Some Thoughts on Videogames, Autism, and Vaccination

Matt Barton's picture

In our earlier discussion concerning a non-linear history of videogames, the topic of immersion keeps rising to the surface (a mixed metaphor if there ever was one). I've always been fascinating by the idea of immersion, or "being in the zone," as some gamers like to call it. But what is it about certain games (and certain gamers) that allows this phenomenon to occur? Is it something about the audiovisuals, the rules, the gameworld, the narrative, or the reward system? Or perhaps it is a combination of all of these? Or is it...the vaccines almost all of us received as children in the 70s and 80s?

The term has fallen into disrepute among some games scholars along with "virtual reality." Indeed, I was intrigued to find the term linked to virtual reality on Wikipedia, the field where it seems to have received the most attention. I'll quote the definition I found there as a starting point: "immersion: the state of consciousness where an immersant's awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment." The entry also handily breaks down the term into three basic types defined by Ernest Adams: tactical, strategic, narrative. Tactical seems to involve some sort of physical tasks that require enough skill to require our full attention. I thought about tasks such as clearing dungeons in Diablo or working on your garden in Viva Pinata. Strategic immersion is simply a higher level of such immersion; chess is given as an example; I might add programming. Perhaps I'm not studying this closely enough, but it seems like this division is somewhat fuzzy; where would we place playing a game of Civilization or The Settlers, for instance? The last category, narrative immersion, makes more sense as a division--there is clearly a big difference between "being in the zone" while playing Starcraft and "being lost in a novel." There are three more categories offered by Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen. Perhaps the most interesting of those is "spatial immersion," which is getting lost in a convincing game world. I can think of plenty of first-person games such as Riven or Far Cry that gave me that feeling.

Let's set narrative immersion aside and focus on tactical/strategic immersion. This seems to be what happens to me while playing games that demand large blocks of constant, undivided attention, such as World of Warcraft, Civilization, Starcraft, and so on. What brings this condition on, and why is it enjoyable? A cynical view might be that such intense focus frees us, temporarily, from the worries and anxiety of our lives. We literally force ourselves to stop worrying about our finances, relationships, and so on. It is more comfortable to focus really intently on killing those 20 mobs than to dwell on our crumbling family life or some such. I call this view cynical because it seems uncomfortably similar to an addictive behavior. Indeed, we might argue that if drinking alcohol or doing drugs numb the pain chemically, these other coping tactics numb it mentally. I guess ultimately it's the same thing, and who's to say that long, long periods of unmitigated immersion might well wreak similar havoc to at least moderate drug or alcohol abuse.

In any case, this cynical view isn't the only one. We could argue instead that such immersion is beneficial because it sharpens our ability to focus mentally on a problem by shutting out unwanted diversions. This is one argument I've heard for why children should be taught to play chess. It's hard to be distracted by every passing thing if you're playing a serious game of chess; just keeping track of where you can move requires considerable concentration for a child.

 How fragmented is your consciousness?Outcry: How fragmented is your consciousness?A final view is that some people are pre-disposed (genetically, socially, whatever) for immersive behavior and that it is comparable even to mild autism or the like. I looked up the definition of autism: "a variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by stereotyped behavior patterns." I could see why some might think this sounds oddly like the behavior of a "hardcore" gamer or coder, but I certainly do not. I know children with autism, and the condition is nothing to joke about or take lightly.

But at least some of the gamers and developers I've talked to argue that there is something "special" about the really hardcore coders or gamers. Perhaps all of us who are really into gaming (and maybe even those who just enjoy long bouts of Solitaire or Bejeweled) are experiencing some mild or latent mental condition. The videogame industry rose to prominence in the 70s and 80s. Those are also the decades when the U.S. government really vamped up vaccination rates, trying to hit 97% of the population. They also ramped up the number of vaccinations and implemented very strict guidelines. In short, most of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s (the first true gamer generations) were, relatively speaking, heavily vaccinated. Is there a link? Only if you buy into the hysteria over the vaccination controversy, of course. For the record, I do not, and I hope you don't, either. I'm quite alarmed at how many parents are denying their children vaccines, and find the supposed link between autism and vaccines ludicrous at best.

In any case, I have and continue to wonder about those of us who find ourselves "immersed" or "in the zone" quite often. Keep in mind I'm not talking about all folks who casually play games, but only those who really play them a lot, staying immersed for many hours at the time. Do they began to get disconnected from the "real world?" Or, at least, is their ability to form "normal social relationships" affected by their hours and hours of "stereotyped behavior?" Do 16-hour coding sprees or World of Warcraft sessions cause mental problems (or perhaps even constitute an addiction?) Or is it the other way round; are these just symptoms of a pre-existing condition?

Is "the zone" some place we should fear to be?


Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
An aside on autism and vaccinations; Obsession

I personally don't care for the autism designation, as it really is an autism spectrum, and a way too wide one at that. By its standard definition, 99.9% of everyone is autistic. There are, however, genuine, "severe" and notable cases of autism. Way too many labels for things these days, when in many cases it's just human variability.

I also agree with you that the vaccination debate is bunk, with no proven link whatsoever. It's far more dangerous to have your child not vaccinated than it is to have them vaccinated.

To bring it back on topic, I do believe that certain practices associated with videogames are undeniably obsessive behaviors, but these are no different than someone else say, obsessing over sports or obsessing over cars. It's just that some activities are more socially acceptable than others. I believe this situation will improve as we continue to have generations growing up around and with technology and continue to play games regardless of age.

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Autism and the associated

Autism and the associated disorders are quite diverse and the label autism is still a big stigma which should not be used easily to describe neurotic and obsessive behaviors a lot of gamers seem to have in common.

Vaccination theory is bullocks and suits the conspiracy theorists quite well.

Very nice discussion and a great introduction Matt! Greetings from Laugarvatn Iceland.


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