Gaming on the Spectrum: Autism and Xbox Live
by Steven Boyer — University of Glasgow
April 04, 2011 – 00:00
In January, a local news story about an eleven-year-old autistic boy’s punishment on the Xbox Live gaming service caused an internet uproar. The initial story claimed that Microsoft had victimized Julias, for whom games were an important emotional and social outlet, by stripping him of his achievements and permanently branding him a Cheater. However, it is worth considering what role “autism” plays here.
On a basic level, it is what made this story newsworthy, bringing an emotional gravity to an otherwise common occurrence. This led to it being picked up by numerous gaming websites, garnering massive page views and heated discussion threads. Is this then a concerning case of sensationalistic exploitation or an indication that readers genuinely connected with the story’s human element?
Regardless of intent, it prompted a discussion of emerging challenges people on the autism spectrum face in today’s digital world. While offering an accessible zone of entertainment and social engagement, it also obscures the distinctions between acceptable and inappropriate online actions. Is it the responsibility of parents, governments, or corporations like Microsoft to monitor these online environments? What are appropriate enforcement responses, especially for offenses committed by children? And whose job is it to educate young gamers (especially those needing additional attention) on how these worlds function?
Much of this ends up falling to already overtaxed parents and caregivers, despite often being less comfortable with technology than their children. In the case of Julias, within days it was revealed that he had actually broken Xbox Live rules and that his mother knew. This led to harsh criticisms from commenters about her parenting ability and whether she was using her son’s autism to gain sympathy. While valid concerns, she herself appears confused about what is acceptable on Xbox Live, raising broader questions about parental media literacy.
Above all else, this story and the commentary surrounding it emphasize the serious need for this month’s focus on Autism Awareness. Only gaming blog Kotaku provided even a brief definition of autism, with most outlets giving no explanation despite clear need. For example, the very first comment to Seattle Weekly’s coverage is the simple question “Is autism a mental illness?” which received sixteen inconsistent replies defending both “yes” and “NO.” While lacking clear information about autism, even a contentious story like this plays a role in initiating the valuable discussions that will eventually lead to broader awareness.