asperger’s Association of New England conference at BU. It was a great presentation but one remark he made stood out for me, partly because it was funny but mostly because it echoed a belief I’ve had for a long time. In speaking about the relationship between Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and technology, he stated “Computers were designed by and for Aspies (people with AS).” What is it about AS that makes computers and video games such a powerful lure?

Socially, people with AS are affected by 3 very broad deficits. They tend to have an underdeveloped sense of Theory of Mind. Wikipedia’s description of Theory of Mind starts with the sentence “Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. – to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.” They are also impacted by delays in Executive Functioning, or the ability to organize, prioritize, sustain focus, and self-regulate. The other primary deficit is a weakness in the sense of Central Coherence or the ability to see “the big picture.”

All 3 of these features figure into the allure of video games among kids with AS but none quite as much as the weakness in central coherence. To formulate a sense of the social big picture, factors such as nuance, context, body language and facial expressions, and appreciation of various “shades of grey” all come in to play. Among kids with AS, these abilities are not often completely absent but they don’t happen easily, efficiently, or intuitively. They require conscious, sustained effort and direction. The challenge of navigating the social world when you have to apply monumental effort to arrive at reasonably accurate perceptions of the “neurotypical” world can be a slow, frustrating, and exhausting process for people on the Autism Spectrum. It often involves repeated rejection, failure, and embarrassment and this goes a long way in explaining why many kids with AS are reluctant to keep reaching out socially.

Video games, on the other hand, offer kids on the autism spectrum a chance to master a world populated by other beings – virtual though they may be – in which nuance and context play no role. Gamers rarely, if ever, need to make quick assessments of a character’s mood, societal role, or body language before they interact with it. Characters  are usually powerful and in control. They follow programmed rules and respond predictably to our interactions with them. When a child is playing a video game and makes a wrong move, the sense of rejection and shame that that involves in the social world is absent. All you need in order to master your world is the necessary level of hyper focus on a favorite activity (a trait in plentiful supply among this population) to keep playing until you’re familiar with every exquisitely finite, concrete detail. Kids with AS often become the class experts on video games, which provides them with a sense of validation and mastery that is rare in their worlds.

Incidentally, that same hyper focus is a trait shared by kids with ADHD. In fact, it is often their children’s love of video games which can lead parents to question a diagnosis of ADHD (i.e. – “There’s no way he has ADHD! I’ve seen him sit down and focus on a game of Halo for 3 hours at a stretch without a break!”) Dr. Russell Barkley,  one of the world’s foremost ADHD researchers, describes ADHD as a disorder of behavioral inhibition. That is, people with ADHD have a hard time putting the brakes on when they become distracted by a stimulus that is more compelling than the one they’re currently focused on. Video games tend to be the most compelling stimuli in the world for many kids with ADHD so distracting them from their consoles can be a particularly arduous task for parents.

Many parents report that when their kids come home from school, the first thing they do is dash to their video games. For a lot of quirky kids, this is a perfectly understandable behavior. Negotiating the cognitive and social demands of the typical school day leaves them physically and mentally exhausted. Immersing themselves in their virtual worlds – worlds in which all the challenges play to their strengths – can have a restorative effect for many children. The trick for parents is to set limits on this activity so that it stays restorative and does not become an all-encompassing fixation. Not always an easy task.

Coming soon – The Lure of the Console Part II – Minecraft!