Interview by Spectrum Women feature writer Renata Jurkevythz
Video Games are a common special interest among autistics. They provide experiences and teach tools in a safe environment ruled by logic, where you can fail and retry as many times as you need without getting hurt, or can simply enjoy a beautiful world that is not governed by confusing social rules. Especially for autistic minds, that must bear a never-ending flow of thoughts and emotions, they can provide a moment of focus and immersion that silences the brain while entertaining. Video games have been one of my major interests since I was a child and helped me endure some particularly difficult moments, more times than I could count. They brought happiness when I was struggling to find any and recognition when I thought there was nobody like me, and taught me skills that I struggled to learn from the bewildering outside world.
In our forthcoming book, Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, co-written by our magazine contributors and other well-know autistic writers, I describe more about gaming from my personal experience, under the Intense Interests chapter.
Today I want to present to you a very special nonprofit organisation called CheckPoint, created to help improve mental health through video-gaming, showing what a powerful medium games really are in helping fight depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and other mental health conditions. They are also set to dismiss the stigma gaming has, that prevents society from recognising it as a healing and support tool. They have a YouTube show that approaches different themes under this main subject, discussing the benefits of gaming and providing general tools to help improve mental health. There is also an internet site, a podcast and a gamer community, Gamermates, where gamers can make friends, arrange playing sessions and discuss their mental issues freely, without fear of being stigmatised.
CheckPoint was created by Dr. Jennifer Hazel, an experienced Australian psychiatrist who is also passionate about video games. I contacted Dr. Hazel as well as an autistic member of the CheckPoint community, Tarkonner, to ask about their personal experience with games, mental health and how they both relate to autism.
Dr. Hazel, when did you formulate the idea to create CheckPoint and why?
CheckPoint was designed to confront an issue that desperately needed to be addressed: the relationship between mental health and video games. We wanted to tackle the stigma around mental health issues, helping those who suffer to understand their experiences and to reach out and get help. Simultaneously we knew that video games could be a powerful tool for actually improving mental health and wellbeing, so we were very keen to advocate for that fact in an organised way.
What is your history with gaming? Did it also help you in difficult moments?
I’ve been a gamer my whole life. My mum got a Super Ninteno Entertainment System (SNES) for Christmas when I was five and it was one of the ways we bonded as a family. During my teenage years I used Zelda, Final Fantasy and even Silent Hill games as a coping mechanism for the normal difficulties of life – sinking back into those familiar spaces, tackling new challenges, and even using games as a way of forming real world friendships. I made my first high school friendship through trading Pokemon. All of my friends were gamers and we are still close to this day, 15+ years later.
In your practice, did you have the chance to perceive the direct benefit of gaming in a client?
All the time. It’s something most medical practitioners wouldn’t know to ask about or would assume is automatically a negative part of clients’ lives. I’ve built solid rapports with clients discussing who they main in Overwatch, and I’ve helped clients to understand how to use gaming as a positive part of their recovery from acute mental illness. There is firm evidence to support the use of games as an adjunct to traditional mental health treatment.
What type of feedback did you receive from colleagues, clients and gamers when you started the project?
That’s three very different questions! I don’t tell my professional clients about CheckPoint as it’s a conflict of interest, and I work for government health services. Mostly my colleagues are either completely bewildered or politely intrigued, though every so often I’ll meet someone who is into games, and they think it’s great. In fact, one of them is our co-director, Dr Xia – she’s fabulous. Gamers’ responses are almost universally positive. They see the value in this initiative; they are able to take personal validation from knowing that they aren’t alone in their mental health journey but also that the medium they feel so strongly connected with can be a means of self-care. It’s really powerful to help people realise that.
In one of the YouTube episodes you mention actual research linking video games and positive health, providing evidence of the benefits of gaming instead of the opposite — that gaming has a negative impact — that people see as common knowledge. Could you please talk about this positive research versus the negative stigma gaming suffers from?
