17 January 2016

Games as social interaction

How much do you know about autism spectrum disorders?

I know this seems a strange question to ask at the opening of an article about games, but bear with me for a moment.

In a sense, the autism spectrum disorders (on which, admittedly, I am no expert either, but my understanding is that it's not really a spectrum, though the various related disorders are still referred to under that umbrella term) are a lack of the normal social hardwiring in the brain that is usual for human beings. Let me explain a bit more in depth:

Whereas most animals developed certain physical or sensory advantages to allow their survival (for example, the web-spinning ability of many spiders, or the echolocation abilities of insectivorous bats, or sharks' teeth, and so on), the trait that allowed humans to survive was their social networks. Like wolves and other pack animals, humans developed an ability to co-operate that increased their chances of survival. Their need for greater inter-dependency developed a feedback loop with their intelligence; they needed to be smarter so they could support larger co-operative social groups, and they needed larger co-operative social groups so they could be smarter.

But in modern society, we are seeing a rise in those people who have a dampened ability to interact socially. Note that this is usually not because they lack emotions, but rather the ability to deal with those emotions. They don't have the innate ability to pick up on social cues that most people have.

As an example, there was a study done in which a man with Asperger's syndrome was observed as he watched a film (I don't remember which film it was; I can't find the article to verify). In this film, there was a scene at the climax in which the lead male pulls a gun on the lead female. The man laughed at this point; he had missed the emotional tension developing in the narrative, because whereas most people are looking at the characters' eyes for the myriad of non-verbal social cues as to the emotional state of the characters, the man with Asperger's was looking at the light switch in the background.

In some ways, this resonates with me. I've never had a professional examine me to attempt a diagnosis, but I have noticed that I find social interaction more difficult than most. Most people are able to easily navigate the treacherous seas of interpersonal subtleties by following cultural norms (for example, they know that when someone asks, 'How are you?' it's not a genuine question, but standardized greeting in the form of a question), whereas I tend to analyse the language and ignore the expected responses (most people, when asked, 'How are you?' respond with, 'I'm well, thanks!' But I actually take a moment to think about how I'm really feeling, as if the person asking had posed a regular question instead of a social-constructed exchange).

I know this has been kind of long, but the point is, it can be harder for me to interact with people than for most. I like to envision it as having a bunch of scripts in my head, and I choose the one most appropriate for my current situation. There are some situations in which I can dispense with the script and say what I'm actually thinking, like when I'm with my wife, who knows me and has a pretty good idea of how I work. But with strangers? That can be much more difficult. I don't always know which script is appropriate.

This is one of the reasons that I love games so much. It provides a framework for social interaction. I have an idea what to expect other players to do, and it comes with a pre-approved set of responses that I can use to react to others' actions.

This feeds directly into my love of social interaction games like The Resistance and Panic on Wall Street. Despite the fact that my social skills are... dampened... I am still human, and I still have the need for social involvement. These games allow me to take part in that involvement without fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. It gives me the structured framework that is lacking from normal social settings.

And that is something that I greatly treasure.

Until next week,

Game on!

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