Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-Playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum

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An Erratum to this article was published on 19 April 2015

Abstract

Every summer, a group of role-playing gamers gathers in an American town. Dressed up as moon goddesses, mad scientists, and other fantastical characters, they act out elaborate, improvised narratives of transformation, destruction, and redemption. For several summers, this group, who I call the Journeyfolk, ran a camp for teenagers on the autism spectrum, engaging campers in therapeutic reconfigurations of self and social role. Through this folk healing practice, the meaning of autism was itself transformed; what had been a source of isolation became a source of commonality and community. This paper takes the camp as a case study for examining the co-productive relationship between culture and neurodiversity. Cognitive tendencies often found in autism are often thought to preclude socio-cultural participation. However, such tendencies can also facilitate the co-creation of innovative cultural spaces, through processes of affinity and affiliation. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork at the camp, I identify three sites of congruity between the culture of the camp and the cognitive and phenomenological experiences associated with autism, at which this “work of culture” (Obeysekere in The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990) took place: the structure of social interactions within roleplaying games, the narratives enacted within these games, and the interpersonal relationships within which the games were embedded.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I use the phrase “autism spectrum conditions” (rather than “autism spectrum disorders”) in recognition of the fact that the condition I am describing contains elements of both ability and disability, vulnerability and strength, order and disorder.

  2. 2.

    The names and identifying details of all programs and participants have been changed in order to protect their privacy and confidentiality.

  3. 3.

    The most recent revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) combines several previously separate subtypes of autism, including what was previously called Asperger’s Disorder, into a single category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. At the time of this research, Asperger’s Syndrome was still a separate category in active use.

  4. 4.

    “Aspie” is an affectionate shorthand for “person with Asperger’s Syndrome”; unlike such “person-first language”; however, the term does not imply separation between the condition and the person. It is thus popular among members of the autistic self-advocacy movement who champion such “identity-first” language for autism spectrum conditions, because they consider these conditions to be intrinsic and often valued elements of their identity. When I use adjectives like “autistic” rather than “with autism” in this paper, I am doing so in the same spirit.

  5. 5.

    This term refers to a mandate followed by the protagonists in Star Trek. It dictates that Federation members will not interfere with the social development of the societies they encounter.

  6. 6.

    The degree to which character development is constrained by a numeric system varies significantly by game type and player community, with some types of games being far more open-ended in their character-building practices. The Journeyfolk, on their own, play games that vary widely along the dimension of pre-established structure; for the Aspie camp, they hewed to a fairly traditional tabletop-inspired format that imported a great deal of those games’ standard rules and regulations.

  7. 7.

    Those who were most familiar with the conventions of fantasy and speculative fiction genres tended to have the most engaged and well-elaborated game interactions. Players who drew on a different set of genres often had more trouble finding their social niche in the game. Murdoch the Muscle Man, for example, was drawn from a different genre tradition, that of old-time circus showmanship, and he had a hard time engaging with the high-drama relational world of the other characters, tending to interact far more with the non-player characters played by staff.

  8. 8.

    To provide a better-known example, this trope is both exemplified and gently satirized by the oft-repeated line “my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father; prepare to die” in the film The Princess Bride.

  9. 9.

    In the comment that follows, he is referring both to the camp and to the Asperger-specific school program run by the Unity Center, which he had attended with several of the others campers and CIT’s.

  10. 10.

    “Magic cards” (the technical name is Magic: The Gathering) is a trading card game that shares many stylistic elements with traditional fantasy roleplaying games. In the game, wizards battle each other by casting magic spells and summoning fantastical creatures. These battles take place within a fictional “multiverse” that has also spawned a series of novels and an upcoming feature film; playing the game thus also instantiates an ongoing shared narrative in a highly structured game form. The game is notorious for being popular among those who might have difficulty negotiating less-mediated social interactions.

  11. 11.

    To give an accurate picture of the community, I should add that some of the Journeyfolk came to the camp for reasons other than an affinity with these aspects of roleplaying games, and did not consider themselves to be particularly geeky. Some were more interested in theater than in games; others were drawn to the playful spirit of the Collective, its close-knit community or its ethos of personal development and growth.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Fein.

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Fein, E. Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-Playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum. Cult Med Psychiatry 39, 299–321 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-015-9443-x

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • LARP
  • Neurodiversity