You’re neurodivergent? You don’t get to play just for the sake of it.

katta spiel
2 min readApr 27, 2021

My colleague Kathrin Gerling and I were wondering what the research on Digital Games and neurodivergent folks says regarding individual modes of play and/or accessibility. The associated paper is now published and I will try and briefly summarise our findings here. But let me just start with: Wow, were we naive. Being neurodivergent ourselves, we found ourselves struggling with doing the work since, when our supposed colleagues were referring to neurodivergent folks, they were also referring to us. But let’s go to the start.

We started our work curious about how HCI games research conceptualises and serves neuro-divergent populations drawing on a lens combining models from Disability Studies with Self- Determination Theory. Through a deductive as well as inductive thematic analysis of 66 papers, we identified four relevant parameters: participants, research, play and purpose, illustrating how neurodivergent populations are largely identified through a medical lens, excluded from design and meaning making about the games, supposed to play predominantly in medical as well as educational settings driven by an extrinsic purpose.

Our results show that existing projects predominantly adopt a serious gaming perspective, and relegate play almost exclusively to externally driven purposes. Thus, games are developed to either address specific characteristics or attempt to cure individuals from neurodivergent traits that are perceived and identified as undesirable, with the majority of systems designed to be played in educational or medical settings. Additionally, our results show a strong emphasis on younger players, often children, while only few projects focus on the needs of neurodivergent adults. Likewise, while most projects included neurodivergent people in system evaluation, involvement of the target audience at the design stage remains less common. Generally, our findings show that there are only few examples of projects that seek to facilitate free, i.e., leisurely play for general audiences, the form of play most frequently enjoyed by neurotypical people.

Graph illustrating the dominance of the medical and social model of disability for the purposes of digital play for neurodivergent people.
Dominance of the medical and social model of disability for the purposes of digital play for neurodivergent people, with little work done in the context of disability as an aspect of identity.

In contextualising participants, methods, play and purpose, we could identify how medical knowledge appears to be simultaneously omnipresent and absent and how current games fail at supporting intrinsic motivation and self-determination in this context. Instead, they prescribe an externally driven mode of play which effectively marginalises immersion and enjoyment for neurodivergent players.

The danger here is that digital play is only used as a mode of packaging dominant expectations to neurodivergent people instead of allowing us to … you know… have fun? In our own way? Maybe?