Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements: “Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?


  • It’s positively heartwarming to hear about your experiences with Connor. It’s great seeing Cam in person every once in a while, but I want to thank you too for sharing your lives.

    • Thanks a lot, Tim. I know a lot of families don’t feel comfortable being so open, but if these posts let one person know they’ve got company in the boat, or give someone a resource they haven’t had before, it’s worth every bit of vulnerability. I’m also incredibly lucky that Cam and everybody at MWP is supportive of me doing this. It’s all about family, at the heart of it.

  • How strange! A friend of ours has a son who is similar to Connor and when they went to the Waisman Center to have him evaluated they encouraged his gaming and, in fact, said they should take him to a convention! So, I guess it’s a matter of opinion 🙂 I’m soooooo glad to hear that this program helped Connor. Your are all amazing. Keep at it.

    • Glad to hear there are docs out there who are aware of the community and benefits around gaming these days! It’s funny, because just a few days ago, when we started kicking around the idea of me bringing the kids along to Gen Con this year, I began cooking up the idea of a special RPG just for kids on the spectrum. Maybe something at Professor X’s school for mutants that gives them in-game rewards for working together and showing awareness of consequences and others’ emotions. I’ll definitely keep folks posted if anything comes of that!

  • I’m glad Connor is doing well.
    Some things are laughable. Silly people, expecting a nine-year-old to sit still for more than five minutes.

    Josh and I have always thought role-play games are an excellent teaching tool. Honestly, if our Mike was able to communicate better, we would encourage him to play. He loves super heroes. I know he would be one of the first ones to insist he get to play, “Daddy’s super hero game.” If he were able.

    The doctor’s reaction makes me wonder if he is one of those who got handed a copy of Mazes and Monsters in one of his classes and freaked out. Most doctors I’ve associated with don’t mind putting themselves into the nerd category. You are right, him singling out role playing games seems a bit fishy to me.

    • I’m thinking that’s exactly what happened with this guy–he probably just bears the biases of his generation in the profession, and may be lumping in WoW, which can be much more isolated if you’re not taking advantage of the guild dynamics. That’s why we’re hoping to show him what Connor and we mean by RPGs, and the ways they provide a perfect environment to learn social and emotional skills that a kid like him needs.

      I know, with parents as loving and dedicated, there’ll come a day when you’ll all play games together. Do you think Mike would be able to do something like Blink? It’s a card game that doesn’t require literacy, or even talking. In the meantime, hugs!

      • WOW can be fun, but it’s more a shooter with RPG elements. This doctor wouldn’t be the first to make this sort of mistake. After ‘Invulnerable’ first came out, Josh’s dad announced to his friends that he was so proud of his son who “Made a video game.” Even though Josh had been playing RPG’s since middle school, his dad still had no clue that the role-playing game was the same as all of those game books he’d bought for him over the years. LOL.

        Mike might be able to handle Blink after some work. He’s severely delayed, but very slowly coming out of it. Honestly, he might just throw the cards around and laugh for the first few tries.

        • My brother met the very best friend he ever had on WoW, and runs one of the largest clans on Halo, so I know those games can be very social, but there’s that pesky label MMORPG. And the same MUSH that brought Cam and me together sucked more than a few people into a completely untenable lifestyle that probably cost some of them jobs, girl/boyfriends, IRL friends, etc. But they were adults, college-age at least, without anyone to help them regulate their interests. And just like we won’t let Connor grow up thinking it’s okay to get drunk every night, we won’t let him grow up thinking it’s okay to chain himself to his computer or XBox and ignore the outside world.

          And hey, nothing wrong with 52 Pick-up. 🙂

  • *Apparently, I forgot how to post a comment. Third time’s a charm?*

    I usually skim over most posts on most blogs, but I kept finding myself looking forward to the next paragraph.

    Connor seems like a great big ball of fun, and your article makes me wish I was in HIS game.


    • Well, as he gets older, he’ll be coming to conventions with us more often, so you may yet get your chance! 🙂

  • Goodness knows I’ve done more reading, research and made great friends through gaming. (I type this while the other half of the table is dealing with a crashed air ship; yes I’m gaming).

  • Thank goodness he has you and Cam for parents, and not someone who might take the doctor’s words to heart! Our kids are growing up thinking imagination is cool, creativity is to be encouraged, seeing a project through from idea to product is not only possible but a routine part of life, and getting together with friends on a regular basis to hang out and play together doesn’t stop when you grow up. Yay for role-playing kids!

    • The scope and power of games for education and social development is already growing at such a pace, I think the kids who grow up in that environment are literally going to change the world, much as Jane McGonigal envisions in her book Reality Is Broken. And I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

  • My wife and I got to know each other at a weekly Vampire/Werewolf LARP. Our characters fell in love before we did. My social life is richer and my breadth of knowledge greater because of role-playing. I look at my non-gaming co-workers and feel sorry for how limited their lives seem. Gaming has been a great way to meet new people and has provided an instant connection with other gamers when I was overseas in the military. Much better than the typical poker night. Keep up the good work.

