Gaming and Social Skills

A word about gaming for the uninitiated…

The idea that people with, say, Asperger’s or mental health difficulties, who struggle with anxiety and social interaction can develop social skills, gain confidence and form lasting relationships – to a positive and remarkable degree – through the medium of games may seem baffling to many people. Here we explains a little about the social skills involved in gaming and and how we use games to build those skills at NOCS.

During his own gaming Noc identified a series of popular game types that progressively develop players’ social skills. The games all involve each player speaking to others face-to-face with increasing levels of collaboration, competition – and fun.

I found that these types of game really stimulate social interaction which is needed in order to play, is within specific boundaries (rules) and, as trust develops, moves to confident broader social interaction.” Noc

Briefly, there are 3 broad ‘levels’. Each game level has its own appeal and offers its own opportunities to develop and enhance social skills and confidence.

Level A. Card Games and Board Games

Card  games (e.g. Dragon Ball or Magic: The Gathering) and board games (e.g. Carcassonne). These tend to have quite rigid rules of varying degrees of complexity, with rich and detailed content. They appeal to those who have a need for structure and an enthusiasm for detail, as do many people with ASD.

At this level games can involve limited socialisation, just 2 players, if that is what the person needs. At first, there may be very limited requirements to interact. In more demanding games at this level some banter may develop, introducing humour into the experience.

As players develop in confidence, more demanding games may provide opportunities for players to work together, to bluff or to negotiate.  All of this is within the ‘safe’ context of explicit game rules, whilst players can get experience of picking up on the subtler, unwritten social rules of the game. All of these are key social skills, which are particularly challenging for people on the autism spectrum.

Level B.  Skirmish Games

A generic term for games involving a small number of miniatures (such as Warhammer 40k and Age of Sigmar). These often have even more detailed data and backgrounds than card and board games, but have a looser structure.  They offer a natural progression for card-players and add the attractions of building and painting models to use in the games, developing valuable skills and enhancing feelings of competence, allowing people to construct, paint, play and compete.

Skirmish games can be played with limited interaction for those who don’t feel ready for more, but they rapidly provide opportunities for adding conversation.

A particular facet of this type of game is that players spend as long talking about the game and its background as they do playing the game. The games provide a vocabulary and shared experience that makes conversation with strangers and friends relatively easy.

Building and inhabiting characters whose personalities evolve over a series of games help players to develop insights into others’ motives and how they think and feel – a key difficulty for many on the autism spectrum. The richness of the game world means that the player may soon become a relative expert in their own force. Being able to speak with authority on a subject that others find interesting can be very enabling for the player.

Level C. Role-Playing Games

(e.g. Dungeons & Dragons – ‘D&D’ – and Call of Cthulhu). Role-playing games often have relatively little structure in what people can do. They enable players to take on the role of a character and make decisions in a team about how they will achieve their goals, to try out different ways of behaving and to socialise with a ‘mask’. The players can try out all sorts of social behaviour that they might normally find highly challenging; they can take a lead, argue, compromise, negotiate and mock…

Players may choose to take on the Games Master role, inventing the story and characters that the other players interact with. This can be a demanding social role, being the centre of attention and having responsibility for the game.

We plan to promote systematic research into the  link between game playing and the development of social skills.