Learning · RPGs

Games & Learning: A Short Literature Review on Games and Autism


Another Start to Another Irregular Series, Games & Learning will focus on both games and… wait for it… learning.  As a teacher, I think that games are fantastic tools for education and love exploring this topic.  

This instalment of Games & Learning consists of a short literature review on the use of tabletop and computer RPGs with children on the autistic spectrum. This was originally part of a larger article that I wrote.  This article will begin with a quick definition of terms, followed by a short literature review.  Cited sources are listed at the end of the article.  Now, onwards to defining our terms:  

In supporting autistic children, it’s a good idea to employ a number of activities and interventions aimed at promoting effective communication between autistic children and their typically developing peers. Facilitating and encouraging this engagement is important, as individuals on the autistic spectrum exhibit difficulties with social communication, imagination and interaction (Wing & Gould, 1979) and often would not seek out such interactions themselves (Kanner, 1943). The importance of social interaction and play between autistic children and their neurotypical peers has been highlighted in a number of published and widely cited works. Of these, several emphasise the benefits to the autistic child (Jordan, 2003; Hwang & Hughes, 2000), whilst others have specifically highlighted the benefits to the typically developing child (Jones, 2007; Ferraioli, et al., 2012).  The activity we’re going to look at just now is the use of tabletop board and roleplaying games.

The term, ‘roleplaying game’ (RPG), will refer to an imaginative game wherein players take on the role of a single character within a wider narrative, acting out their roles and making decisions based on what their character would do in a given situation. Where an action would challenge a character or have a possibility of failure, a dice is used to introduce an element of risk or uncertainty. The term ‘computer roleplaying game’ (CRPG) will be used to refer to a roleplaying game played on a computer. The term ‘Game Master’ (GM) refers to an individual who acts as the facilitator of the game, telling the story that the players react to. The term ‘tabletop games’ (TTG) will also be used to refer collectively to roleplaying game and board games.

Available Research

There is comparatively little available research specifically regarding the use of TTGs with children on the autistic spectrum. What does exist is a reasonable amount of research on the use of computer games with autistic children and the gamification of learning. Specific papers looked at educational computer games aimed at teaching skills such as face recognition (Tanaka, et al., 2010) and road safety (Singh, et al., 2012). There is some reference to the use of online CRPGs among individuals on the autistic spectrum, but many of the autism-specific articles focus on the perceived negative aspects of this form of play, such as the potential for addiction (Yee, 2007; Lee, et al., 2007), social isolation (Naso, 2011) and apparent increases in aggressive behaviour (Grüsser, et al., 2007). Some sources did specify the roleplaying genre as a particularly disruptive influence on the behaviours of children on the autistic spectrum, especially regarding increases in oppositional behaviour (Mazurek & Engelhardt, 2013), though these findings are mitigated by the authors’ suggestion that more practical and long-term research is required to draw definitive conclusions. The fact that much of the available research originates from journals and online sources to which very few institutions have subscribed gives the impression that this area is currently under-researched.

In contrast to the tone of the research on computer games, most articles on the use of TTGs with individuals on the autistic spectrum are quite positive. Researchers make the case for the benefits that TTGs can have on both interpersonal and intrapersonal skills (Rosselet & Stauffer, 2013), which are areas that are often underdeveloped in individuals on the autistic spectrum (Travis & Sigman, 1998) and an acknowledged hindrance (Obrusnikova & Cavalier, 2011) to the sort of inclusion within and beyond school that educators aim to foster. In considering the benefits of RPGs, Elizabeth Fein (2015) writes of her observation of a roleplay-based camp for autistic children and comments on her perception of the games being used in a therapeutic manner. She expressed her amazement at the engagement she saw amongst these autistic children and posited a correlation between the broader autistic phenotype and fitting into the roleplaying subculture. This observation is one that I can claim to have observed in my own experiences in that subculture.

Moving away from autism-specific research, there are articles and books available that address the use of RPGs to support neurotypical children in developing interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Although these articles make no direct reference to individuals on the autistic spectrum, the skills discussed are those that are generally weaker in these individuals (Travis & Sigman, 1998). This would suggest that these articles are potentially relevant to our understanding of the benefits of RPGs not only to typically developing children, but also to their autistic peers. The available research, which mostly comes from the fields of psychology and psychiatry, supports the proposition that RPGs assist in the development of empathy and team working (Rivers, et al., 2016), expression and interaction (Oren, 2008), and feelings of community and inclusion (Sargent, 2014). In each case, these are skills that a school would be looking to develop in both their neurotypical and autistic pupils.


Fein, E., 2015. Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-Playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 39(2), pp. 299-321.

Ferraioli, S. J., Hansford, A. & Harris, S. L., 2012. Benefits of Including Siblings in the Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 19(3), pp. 412-422.

Grüsser, S. M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M. D., 2007. Excessive Computer Game Playing: Evidence for Addiction and Aggression?. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(2), pp. 290-292.

Hwang, B. & Hughes, C., 2000. The Effects of Social Interactive Training on Early Social Communicative Skills of Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(4), pp. 331-343.

Jones, V., 2007. ‘I felt like I did something good’— the impact on mainstream pupils of a peer tutoring programme for children with autism. British Journal of Special Education, 34(1), pp. 3-9.

Jordan, R., 2003. Social Play and Autistic SPectrum Disorders: A Perspective on Theory, Implications and Educational Approaches. Autism, 7(4), pp. 347-360.

Kanner, L., 1943. Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact. Nervous Child, 2, pp. 217-250.

Lee, M.-s.et al., 2007. Characteristics of Internet Use in Relation to Game Genre in Korean Adolescents. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(2), pp. 278-285.

Mazurek, M. O. & Engelhardt, C. R., 2013. Video game use and problem behaviors in boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7(2), pp. 316-324.

Naso, R. C., 2011. Role-Playing Games: Bridge or Barrier to Object Relationships in Socially Isolated Teens?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.apadivisions.org/division-39/publications/review/2011/07/role-playing-games.aspx
[Accessed 29 May 2016].

Obrusnikova, I. & Cavalier, A. R., 2011. Perceived Barriers and Facilitators of Participation in After-School Physical Activity by Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 23(3), pp. 195-211.

Oren, A., 2008. The use of board games in child psychotherapy. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 34(3), pp. 364-383.

Rivers, A., Wickramasekera II, I. E., Pekala, R. J. & Rivers, J. A., 2016. Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 58(3), pp. 286-294.

Rosselet, J. G. & Stauffer, S. D., 2013. Using group role-playing games with gifted children and adolescents: A psychosocial intervention model.. International Journal of Play Therapy, 22(4), pp. 173-192.

Sargent, M. S., 2014. Exploring mental dungeons and slaying psychic dragons: an exploratory study, s.l.: (Doctoral dissertation).

Singh, P., Rathore, R., Chuahan, R. & Gourdar, R. H., 2012. A Gaming Model for Teaching Autistic Children Basic Traffic Rules. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, 2(5), p. 507.

Tanaka, J. W. et al., 2010. Using computerized games to teach face recognition skills to children with autism spectrum disorder: the Let’s Face It! program. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(8), pp. 944-952.

Travis, L. L. & Sigman, M., 1998. Social deficits and interpersonal relationships in autism. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 4(2), pp. 65-72.

Wing, L. & Gould, J., 1979. Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: Epidemiology and classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9(1), pp. 11-29.

Yee, N., 2007. Motivations for Play in Online Games. CyberPsycology & Behaviour, 9(6), pp. 772-775.

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