Alastair Meek runs social groups for young people on the autistic spectrum in Aberdeen through autism organisation Triple A’s. Alastair, who is on the autistic spectrum himself, is using roleplaying gaming to bring socially isolated young people together.
He chose a game called Exalted which is a fantasy roleplaying game for 2-8 players. Like many roleplaying games, Exalted requires only the rule book, dice, paper and pencil to play – that, and a healthy imagination. Players assume the roles of their characters in a fictional setting through decision-making and character development. Alastair serves as game master, and is responsible for setting up the initial game scenario and developing the story in which the players will interact. He keeps the game going by continuing the story as the players take action, and makes sure the rules are followed through the game.
Alastair started the game with a familiar scenario – the characters would be starting in a new school. In Alastair’s words: “Of course, since they were also nobles empowered by the blood of powerful dragon gods, it was suitably fantastic that the worry of this comparatively normal transition was eclipsed by their ability to shoot fire, wield swords of liquid gold, and have winged cats. But they still had to deal with the problems of being isolated, unsure of how to make allies, and (in a number of cases) the oddity of dealing with relations with the opposite gender.”
Players learn to follow the rules of the game, keeping track of whose turn it is to speak and progressing in order around the table. The game rewards teamwork and description – for example, a player can receive a bonus in the game for describing their actions in interesting and imaginative ways.
Alastair describes the practical skills that are learned via the roleplaying game. He says “it’s very difficult to approach the problem of talking to someone to help with homework if you don’t know them. But if you are Jacob Voidwalker, dynastic noble, attempting to gain mercantile advantage by making an alliance to share information? That’s much less scary, because it’s not a situation that’s as personal. But it needs the same skills.” By empowering players to approach new people in the game, they are gaining experience that transfers over to real life situations. One of the players in Alastair’s game describes it as “virtual life training.”
He reports that the game has been very well received by the social group, and that some are so enthusiastic that they have asked to start their own games. This is significant because the person who starts the game tells the story and keeps it going – they set up the initial conditions of the game and from there, the other players build on it, alter it, and can do unexpected things.
Alastair recognises that roleplaying gaming might seem like a childish pursuit. However, he says, “because it’s a game, because it’s enjoyable, and because it’s discrete from the terrors of life, I’ve seen teenagers come along to the group almost non-verbal because of the feelings of being out of their depth progress to the point that [they were speaking] fluidly and naturally … and knowing when their ‘turn’ to talk was.”
The current game is full, but for more information about the social group please contact Alastair by email.