About a year ago, my younger son asked me if I'd like to play a video game. I'm really not a gamer, but he wanted me to see it and he was happy to make it easy for me by working the controls so we could concentrate on the content.
It was Finji's brilliant interactive narrative Night in the Woods, which tells the story of college dropout Mae Borowski as she returns to her hometown and tries to pick up her old life. It's a story of millenial drift and rustbelt decay; subtle, political and and sometimes deeply touching. I really liked it and I started to care about the characters and even got half-competent with the controls. All the way, my son wanted to know what I thought of it.
We talked about what I made of the game's themes and when we finally finished up after a couple of weeks' gameplay, he told me why he'd been so keen for me to play.
"I relate to Mae," he said. "You know, early twenties, stuff in the past, no direction in life."
I suddenly realised that he'd involved me in the game as a way of telling me something. And of course he'd employed gameplay to do it. Since we had to pull him out of school at the age of 12, video gaming has been his culture. His long discussions with his former tutor, Matthew Dentith PhD, often started with something from a video game: morality, war, classical mythology. He has a deep understanding of video games and it's both technical and aesthetic. It shows in the occasional expert-level game reviews he writes.
My son, like his older brother, is ASD – autism spectrum disorder – and I suspect possibly ADD too. (I kind of think Mae Borowski is neurodiverse in some way too, but I was careful about saying so – the terms are unfortunately stigmatised in the gaming culture, where "autistic" can be a trash-talking insult. Also, fair play: how he defines himself is his choice.)
He's highly intelligent, but school, the human noise of it, had him in more or less constant fight-or-flight mode. His skin would be hot to the touch most of the time. It must have been horrible. What a way to live as a child.
Since we pulled him out of a school system that couldn't offer what he needed, his great achievement has been to create an environment around him that's devoid of the anxiogenic elements that were making his life hell. This means he doesn't leave the house a lot. But, over the long haul, he's changed from the distressed kid who had near-daily violent meltdowns into a polite, thoughtful young man. I really admire what he's done.
But he knows he has to get on with it. The question is: get on with what? His affinity for gaming and facility for computers has led us down a lot of blind alleys. Something would seem promising and he'd pull the pin on it, as part of the same anxiolytic defence system he's developed to make his life bearable. Maybe there was some fear of success in there too, I don't know.
But something has happened in the past year: Warhammer. He's begun to collect and, more importantly, paint Warhammer figures. His painting is fine, subtle and brilliant and, it seems, much more important than the actual board gaming. It's revealed something in him that's been missing over the years – the ability to plan and work over time. It's also a form of character creation and development. When we tried him on a digital design course, he had no trouble with the software but got frustrated because it was going to take so long to get to the part he was interested in – the characters.
But mostly, of course, it's a chance to do something in real space. We've discussed it and it might be the way forward. He was pretty interested in the news that there is an actual job in the film industry called "model painter", but also in simply learning more skills of this kind. Things might have been different had I been a different sort of dad, but outside the kitchen, I'm not well wired to work with my hands.
I've partly written this post to make the point that not every autistic person, even if they're good with computers, is automatically a coder. I often think that's not well understood. But also because we're wondering about introductory workshop courses, setbuilding, maker groups and the like – or even just connections with grown-up geeks who like to do that kind of thing. He has plenty of online friends, they voice-chat across oceans and that's all good. But we're looking for real things in real space, and new skills around them.
I don't really know where to start, but I'm open to offers and suggestions. And if it does work out, well, I'll thank Mae Borowski. I hope that, in some virtual future off the end of Night in the Woods' narrative, she's doing okay now.
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