    • I know so many people for whom that’s the case, David. RPGs have done nothing but enrich our intelligence, our social lives, our circle of friends, and our imaginations (if not our wallets). I might see the doctor’s point if this was only Connor’s interest, unsupported by us or anyone else he knows. But we’ve literally brought the kid up at the table, and a nine-year-old who wants to bring friends over to his house to sit around with his parents and talk for hours, more or less, is a treasure beyond riches. As he gets older, and game play gets more sophisticated, I’ll be entirely grateful for a teenage son who still talks to his parents.

  • My father emphatically advised that I NOT marry my husband (beforehand, of course) because “Adults shouldn’t spend so much time playing make-believe.” This, from a man who watches television for about 8 hours a day (whatever is on, but usually movies or TV series).

    I married my husband and August will make 20 years. And dad still watches TV about 8 hours a day. You know. Speaking of people playing make-believe.

    • Sigh. Good thing we don’t have any industries based on make-believe.

      My parents had to literally pull me out of books on an almost-daily basis. I think, as far as they were concerned, hobbies that required me to spend long hours with friends couldn’t possibly be bad. When I got on Amber/Too, I described the conversations and friends in terms just as lively as my IRL college friends they’d never met, so they just continued to roll with it. Cam’s career in games wasn’t an issue at marriage because it was still just a hobby, and the slide from hobbyist into professional happened so slowly, while he supported me in grad school (ultimately a more costly and incomplete venture than RPGs ever will be), that he had cover credit (sure to bust any in-laws’ buttons with pride) and his first novel under his belt before he went full time.

      I’m so much like Connor, I feel pretty confident that he’s also inherited my genes for performance and general tomfoolery that will make him a popular member of activities for the rest of his (school) life. He announced when he was 2 that he wanted to be a movie director, and he’s stuck to that unswervingly ever since. Make-believe? You bet. Unsociable? Never seen a movie made entirely by one person. We’re not worried. 🙂

  • I think much of this stems from the lack of real information most psychologists have about gaming, the distorted assumptions about the various subgenres and types of games out there, the presumption that it’s all solitary computer stuff, and the pathetic and paltry amount of research on the topic (except from various places in Europe where due to my lack of linguistics training I haven’t read much of). It also speaks of the distorted views about play and fantasy held in the field in general. I say this as someone who was trained as a clinical psychologist, did a thesis and dissertation on gaming, presented about the distorted attitudes toward fantasy at a conference, and continually ran into this distorted attitude about fantasy and imagination from my colleagues and professors.

  • I have had to read this article several times. Here is my two cents, maybe even three cents:

    a) I find it really amusing and also appalling at the same time that in 2012, people would still be so narrow-minded and stuck in the seventies/eighties cliches about RPG. I wonder if this is a regional thing. I have certainly never observed this here in Europe.
    b) With regard to suitable pass times for 9-year-olds (boys and girls): I have a background in teaching and teacher training. Now I work as a manager (where I manage grown-ups), so I have seen quite a spectrum. The suitable pass time for a kid should be (from a developmental point of view): challenging, so as to keep them interested, and it should motivate them to become productive as opposed to purely receptive (i.e. any pass time that involves creativity or movement of any kind: sports, drawing, story-telling, making films or videos, singing, writing, dancing, teaching others, caring for others, playing with others etc. you get my drift). Sitting there and just letting the TV wash over you all day is not even receptive, but mostly vegging out. While it can be nice on occasion to completely switch off, I would not want to recommend this as the primary activity for kids.
    A kid who is so advanced intellectually will find it difficult to make friends among age-group peers (I had the same problem, my friends were always older, one year ahead of me in school etc.), but it does not mean they cannot find friends.
    c) Looking at what would be suitable pass times (productive!), RPGs tick many boxes: story-telling, drawing (remember the endless maps we drew for D and D?), tactics (if you play 4e and use battle maps), negotiating skills (how do we as the group get what we need to achieve?), fun and enjoyment with friends, language skills (I remember when I was 10, I did not speak any English, but all the PC-based RPGs were in English, so I taught myself with the use of a dictionary. When I had my first English lesson, I did not know much grammar, but I knew words like “scabbard, dungeon, bolt, cross-bow, portcullis, draw-bridge, spell, tome, tomb, dead, undead, vault, valiant etc.” and I was able to understand simple sentences and get the gist of texts. I had acquired “parsing” skills, which helped me in my native language as well. So, even my reading ability in my native language had grown beyond my age group’s normal level.
    Ad 3: Getting wrapped up in a fantasy world: How sad would we be, if we could not, on occasion, get wrapped up in make-belief. Indeed, in human history, this has been a “pass time” for people of all ages (or does anyone here believe that the Iliad and Odyssey, to name 2 of the most important works of literature of all time) with their stories of fighting heroes and gods and monsters had been composed to be received by children? They had been composed for adults and for these adults, the described religious aspects were pretty much a reality (yes, the gods exist, and we need to worship them, and yes, they will influence our lives directly). Today, we call it mythology. Back then, it was a reality for people. And they were wrapped up in it 24-7. This did not keep them from leading “normal” lives, advancing philosophy, mathematics, arts and sculpture, politics, warfare etc.
    So, why would playing (!) a Role Playing Game (!!!) and creating worlds for this to share with friends be dangerous? I would very much doubt that your son would expect to see a dragon in the back garden just because in his fantasy world they exist. A two-year old, daughter of a friend of mine, “reads” childrens’ books. There are talking goats in one of the story (three billy goats gruff). She does not expect to see normal goats talk. And she is only two. However, when she plays with her toys (one of which is a frog), the frog talks, no real-life frogs are expected to talk by her, though.

