Filthy Casual. Fake Gamer. Poser. That’s just a few of the names I’ve been called by self-proclaimed “hardcore” gamers. This is nothing new for me. I’ve been derided for the types of games I play and the way I play them for as long as I can remember – and all too often, the one saying these things has been me.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my family always had Nintendo consoles. I loved the JRPGs, puzzles, and turn-based strategy, but I could never get into the faster-paced action games. I loved watching my sisters play Mario and Metroid and Hexen, but whenever I picked up the controller, I’d panic. I felt an overwhelming urge to run away and hide that I just couldn’t overcome.
I’m autistic, and two of my most significant traits are hypersensitivity and hyperempathy. These are not medical terms, but words that people like me have come up with to describe ourselves. Hypersensitivity means that sounds, flickering and flashing visuals, and sensations that others might not even notice are physically painful to me. This is a function of how my central nervous system works, and not something that can be changed.
Hyperempathy is a special type of sensitivity. Contrary to the old myth that all autistic people lack empathy, I connect to others too strongly. I can’t disconnect from the feelings I see in other people. This even extends to works of fiction such as films and video games. (Especially video games.)
I didn’t know I was autistic until I was in my 20s. Growing up, everyone around me treated my sensitivity like a character flaw. I was repeatedly told that I needed to toughen up, face my fears, and stop being so pathetic. If I just kept at it, I’d get stronger. If I failed, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I believed this for decades.
Though games typically have you controlling a character, the average person can keep an emotional distance from this collection of pixels on a screen. It’s just a game, after all. But I can’t disconnect like that. If something is after my character, be it a terrifying photorealistic Xenomorph or the cartoonish groaning of a Minecraft zombie, I feel like my real, actual life is in danger. This cannot be switched off. It cannot be overcome with willpower. It is how my brain works.
Even into my 30s, I kept trying to push myself. I forced myself to try to play games like Dark Souls. I recorded videos and streamed myself playing, hoping that having an audience would make it easier. I would push myself into having panic attacks and meltdowns, and I felt like a failure every single time.
One day, I opened Steam and chose one of these terrifying games. I hovered my mouse cursor over the play button… and stopped. I couldn’t do it. More importantly, I didn’t want to do it. And at last, I finally asked myself the question I should have considered decades earlier: Why am I doing this?
Why do we play games? For some people, it’s to overcome a challenge or master a skill. For others, it’s to relieve stress. Some people play as a social activity. And for some, it’s to relax. But there is one key quality that games have which should never be forgotten: they’re supposed to be fun.
We all have to do things in life that we don’t want to do, but games should never be one of those things. My life is difficult. I’m disabled. I’m in constant pain and under constant stress. I don’t need another challenge in my life. I don’t need to prove myself any more. Games have the potential to serve as an outlet, to relieve stress and help me relax. A peaceful farming game, a cartoonish rhythm game, even a difficult action game set to casual mode can improve my mental health. Why on earth was I allowing them to be another source of anxiety?
In today’s modern world where even mainstream games offer increasingly plentiful options and accessibility features, just about anyone can find a gaming experience that brings them joy. There will always be the gatekeepers who insist that their way of playing is the only correct way. But one of the greatest positive steps I ever took for my mental health was to stop listening to them.
Games are meant to be enjoyed. Go enjoy them, whatever that means to you.
Aira Lee is a nonbinary neurodivergent writer and gaming YouTuber. Having lived in too many places, she sounds vaguely foreign wherever she goes.