Belonging in the Gaming Community: An Autistic Perspective
The concept of belonging is something that many people take for granted. It has many definitions, but for this article, we’ll assume it means to be a welcome/useful part of a group.
A sense of belonging is critical for the human brain to function. Feeling isolated or lonely is catastrophic for both mental and physical health. Indeed, loneliness has been linked to increased risk of depression and anxiety, as well as heart attack or stroke. None of these are particularly fun.
Some of us are lucky enough to avoid these feelings on a regular basis. Though I can’t imagine there are many who can claim they’ve never felt left out. For others – well, the prospect of belonging is more of a fever dream. As someone on the autistic spectrum, I generally consider loneliness an omnipresent companion. Autism, for those unfamiliar with the condition, is a developmental disorder that can affect many areas of the brain. It particularly affects sensory processing (e.g. how the brain processes sight/sound, etc.) and social behaviour (e.g. how we interact with and relate to others).
Every autistic is affected differently, and my experiences are only representative of me. There’s a common expression in the autistic community that if you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism. We have very variable experiences, issues and perceptions.
Also, a public service announcement – the fictional character ‘Rain Man’ has savant syndrome in addition to autism. This is a very separate condition where people have exceptional memory, calculation or artistic skills. It may overlap with autism, but IT IS NOT AUTISM. If you take me to a casino to count cards, you’re going home broke and stupid. Unfortunately, this is the most common stereotype associated with autism in pop culture, and it fucking drives me insane. Thanks Hollywood.
But back to the matter at hand. I can’t speak for others on the spectrum, but most of my life has been spent bouncing between social groups, trying to find a place to fit in. Or at least where I can blend into the background without being singled out/actively ignored.
Of course, you don’t need to be autistic to feel this way – 5% of adults in England admit to always feeling lonely. We all want to feel like we’re part of something, like we’re connected to the people around us. That we’re needed, wanted, or at least useful. Without it, a critical part of ourselves remains unfulfilled – we feel almost empty inside.
With the rise of digital media, many of us have sought refuge in online communities. This includes social media, forums, platforms like Discord and other spaces, where we can connect with people like ourselves. There is less pressure in these settings. We can be partially or completely anonymous (which causes it’s own problems). There’s no pressure to respond to a message like there is in reality. There’s no-one staring at you as you scramble for an answer to a question you don’t understand. As a result of this, text-based communication is much less stressful than spoken (e.g. in-person or over the phone/video). This makes it easy to speak to others, especially if you have social anxiety.
The gaming community is one of many that occupy these online spaces. Members can socialise, discuss gaming, resolve gaming or technology issues, or collaborate/compete in online multiplayer games. There are many ways to engage with others in the community – in-game voice/text chat, servers like Discord, forums like Game FAQs, making/watching videos on YouTube, or live-streaming on Twitch. It’s a vast, diverse community that has something for everyone, no matter how you prefer to communicate.
These kind of settings are a lifeline for people who struggle to fit in in the ‘real world’. For autistics in particular, there are a number of factors to consider. From a sensory perspective, autism can cause us to be easily overwhelmed by situations that seem perfectly normal to others. Loud music, or settings with a lot of background noise are excellent examples. These can make navigating large crowds, going to parties/clubs/concerts pretty fucking stressful. Bright/flashing lights and other sensations can also affect us – there’s a reason that many autistics are fussy eaters.
These sensory issues often restrict the capacity in which we can socialise. Many of us prefer to avoid social events because of the sensory implications. This means we miss out on the opportunity to connect with others. If we do attend these events, we may quickly become overwhelmed and need to leave, withdraw and end up sat in a corner, or engage in self-soothing behaviours such as stimming that others around us find bizarre.
There’s also the social side. Many autistics struggle to make eye contact. Curiously, according to recent studies, this is a habit that helps us cope with the sensory burden of our environment. Since eye contact stimulates part of the brain that helps us mimic, this makes it hard to learn social skills. This is the main way young children develop their skills. Interestingly, this implies that autistics have the capacity to develop social skills, but that it’s interrupted by sensory overload. Some of us also have difficulty relating to or representing other people’s minds, and we may accidentally violate social rules. We also may have issues with making small-talk, because it’s fundamentally pointless.
Naturally, this tends to weird out the neurotypicals in the room, who have a pretty low bar for weirdness. In this context, neurotypicals is a word that refers to our ‘normal’ counterparts. These are the people who can function fairly normally in society. There’s a reason so many autistics end up socially isolated.
As a result, online communities have become a relative safe haven for us. There’s no eye contact required, less sensory stress and we can talk about our interests with people who share them. There’s no need to worry about tone of voice, speaking too fast, or being trapped in an uncomfortable conversation.
From a personal perspective, as an avid gamer who mostly plays MMORPGs, action-adventure and survival games, I find that multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft, really have a sense of community about them. The text-based chat in games like these is easy to navigate and doesn’t really cause me much social stress. This makes it easy to communicate with others, even strangers, for raids/dungeons etc. Similarly, text-based channels like Discord are pretty stress-free (other than that first message when you join a server). They’re a simple and effective way to communicate with others. I also appreciate the ability to communicate with GIFs and emoticons, as half the time they convey what I’m thinking more effectively than typing.
It would be interesting to look at the difference between neurotypicals and people with autism/social anxiety in terms of engagement with ‘real-world’ and virtual online communities. Particularly, it would be interesting to find out whether virtual communities provide the same sense of belonging as ‘real-world’ ones. There’s probably been a study done about this, so if you know about one, drop me a link.
Similarly, if you’re autistic or have social anxiety – let me know what you think about this, and whether you feel engaging in online communities (particularly gaming) has given you a sense of belonging.
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