It’s funny that so much of the clinical research around gaming has been negatively geared when originally, back in the 80s, games were seen as a medium with huge beneficial potential. I think the media has a lot to do with this, as for a long time video games have been seen as a convenient scapegoat for any of the problems young people face in society. Violence in schools? That’s video games causing aggression. Depression and social isolation? Must be an addiction to video games. It stems from a poor understanding of the nature of gaming, an unwillingness to learn more, and a fear of what is new or different. The same happened with TV.
When we open our minds a bit and look deeper you can see that there are many more possibilities for the impact that games have on us. They’re an inherently immersive activity that easily accesses the flow state — something that is pleasurable and has observable benefits. They’re a familiar and relatively safe way of socialising and exploring relationships. They, by design, feed into a loop of challenge and achievement, improving self-confidence and also encouraging frustration tolerance. All these skills are transferable to real life if identified and used in the right way.
Even though not touching autism directly, the CheckPoint organisation might benefit the members of our autistic community greatly, since we are more prone to depression, anxiety and various mental health conditions than non-autistics. With that said, have you considered also touching on specific autistic challenges on the site or the YouTube show? From a doctor’s perspective, how do you perceive the relation between autism and gaming?
You’re absolutely right in that the comorbidity between autistic spectrum disorders and mental health issues like anxiety and depression is very high. Also, I think anecdotally I have seen a relatively high prevalence of neuroatypicality in the gaming community. There may be something about the nature of gaming and the social relationships therein that is specifically beneficial to those living with ASD. That being said, I’m always hesitant to directly address autistic spectrum disorders through CheckPoint as I know many or most of the individuals who live with them don’t identify as having a mental illness and I would never label them as such. Instead, we’ve tried to make our information generalised so that anyone can get benefit from it, whether they identify as neurotypical or otherwise.
Tarkonner, what is your history with gaming?
The thing I clearly remember is seeing my big brother play Warcraft 3. One game led to another, and now here I am, trying to make my own games.
How did you get to know about CheckPoint?
From the co-optional podcast. I liked what was said about the group’s goal and chose to join.
Including all CheckPoint’s outlets (show, internet site and gaming community) what did you believe helped you the most in your mental health struggles?
How it helped me? It’s always good to have a place where you can talk about what you feel. Someplace where you can talk about your hobbies and know that the people on the other side of the screen share them with you. Checkpoint has helped me break boundaries by joining a place where I don’t know anybody. It’s given me more tools to get through problems I struggle with.
What changes did you feel in your life after you started participating in this community?
I began to feel I was part of something I loved. CheckPoint is just a small part of the world of gaming, but it helped me to remember why I loved it to start with. To remember there are people behind the games I play, that have the same problem I have now.
From an autistic perspective, could you explain to us how games helped you with your daily struggles or specific challenging times?
For me, games have been a companion for around 12 years. It has been all for me, from escape to a learning experience. It is the place I can go to when I need time to myself. To be in a setting where you do not need to perform anything if you don’t want to. To be a person in a world where you do not need to think about if your action can have a consequence. To give a recent example, the game Celeste helped me deal with some dark thoughts I had.
To close this interview I would like to say it was an immense pleasure for me to find out about this incredible initiative and be able to bring their word to other autistics who, like me, are touched and helped by video games and need to live with the stigma that we are harming ourselves by indulging in our passion. It is time to break this stigma and show people all the benefits this hobby can bring, that we already knew of for a long time, and are only acknowledged inside our group. Thank you Dr. Hazel for bringing this to light and building this amazing community that will, without a doubt, help many. ~ Renata Jurkevythz
CheckPoint media links:
Links for other mentioned outlets:
Warcraft 3 http://us.blizzard.com/en-us/games/war3/
Co-optional Podcast is a weekly show airing in the YouTube channel www.youtube.com/cynicalbrit and available in most audio podcast providers