A (Virtual) World of Our Own

When artistic apprentice Johnny Monday became assistant director for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, he didn’t realize that his love of video games would make him an expert in the rehearsal room! The logic and aesthetic of video games crops up repeatedly in Round House’s virtual, visually dynamic production, and became a lynchpin of the creative process. Here, Johnny explains the link between video games and the play’s themes of neurodiversity, and gives an inside look into Round House’s production of Curious Incident.
One of my first memories is of the Nintendo character Mario…and failure. It was 1999, and the first level music was blaring on the CRT television in 1999. I was four years old. I was sitting in a living room with my father who had just gotten home from work. He was holding a controller for the Nintendo 64. I was crying.

I didn’t get it. I had gotten past the Goombas, the water balls roaring through the sky, even the Chain-Chomp guarding the Star that I now desperately sought on the top of Bob-omb mountain. Yet I could not defeat the boss man shaped like a bomb, twice Mario’s size with a white mustache and a golden crown. “Can you help me? It won’t work!” I had yelled to my father as he entered the front door. “Show me how to do it!” My father dutifully took the controller. Like me, he struggled. He jumped, he kicked, his health got down to the last bar, but as soon as I thought that all hope was lost, he ran around, pressed B, picked up Bob-omb (quite a feat for the pint-sized Mario), and chucked him.
I gaped at my dad. I simply couldn’t believe it was possible.
Until he did it two more times and Big Bob-omb gave up.
“Methinks my troops could learn a lesson from you! Here is your Star, as I promised, Mario.”
Things would never be the same.
The video game industry is worth over a hundred billion dollars,[1] and the industry moves forward at a rapid pace. Video game properties are getting their cinematic live action debuts (see Sonic the Hedgehog, or Detective Pikachu), while he wild west of E-sports is getting broadcast deals[2], college scholarships[3], and multi-million dollar payouts.[4] The most famous video game streamer in the world, Ninja, garners hundreds of thousands of viewers and has signed an exclusive deal with Microsoft.[5]  The gaming world is getting more and more lucrative, for both the developer and the player.

I’m still waiting for my multimillion dollar sponsorship deal…but in the meantime, video games have turned into an all-encompassing hobby. I have since moved on from my humble days of struggling with Mario 64 (even though I still find time for Mario). I follow my favorite professional streamers on Twitch and Twitter, I practice my moves in fighting games, and even go to tournaments with other people just as obsessed as me. Video games have always been a space of release. I felt like a champion with my dad controlling the Italian Plumber on top of Bob-omb mountain. Every time I play, I am still chasing that feeling.
It is that feeling that I imagine most “gamers” experience when they discover something new in a game, or when they beat the level that’s defeated them over and over again. But there is a specific set of gamers that have a special place in the world of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
It has been said before and it should and will be said again and again, if you’ve met one person with Autism you have met one person with Autism. But, younger folx (particularly young men) with ASD have been found to enjoy gaming at higher rates than the general population.[6] Christopher Boone, protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, showcases some common characteristics of someone on the spectrum. Fascination with numbers and patterns, sensory processing issues, and difficulty with communication all point to Christopher’s unnamed diagnosis. With that comes a love of video games, a characteristic found both in the book from which the play is adapted, and in the script itself.
What is it about video games, especially modern video games, that resonates so much with those on the spectrum? And in a larger context, what is it about Christopher’s particularity in this production that speaks to the universality of human experience?
Many on the spectrum struggle in a world that was not created for them. From loud streets and crowded public transportatio, to ill-prepared schools and teachers, folx with ASD and sensory processing disorder are put into the blender of an ever-increasing unequal society. Dr. Dan Goodley, writer of an introductory book on Disability studies and professor and the University of Sheffield, writes on the contested term “Disabled”:
“Disability is a matter of public discourse and international disgrace, exemplified in the continued exclusion of impaired children from mainstream schools, the segregation of disabled adults from employment contexts, and the denial of access to basic human rights as a consequence of reducing welfare and essential services.” [7]
If gaming holds a special place in the neurodivergent and disabled community, it lies in its ability to provide power and control in world where the economy of power has been withheld. One parent of a child on the spectrum had this to say about the way video games helped change his and his son’s life:
“When you get this diagnosis, there are a lot of things you worry about: what will happen to their education; will they make friends; how independent will they be when they grow up? But a key element beneath all that is a basic human need: self-expression. Often Zac would try to tell us about things he liked, or stuff he had done at school, but his vocabulary would let him down, and he would get impatient. We tried to help, guessing what he wanted to tell us, but this frustrated him even more. It was heartbreaking. But, one day, when he was three or four, I was playing video games and I loaded up a PlayStation title called LittleBigPlanet; it’s a kind of platform leaping game, like Super Mario Bros, and the hero is this cute little doll called Sackboy. PlayStation 3 has motion detectors in its controller, so when you tilt it in your hands, Sackboy nods his head in time. I let Zac play and he was amazed and delighted; when Sackboy responded to his commands, he fell about laughing. It was an instant connection.”[8]
In Round House’s production of The Curious Incident, Christopher uses video games to explicate a traumatic familial triangle when he doesn’t have the words to describe his emotions. Through video projection and through the medium of gaming, Christopher finds a language he otherwise wouldn’t have. Video allow him to feel that he “can do anything,” and allow him to frame the world in a way that’s more accessible to his unique way of processing. Power and control are things that we all struggle to grasp—and in this way, Christopher harkens to our collective desires and journeys. In this production, we focused on video games as a source of power and control for Christopher as someone on the spectrum, but also as someone who uses his hobby to teach and guide his everyday life. Dr. Goodley continues in an article on Disability studies: 
“The politics of disability continue to reveal the very conditions of inequity that blight the human condition. This is not to say that disability embodies human failing. Rather, it is to acknowledge the precarious positions occupied by disabled people in societies blighted by disablism: the exclusion of a people with sensory, physical and cognitive impairments. But, of course, disability is so much more than this. Disability politics, arts, scholarship and culture offer new ways of conceiving and living life, existing with one another and recreating communities that include, augment and emphasise the qualities we all hold as human beings. Disability is both a signifier of inequity and the promise of something new and affirmative.”[9]
Just like me and the countless millions, Christopher finds joy and wonder in the infinite possibilities of video games. As I watch him, I am reminded of the wonder that video games brought me at a young age as well as the power that can be found in them. We at Round House delight in his unique way of seeing the world, and hope you can too.

[1] https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2018-12-18-global-games-market-value-rose-to-usd134-9bn-in-2018
[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/03/28/esports-continue-tv-push-with-espn-turner-sparking-enthusiasm-ire/
[3] https://www.gamedesigning.org/schools/varsity-esports/
[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/the-international-9-dota-2-tournament-prize-pool-schedule-teams-2019-8
[5] https://www.businessinsider.com/why-did-microsoft-pay-ninja-millions-2019-10
[6] http://www.centroangelitarieti.it/images/PDF/Videogames_use_in_boys_with_autisme_-2013-Dr._Mazurek.pdf
[7] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09687599.2019.1566889
[8] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/02/how-i-connected-with-my-autistic-son-through-video-games
[9] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09687599.2019.1566889
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