Esports on the spectrum – Embracing autism in the industry

Esports on the spectrum – Embracing autism in the industry

10 min read | 14 Apr 2022

According to a recent study done by Ukie, 18% of people in the gaming industry reported having at least one neurodevelopmental condition and the rates of employment for autistic people in games is almost four times higher than any other employment sector.

But in esports, there are many opportunities for people on the spectrum that go unheard of,  so how can esports and gaming benefit autistic people?

In this article in particular, we will be looking at the impact that esports can have on autistic people and how gaming has provided significant benefits for those on the spectrum.

What is Autism?

Autism affects the way people communicate and experience the world around them.

Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome.

Generally it is just referred to as ‘autism’ or ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)’, but colloquially is alluded to as ‘being on the spectrum’. Although it’s no longer a clinical diagnosis, some people may also refer to themselves as ‘having Asperger’s’.

Every autistic person is different. Some are able to learn, live and work independently, while many have learning differences or co-occurring health conditions that require specialist support.

Autism and Gaming:

As we know already, gaming and esports can teach a lot of valuable skills, including communication, leadership and problem solving. But for autistic people, using gaming to learn these skills can be incredibly beneficial.

By having something that they can immerse themselves into, they are able to learn through play, which can be of huge benefit to their social development.

As well as this, gaming can provide the opportunity for autistic people to have a space to relax and escape.

Whilst most esports titles are fast-paced and require a lot of focus, some people find this comforting and it gives them time to reset and block out everything going on around them.

Because everyone with autism is not the same, hence why it is on a spectrum, so each person can have a different relationship with gaming and esports. 

Esports in Alternative Provision Centres:

Back in 2019, British Esports ran a tournament specifically for Alternative Provision schools (AP), as a way to show that esports is incredibly inclusive. This pilot was a huge success, and allowed for a greater understanding of the impacts that gaming can have on young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

Alongside this pilot, there have been a few projects that British Esports put together, including the collaboration with National Star College in 2021 to bring Fifa and esports to those with disabilities and neurodiverse needs.

This pilot with Microsoft and National Star allowed for more people to get involved in esports, and concluded with a showmatch between two students at the British Esports Student Champs Grand Finals 2021 in Nottingham.

Moreover, Martin Birch-Foster is the manager of the St.Vincents Sharks team in the Student Champs, which has SEN players that compete weekly.

Martin said: “The team consists of 12 students: 6 from the School of Personalised Learning which is our SEN provision and 6 from our Sixth Form Provision. The students from our School of Personalised Learning (SPL) have played mostly scrims this season due to COVID-19 preventing students from mixing in college…however the Sixth Form team still consists of players with SEN.”

“Our SPL team has enjoyed every moment of our scrims and is always looking to play. The team has lost a lot of matches, but the idea of winning isn’t the only reason they play. For the majority, they want to compete against a college or school and not just those in their own college or town.”

One of the Sharks players, AtomicDino999, said: “Esports has helped me in meeting new people from sixth form. The similar interest helps start a conversation, and because esports and gaming are so widespread it isn’t that hard to find someone who has the same interests as you whether you are from SPL or Sixth Form.”

You can check out the full interview with Martin here

Case study – Austen Academy:

Mark Peters, a teacher at the Austen Academy in Basingstoke, works with autistic pupils and uses gaming as a way to encourage learning.

He said: “I have seen the positive impact that gaming has in regard to the students’ interpersonal skills, and games like Minecraft have supported the pupils’ decision making and problem solving skills.”

Regularly, Mark and the team at Austen Academy take their students to the esports arena at Queen Mary’s College (QMC) for the students to get stuck in.

“Going to the esports facility, pupils are required to work as a team, and I have seen this being transferred into a classroom setting where they are able to peer support without being prompted. I believe their ability to extract information from pieces of text have improved and the need to identify what is required of them in order to achieve their desired outcome can relate to working in a classroom,” Mark adds.

Gaming and esports at Austen Academy is something used as a reward for the students during the week, but the impact this has on the students goes further than that.

Mark explains: “I ​believe people need to embrace that gaming can correspond with pupils learning in a good way. How this can build their lifelong learning, emotionally and socially. In addition, there is a huge career path and emphasis in esports which in turn can link to all aspects of edtech or computer science where they can enjoy work and get paid for it.

“​Being a big advocate of pupils building their interactions, gaming if delivered in the right environment can immensely improve their communication skills and can build a sense of a community where interests are shared. Esports has this in abundance,” he adds.

How can gaming and esports become more inclusive of autistic people?

Educating people about the needs of autistic people is a good place to start, as it can create the groundwork to make the industry more inclusive than it already is. 

Autistica is the UK’s leading autism research charity. Their vision is a world where every autistic person lives a happy, healthy, long life. The charity runs Autistica Play, an initiative to make progress for autistic people by working with game players and the games industry.

Alice Cooper, Corporate Partnerships Officer at Autistica, helps to run this gaming project, and is very passionate about supporting autistic and neurodivergent people in games. She said: 

“They can be a real lifeline for autistic people, who play games to have fun, relax, connect with others and build skills. It’s also incredible to see the strong representation of autistic and neurodivergent people who are working in the UK gaming industry. It’s clear that autistic people are inspired to both play and make games. 

“We built Autistica Play to connect with the games industry and gamers so, together, we can continue to make progress for autistic people. Through annual events, partnerships and in-game activities we aim to raise vital funds and awareness for autism research and campaigning in the games industry.   

“Our partnership with Jingle Jam 2021 has enabled us to create the Games Innovation Fund, a world first initiative that will research the impact of gaming on autistic children and young people’s lives. The fund will also create evidence-based ways that games can support autistic children’s learning and development.  

“Neurodivergent people perceive and experience the world around them in unique ways, which means they offer exciting perspectives in both creative and technical roles, a combination that frequently comes together in games industry job opportunities.  

“We want to ensure that neurodivergent games professionals have the support they need throughout their working life to ensure both recruitment and retention practices are truly inclusive and accessible. It’s also essential that neurodivergent gamers have access to the adjustments they deserve to ensure they can thrive whilst gaming and community building.   

“By hiring more neurodivergent people, games studios can also benefit from skills like innovative problem solving and the ability to resist ‘herd mentality’. By encouraging more neurodivergent players to get involved and take part in esports, the industry can continue to advocate for inclusivity and create spaces for autistic and neurodivergent players to connect and enjoy themselves.” 

As the industry develops, more people from different walks of life will be able to get involved in esports – including those on the spectrum. Giving people opportunities is the best place to start, and inclusion is the only way forward.

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