As a neurodivergent (ND) online gamer, representation feels both good and bad.
The good side is that I actually think I see lots of it. When I first started watching pro esports I felt immediately at home. So many players seemed to me to be ND. The passion, the genuineness, the hyperfocus, the casual stimming, and the often adorably awkward interviews made me feel I had found my tribe. You will notice that my description of ND traits is full of love and appreciation. That is because I actually think all of these things make us good gamers.
Gaming is a place where a lot of ND traits can shine. It is an opportunity to immerse oneself in a world, learn all about it, obsess in a way that ultimately pays dividends in skill and respect. We can socialise without the pressure of things like eye contact and small talk, and instead focusses on a shared special interest. We can follow a plan, a set of clear rules, and get to know these rules so well that we see patterns and exploits easily. I could write a whole article just on the ND gaming experience. In many ways, it’s a place for us to shine.
The bad side is that hardly anyone seems to be open about their status, so notions of kickass ND pro gamers remain unsubstantiated, and out-and-proud representation remains rather lacking.
Not only that, but online gamers will be familiar with the regular use of ‘autistic’ as an insult. Cries of ‘that champion is autistic’ or ‘are you autistic or something?’ can be seen in a shockingly large number of chat feeds. This kind of phobic attitude towards neurodivergence isn’t new. The prevalence of the R word for example is still mindbogglingly high, and whilst other forms of hate speech are often shut down in chat, ableism seems to sneak past the collective radar of most players. Either that or they just aren’t speaking out.
Growing up as a queer ND child, this rings a lot of warning bells. The unchallenged use of ableist slurs as the insult du jour reminds me of the incessant use of ‘gay’ in the same way on the playground. We can argue about the semantic development of these words, that they aren’t being used in a literal way, but the effect is the same; silence and shame. Of course the LGBTQ problem has not been put to bed, and as a bisexual genderqueer gamer I’ve had my share of hate speech in chat. But I’m not the only person shutting it down when that happens and that makes a huge difference. We also have mechanisms to show our support or pride in game. I was a huge fan of the pride summoner icons in League of Legends for example. And although sporting the bi or trans flag in summoners rift causes some anxiety (will I get question marked pinged aggressively, or worse, told my opposition look forward to murdering me?) it does send a message that its OK to be open about queerness. There is no equivalent that I am aware of for neurodivergence. No way to let our ND-ness shine.
So what can we do?
First and foremost – challenge ableist language. In the same way that you would (hopefully) challenge racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, islamaphobic, anti-Semitic or any other kinds of hate speech. We all have a duty to change the cultures we are a part of and create something better. I cannot tell you how much of a difference it makes to not have to shoulder that burden alone.
Publishers, studios, casters, gamers – lets continue this conversation. We need dialogue about ND experiences, we need ND pride icons, we need anything you can think of to break down the taboo.
Nobody has a duty to come out. Whether trans, gay, bi, disabled or ND, it’s up to us how and when we reveal that part of our truth with the world. Having said that, a strong proud stand from those of us who are comfortable doing so would go a long way. And to those who have already done so – I salute you.