I'm sure this analogy has been made before. If you've heard it before, I'd appreciate you telling me where.
Over the past week, I've been talking a lot on the IGDA forums about the culture of being in a MMORPG. In general, I've been thinking about the way that not having body language or vocal tone influences our on-line culture, especially in video games.
Recently, I've also been reading up on autism. I'm not an expert, so feel free to correct me on any details.
One of the major symptoms of autism is a very reduced ability to read faces and body language. Essentially, this is something that everyone on-line is ALSO suffering from. You cannot see my face, you cannot hear my voice. I might be 'writing' all of this with a stodgy British accent, or maybe I'm wearing a clown nose. In person, that would dramatically change how you perceived this essay. On-line, nothing.
Because of their inability, it is common for those suffering autism to focus more on what we consider 'details' - jewelry, background decoration, disorganization. This is also common inside on-line game worlds.
Although I'm not at ALL saying the two situations are equivalent, they may have some of the same results. Let's see.
Autism often has components of oversensitivity/undersensitivity to stimuli, learning difficulties, inability to calm self, difficulty going from one situation to another, being easily distracted/lacking attention control, physical clumsiness, unusually high or low activity level, social/emotional problems, poor body awareness, difficulty learning new movements, delays in speech and language skills, impulsive behavior/lack of self control, and repetitious movements. Thanks, Wikipedia!
Let's compare that to players as they play their on-line characters.
I don't know about their sensitivity to stimuli - I'd have to do research - but one of the primary duties of a game designer is to create stimuli which cause extremely high or low sensitivity. I would think that this reflects on a clear need by the players to have stimuli more carefully demarked than it is in real life.
Learning difficulty may or may not be a factor, but to me it seems that most of the players in an on-line game don’t learn anything save the most rudimentary game tactics – even though there is a lot of advanced stuff out there they can master. Still, that’s, again, something which would need research. I don’t, however, think they have problems going from one situation to another.
Players definitely have a hard time calming themselves and almost always have a distinct lack of self control. They also seem to have a total inability to focus on some things, and a total inability to STOP focusing on others. They DEFINITELY have either unusually high or low activity levels, and they DEFINITELY have some rather serious social/emotional disorders. Speech and language skills are very definitely stunted. Repetition? You bet!
The CHARACTERS are clumsy, have poor body awareness, and difficulty learning new movements.
That means that, out of that long list of things autism causes (or results from), only ONE is unlikely, TWO need further study, THREE (or four) are directly reflected in the game design itself, and EIGHT or NINE are VERY SIMILAR.
Viewing it from another perspective: there’s a whole crap-ton of similarities between how autism makes people act and how being in an on-line game makes people act. The differences can easily be attributed to the actual physical damage in the brain, while the similarities can easily be attributed to the social situation caused by inability to perceive the emotions of others.
I think these situations are passably similar, and that research could be cross-combined. I wonder if what they do to 'treat' autism can be used to 'treat' the anonymity disorder?
I wonder if people with autism like playing MMORPGs? I wonder if our coping mechanisms - smilies, exclamation points, etc - are coping mechanisms they benefit from as well.
But, this is an arm-chair theory.