    One caveat: There are psychiatric disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia, where people can imagine things to be real that are unreal and do not exist. We all know this. However, these hallucinations are not brought on by people playing games, but are a hereditary illness, which manifests itself in patients regardless of how much they are grounded “in reality” (although drug abuse can precipitate the outbreak).

    Lastly: People talking about one topic, and one topic only and boring people around them to tears. Anyone ever talked to a soccer fan (and I mean, A REAL FAN) during the soccer world championships? Ever?
    Or anyone ever met a “new mum” and asked the question “How’s the kid?” Ever? I have done both, and I have spent subsequent hours listening to every little detail about the results of the different teams, who is likely going to meet whom in the quarter finals, what are the odds of Polynesia winning, first smiles, first time eyes focus, the price of nappies, crying throughthe night, feeding schedules etc.
    Regardless of the fact that I don’t care about soccer, much, and don’t have kids nor do I want any. BUT: I still like these people, and I spend time with them and I accept that they have hobbies/preoccupations that I don’t share but about which they want to share. I do the same. They accept it.
    While kids may be less tolerant, it is in the human psyche to focus on certain things and get wrapped up in them. And then we want to talk about them because they matter to us.
    At school, we had the “hairdo girls”, they were only interested in hair styling and make-up. Listening to them was, ahm, trying. We had the athletes, who only talked about training schedules, diets of protein and carbs and special running shoes and gear and whatnot. Is that any healthier?

  • I read this with a fair amount of fascination. I frothed for a moment before I read the psychologist’s “this is why it’s bad in the end” concluding statement, and then I frothed for a different reason.

    The guy said: “The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

    I think this is correct, in a coldly logical sense — if you do not share interests with your peers, you will in fact have a hard time relating socially, and you may end up with social rejection and emotional alienation.

    But he should also understand that those things are NORMAL for gifted children, who are exactly that — they have interests that are NOT normal for their age, that are not shared with peers that do not have similar intellectual gifts, and they socialize differently than other average-IQ children their age. The answer to this is not “tell the child to suppress his real interests in favor of whatever other children his age are interested in”. The answer is to encourage his interests and talents, *while also* teaching him how to politely take an interest in what other children want to talk about and are interested in.

    I think the irony is that things like videogames are now completely mainstream, so nobody is going to call those out as weird. Ditto, say, Harry Potter, or Batman, or any number of fantasy elements that appear in popular cuture. But RPGs — still a weird hobby.

    It is hard to be unusual as a child. As adults, we find communities of interest, and hopefully professions that suit our interests and talents. But childhood smashes everyone into the same mold, demanding conformity.

    Two standard deviations of IQ above the mean — basically a score of 130 — results in a way of thinking, and a way of understanding the world, and of understanding other people, that is materially different from people at the average. That is why, for instance, police departments generally do not recruit policemen with IQs above that — because they do not have the instinctive empathy of understanding that lets them think like people who have average IQs.

    It’s futile to try to be normal. Of course, major depression is a serious issue, as well, and the psychologist is probably trying to figure out, “How can this kid better fit into the mainstream?”

    Speaking personally, I think every attempt that I made as a child to fit into the mainstream was soul-crushing. It was emotionally empty, it compromised who I really was, and ultimately it was nothing but mockable. What helped me was making social connections to children who were similar to me, and who shared my interests.

    Have you thought about hooking Connor up with the community of gifted children online? Looking at stuff like Davidson Young Scholars, or CTD (Northwestern University in Illinois) or CTY (Johns Hopkins)? Chat boards and IRC channels for gifted children? (CTD used to have a MOO, even.)

Got anything to say? Go ahead and leave a comment!