“Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s just for fun!”
This is what I told an autistic boy at a gaming event we went to yesterday, where we entered a Super Smash Bros Ultimate tournament. Meanwhile, I was conjuring up a strategy to win the 4 player Free For All battle that was about to commence.
I was responsible for the boy while we were there and I made sure he was happy and enjoyed his time. However, during the 3 minute battle, I forgot about everything else that was happening, because I had to win, no matter what.
Fast forward to an hour ago. I have just had a huge meltdown after playing the exact same game. My brother beat me 4 out of 6 games, so I was very frustrated and I thought: ‘My brother is really, really good at the game, so I’ll just go and beat a noob online and I’ll feel better!”.
I lost my first game and started shouting and complaining that they are ‘cheaters’, ‘hackers’ and all the rest of the rubbish I say when I can’t admit someone is more skilled than me at the game.
I then lost another game.
Over the years I have learnt to stop throwing controllers and devices, so instead I let out a bellowing scream and violently contorted and jerked as if I was transforming into some form of grotesque monster. I then screamed at my brother to go away and hid under my bed covers for about 20 minutes.
That was over 2 hours ago now but I’m still on edge. I thought I would write this as I know a lot of other autistic people are sore losers too, and I wanted to try and explain what it feels like and why it happens.
Most people who know me would not expect me to act like this, as I am usually very calm and patient. But gaming is the one thing that often tips me over the edge. Though my worst reactions are saved for when I am at home, and I manage to keep it together when I am out and about most of the time.
Believe it or not, most of the time losing is actually a good thing. Every time you lose and look back at the reasons why, you have the opportunity to learn something new and will have ideas about how to improve next time. In this respect, losing can actually be better than winning, as if you win all the time you won’t have much of an idea about how to do better.
This doesn’t change the fact that the objective of a game is to win. The desire to win can be amplified by some common autistic traits:
- Perfectionism – A common autistic trait is needing to do everything at the best possible standard. Any slight mistakes, errors or issues can be a huge problem. This can be useful as autistic people who are perfectionists tend to do things at a high quality. However, this also means we can get ‘stuck’ by trying to make everything perfect, when it is extremely difficult or impossible for things to be. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the scenario), that is just how some autistic brains work.
- Anxiety and overthinking – Autistic people process everything systematically, including the environment, their relationships with others and the atmosphere. The atmosphere changes with every win or lose of a game, and you need to be able to process the changes that happen efficiently to know what to do next. This is much easier to do if you win as you will feel more relaxed, whereas it is easy to get overwhelmed when you are trying to process everything and you are also experiencing negative emotions.
There’s one more important reason why losing can be difficult for autistic people, and this is related to sensory regulation:
Above is part of a picture I drew to try and explain how meltdowns work to a parent, and I will give a brief explanation here of what a meltdown is and why they can happen often in autistic people:
- An important thing to remember is that everyone can have meltdowns, not just autistic people
- The main section of the brain responsible for meltdowns is called the hypothalamus, and there are two parts of it
- The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – Responsible for activating meltdowns/ the fight, flight, fright response
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – Which combats the SNS and keeps you calm and content
- Every human being is somewhere between the SNS and PNS at all times.
- The closer you are to the SNS the more stressed, anxious, excited and the more alerting sensory input and the less calming sensory input you come into contact with
- The close you are to the PNS the less stressed, anxious, excited and the less alerting and more calming sensory input you come into contact with
- Everyone also has a ‘baseline’ between the two, which their brain chooses based on life experiences and more
- Autistic children who have a lot of sensory sensitivities, or who are often anxious or stressed will have a higher baseline, meaning that they are almost always close to meltdown, even when they seem relaxed.
- The more sensitivities you have, and the more anxious or stressed you get, the closer you get to the ‘meltdown’ zone, meaning you are no longer in control, can no longer think logically and you are in survival mode.
- Therefore, although everyone can reach meltdown point, for autistic people, they can happen more frequently, be much more intense and last longer.
Now apply this to losing a game.
As most autistic people tend to be anxious, they are close to meltdown already. The autistic person then doesn’t just experience ‘normal’ amounts of stress from losing, but it is amplified due to the ‘perfectionism’ and ‘anxiety and overthinking’ traits, meaning that losing just one game can easily send quite a lot of autistic people over the edge.
Autistic people also often struggle with self regulation, meaning that once they are in a heightened state, it is difficult to calm themselves again. Most people automatically self regulate, but autistic people learn how to do it through experience and practice. But when you are in a heightened state, you tend to forget this practice and it isn’t as useful as you would like it to be!
There are times when such huge negative reactions don’t happen. I want to explain the reasons for this below and also give some tips on how they could be avoided:
- Sensory regulation – If an autistic person is more regulated, they are calmer and much further away than the red meltdown zone. This means that the person can tolerate much more losing and be more patient. If an autistic person is getting stressed out by a game, use some calming strategies such as deep pressure, activities involving heavy muscle work and add some calming sensory input into the environment.
- Breaks – Sometimes you can get so hyper focused on winning that you forget how unimportant it actually is. Do you have days when you are really angry or anxious but wake up feeling fresh and wondering why you felt that way the night before? Having a break from games can have this exact same impact, though sometimes I know I have done enough gaming for the day (like tonight) and will not play until I have a fresh start the next day. Breaks are a natural way to calm down.
- Distractions – What better way to stop someone from getting upset over losing than taking their mind off it completely?
- Don’t make the objective winning – This is what I had to do to stop getting so frustrated on the dreaded game Fortnite. There are 100 people in every game and only one winner, so the odds really aren’t in your favour! One day I watched a YouTube video which said: Don’t focus on winning, instead focus on improving your in game skill by reflecting on why you lost battles, spectating the person who killed you and more. Once I developed this perspective, I was much happier playing Fortnite, and actually got much better at the game! Although there are still some instances where I want to win (e.g. against friends), and I still get quite angry during those moments.
- Avoid getting into competitive situations – Quite a few autistic people I know avoid competitive situations altogether because they know they have bad reactions to losing, and I have done so at times too. There are still lots of co-op and non-competitive games that are lots of fun (for example, Minecraft)!
- Having a good day in general – If you are having a day where you are less anxious or stressed, it is easier to cope with losing.
My final tip: GET GOOD AT WINNING 😉
You won’t have to get upset about losing if you are so good you never lose! 😉
As you can see from how today went for me, I am still learning to get better at losing, although I have got much better than I used to be overall. Feel free to share any tips or experiences you have had relating to this!
P.S. One thing I forgot to mention:
A lot of autistic people find real life really difficult to tolerate and use gaming as an escape. For some people, the online world is the only place they feel comfortable and feel like they can be themselves. Losing on online games and such will be more tolerable as autistic people are better understood and more comfortable in real life, as they will be less reliant on games!
Please let me know if any of this post needs clarifying, I wrote it very late and fairly quickly. It is now 00:23am so I am going to try and sleep!