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Games are good for brains of all shapes and sizes

Gamification and productivity methods derived from games and play are beneficial tools for neurodiverse brains and people with ADHD.

For this post, I’m diving into the world of the weird and wonderful brain. I have come to learn about something called the neurodiverse brain. I think I may have one of those. But here’s looking at you, because YOU might have one too. And as it turns out, both our brains will experience massive benefits from playing games.

Let’s start with the neurotypical brain. Science has it that being neurologically typical indicates a brain developing within the ‘average’ range for human neurology.

Does ‘average’ and ‘typical’ make anyone else’s skin crawl? I for one am far more interested in the neurodivergent or neurodiverse brains out there. Neurodiverse was coined in the 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, on the autism spectrum herself, to describe conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. It helps us think through these neurological conditions from a more positive perspective.

Neurodiverse ADHD

It is ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, that caught my attention in particular. I found some great resources online, including this this wonderful little video, discussing what ADHD is and how it affects people’s lives.

Inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity are classic hallmarks of ADHD, but only when they significantly affect someone’s life. Losing your keys once is normal but watching three videos AND knitting a neon pink sweater AND reading this article all at the same time might point to a bigger issue.

ADHD is sometimes treated with medicine. But there is another way of making this neurodiverse type of brain find the structure and rhythm it needs to be happy and content.

The tool? My favorite thing in the world: Play. Specifically: Gamification.

Gamification and Task Management

Gamification is the application of game design elements and game concepts to non-game situations. For example, take someone who routinely gets overwhelmed with all the tasks that need to be done. Piles and piles of tasks, plans, projects, calls to schedule, dinners to make, bathrooms to clean, dogs to walk, sweaters to knit, YouTube videos to watch. Experts on ADHD will tell you that this feeling of being overwhelmed by a mountain of tasks has to do with the poor working memory of this neurodiverse type of brain.

Cue Habitica. Habitica is an online role-playing game style planner that helps people keep track of their good and bad habits, daily to-do lists and long-term goals. But this is no ordinary planner. Users win Health Points every time they indulge a good habit, they earn Gold for finishing tasks which they can then spend on swords, upgrades, and mod-packs in the Market, and they can collaborate with other users to set up Teams and get stronger together. Just like an RPG video game. And it turns out it works like magic for those with ADHD, because it helps them plan effectively and break that mountain of tasks into small molehills.

Why does this work so well for a brain with ADHD? The novelty aspects of games such as quests, rewards, and unlocking new achievements releases dopamine into the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s primary reward center. People with ADHD don’t have as much intrinsic motivation as others to keep focused and apply themselves to each and every task in equal measure, but they do respond well to external reinforcement or rewards.

So if someone tells a neurodiverse brainiac to finish a task or organize their week just because ‘they should’ or simply because that is what the boss at work expects of them, it may be hard for them to find the focus. But if they stand to win health points AND be able to afford that cool mod AND boost their friend’s immunity by finishing this piece of work – well, count them in.

Digital vs. Analogue

ADHD also creates what some call ‘time blindness’. Or, medically speaking, brains with ADHD are deficient in temporal processing abilities, which means they perceive time inaccurately, which in turns impairs executive functioning.

In the ADHD brain, time awareness often swings between ‘now’ and ‘not now’. The perceived time it will take to complete tasks that are in the future, in the ‘not now’, is often inaccurate. This means people with ADHD often schedule in more tasks than can possibly be finished in a day, because they don’t know how long these tasks actually take. It also means focus is impaired in the ‘now’ and there is no corresponding sense of urgency.

Anyone remember the glory days of Super Mario World? Or participated in a more modern corona-proof game like Contamination for example? RPG games, online games, board games: they very often work with a countdown timer that is visually present. This creates a sense of urgency in the players and means they are completely focused on the game in front of them.

This gamification technique of countdown timers works wonders for people with ADHD. Being able to visualize time counting down creates the sense of urgency that means they focus on what needs to be done in that moment.

Visual timers come in all shapes and sizes, chief amongst them being Time Timer which uses a diminishing red disk to show the actual passage of time in a physical sense. In combination with realistic planning and getting a sense of how long tasks will take in the not-now, this gamification technique helps neurodiverse brains get on top of temporal processing. And working with Time Timer myself has solidified for me that in the battle between

Analogue vs Digital, analogue takes the win!

Play is good for us

Getting overwhelmed by tasks and struggling with timekeeping may sound familiar to you, or they may not. But there is a lesson to be learned here. Whatever shape, size or chemical make-up your brain happens to have, gamification may be the way forward to designing better working habits for individuals, teams, and companies.

So, whether you are neurotypical or identify as neurodiverse, in the end we can all benefit from playing around and finding what works for us.

And now: go and Play. It’s good for your brain.

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