Ian Bates loves World of Warcraft, but like many with autism, he faces extra challenges inside its virtual world.
You might think you know World of Warcraft, but you don’t know it the way Ian Bates does.
Like many of the millions of players of the massively multiplayer online game, the Florida teen obsessed over WoW’s fantasy world. He devoured all the non-fiction books written about Warcraft, and tried his hand at writing fan fiction set in the land of Azeroth.
One day in 2010, when he was 17, Bates was reading another Warcraft novel and noticed that something was out of whack. There was a character described in the plot of the novel, Falstad Wildhammer, that should have appeared within the game’s world, but he was nowhere to be found.
So when Bates went to that year’s Blizzcon, the annual weekend event where developer Blizzard meets its fans, he had one mission. During a Q&A session, he stepped up to the microphone to demand an explanation of the discrepancy from the lead writers of Warcraft lore. Clearly amused but grateful, Blizzard’s story leads promised to fix the plot hole.
Video of the question went viral, earning millions of views. They called him “Red Shirt Guy.” But it wasn’t the color of his clothes or the content of the exchange that caused people to share the question, it was Bates’ cringeworthy awkwardness: the stammering, the unusual rising and falling pitch inflections of his voice, and the intense concentration on remarkably minute details.
Bates has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that he says makes him feel extreme anxiety in certain social situations. Speaking at that microphone, he said, was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. His voice sounds “robotic and weird” if he has to initiate a conversation, Bates says. I point out that he seems comfortable talking to me on the phone. “You started talking to me first,” he says, matter-of-factly.
For many gamers with autism, MMOs are a double-edged sword, according to experts interviewed for this story and anecdotal evidence from the gaming community. The extremely complex game systems can be particularly attractive to the autistic mind’s love of minute details. And for gamers dealing with social interaction problems, MMOs can let them talk to people in more abstract, less stressful environments. But their addictive nature and social elements might also cause players with autism spectrum disorders anxiety, fear, or paranoia.
“The predisposition of people with [Asperger’s] to develop restricted special interests may put them at greater risk for withdrawing from ‘real life’ in favor of playing the game,” says Chloe Jordan, a behavioral neuroscience specialist at Boston University.
Psychologists say games and autism can result in a vicious circle — but that if used in the right way, they might be very helpful.
About one in 88 children are affected with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Males are five times as likely to have it. Different conditions exist within the autism spectrum, and the severity can vary wildly, but generally suffers have difficulty communicating with other people and forming relationships, and challenges dealing with language and abstract concepts.
Because people with autism spectrum disorders tend to show more interaction with objects than with people, they may be more attracted to videogames, says Julie Crittendon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. People with autism, Crittendon adds, can also process information far more quickly if it’s presented in a visual way.
“So if you have autism, you find your way to video games, and you find that you’re really good at them,” she says.
Additionally, those with Asperger’s syndrome are often very good at understanding systems, notes Jordan. That could create a special attraction to complex games like MMOs that reward mastery of many different elements.
“A person with [Asperger’s] might be really good at figuring out how to best outfit his character by studying the statistics, strengths, and weaknesses behind different kinds of weapons and armor, since this involves understanding rules and manipulating a system,” says Jordan.
But, Jordan says, MMOs could also pose something of an addiction risk to players with autism spectrum disorders. Aspects of a game that could become highly addictive include having to complete daily tasks, or spend an inordinate amount of time increasing a character’s level.
Indeed, some WoW players with Asperger’s have unhappy stories to tell. Bram Kleiman, from Vancouver, Canada, says his WoW account was permanently banned by Blizzard after another player reported him for harassment.
Kleiman admits arguing with another player in the in-game chat room, but he says he can’t control it. Having Asperger’s, he says, compels him to keep arguing whenever someone confronts him with a problem, making simple misunderstandings highly upsetting. “It’s like having a piece of a puzzle that I can’t figure out,” he says.
Kleiman says he was real-life friends with the other player, who he says knew of his condition and would deliberately provoke him. Kleiman wrote appeals to Blizzard’s support team after his ban, but says the pleas fell on deaf ears. Blizzard did not respond to Wired’s requests for comment.
“[Blizzard] should listen instead of saying, ‘Oh, we can’t handle this, let’s just ban this guy,’” Kleiman says. “They didn’t want to deal with me.”
Psychologist Crittendon says that she doesn’t think game developers should bend the rules to accommodate players with autism. It’s important, she says, for those individuals to learn how to navigate sticky social situations like understanding the boundaries of others and responding appropriately to others’ advances.
Other Warcraft players have found that they can find coping methods for social anxiety in online games in a way they can’t face-to-face.
A player with the username “Clearasil” said on the game’s official forums that online voice chat hasimproved his social skills.
At first, he wrote, the idea of talking to others caused him great stress. Now he’s worked at his voice communication skills so much within WoW that he’s unafraid to talk to anyone in-game, including strangers. “Step by step I got over it,” he wrote.
In another post in the official forums, a player named Æxangel says that Raid Finder, a tool introduced by Blizzard in 2011 that automatically puts players into groups so they can cooperatively take on a dungeon, has been a godsend, since it eliminates the need to constantly initiate conversations with strangers.
“It takes a lot of my anxiety away and is usually the only way I can get to raid successfully,” Æxangel, who has Asperger’s, wrote. “I usually play solo and like to be by myself a lot in-game.”
If used properly, World of Warcraft and other online games like it could be a major boon for parents trying to raise kids with autism.
In 2010, Kim Enders wrote about using WoW as a learning aid for her 8-year-old son Thomas, who has Asperger’s. Thanks to the game, Enders says that Thomas has had plenty of opportunity to develop his social and communication skills, and she believes that the MMO’s math-heavy focus has benefited his understanding of numbers as well.
However, it’s not necessarily safe setting an autistic child loose in Azeroth. Thomas has been harassed by older players. “I don’t really feel like Blizzard has much in place to protect children and mentally challenged players from the seedier crowd,” Enders says, but added that she was able to talk to her son about the experience and take away some “valuable lessons” about interacting with others.
Vanderbilt University psychologist Crittendon says that through therapy, it’s possible to minimize the negative social implications of an autism disorder by intervening early with kids.
“You can actually change the way the brain is growing,” she says. “You can get the kid to pay attention to people more.”
Ian Bates’ 15 minutes of internet fame ended well, all things considered. The comments on his “Red Shirt Guy” video were none too complimentary, and speaking to other players still makes Bates nervous. “It took years to feel comfortable talking on [the voice chat program] Ventrillo,” says Bates. “Even now, I don’t really talk all that much.”
But Blizzard was grateful for his question. Now, Falstad Wildhammer properly appears in Azeroth. And standing beside him is a teenaged dwarf named “Wildhammer Fact Checker.” He’s wearing a red shirt.