Autism finds its way to the gaming world
Note: This post discusses possible spoilers, so if you’re interested in playing and haven’t completed the mission I talk about, you may want to put off reading this.
Autism has been explored in the fictional and real environments on television and film, but Bioware and Electronic Arts may be the first to include the spectrum in the gaming world.
The game happens to be Mass Effect 2, the second of a three-part space opera trilogy and a huge critical and financial success (the series is most comparable to the Star Wars saga). Bioware is supplying a lot of content for download in between releases of this game and the upcoming Mass Effect 3, which is standard for many PC games today. As such, the mission where autism comes into play must be purchased separately from the game through Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 site. Titled Project Overlord, the protagonist Commander Shepard is asked by Dr. Gavin Archer to stop a rogue VI from possibly wreaking havoc in the galaxy, as the VI can interact with and control most synthetics (ships and/or robots).
As Shepard (the player) progresses through the mission, he/she gains access to data files detailing the creation of the VI that went rogue. Shepard discovers Archer wasn’t totally upfront with his information: Archer was the lead researcher in the project and used his autistic brother, David, as a test subject to integrate with the geth, a technological race of AI robots. Shepard learns that Archer saw David’s condition as a handicap until he sees his autistic mind as useful because of his supreme mathematical skills. Before integrating David with the geth, Archer says David’s mind is as alien as an actual alien, but he still must use him in the experiment. Shepard eventually destroys the rogue VI program and finds David in the VI core, begging for mercy. Shepard then has a choice regarding David’s fate, although the influence of that choice may have little effect in Mass Effect 3 (decisions made in the first two games could influence what happens in the third).
Not even the hard-hitting social justice Star Trek franchise has touched on the autism spectrum, so Bioware at least deserves credit for its implementation of the disorder in a mission plot. Even in a futuristic sci-fi world, players who have some understanding of what autism is should find parallels with older representations of autism in fiction. The character of Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man had a difficult time accepting his brother as an equal and used Raymond’s mathematical abilities to his own advantage to win a large sum of money in blackjack (although the money won was used to pay off debts). Loosely applied, the Project Overlord mission represents what some neurotypical people see with autistic people: an alien mind that’s difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.
Nonetheless, the plot is quite dark and it’s obvious that several moral breaches were made in the experiment, with David’s pleas for help clearly indicating that autistic people do express emotion. While Mass Effect 2 isn’t as gory as other M-rated games, the mature theme in this mission and throughout the game isn’t for the kids.
What this mission will accomplish outside of the game for ME2 fans is unclear. Chances are they won’t be too meticulous about it since completing the primary storyline and achieving desirable results can take about 24 hours of play time (there’s plenty of dialogue among the characters). A more intriguing question is if more games include autism as a plot device. Video games can bring us to very realistic worlds now thanks to improvements in graphics, while story elements have also expanded for the same reason. I’ll be surprised if a game is ever released where a player could use powers from an autistic protagonist, but I don’t believe Mass Effect 2 will be the only time we see autism in gaming.