Learning the Controls: How Nintendo Helped Me Live with Asperger’s Syndrome -The Toast

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Childhood - King K. Rool Halloween CostumeEven within the company, the meaning of the name “Nintendo” isn’t totally clear. The most romantic translation, however, is an enigmatic maxim: “Leave luck to Heaven.” It might dull the magic to consider how this phrase would have pertained to Nintendo’s early history, as a manufacturer of Hanafuda cards for use in gambling parlors. But in my early life, this mantra carried a purer meaning, regarding the fortunes I was dealt – both good and bad – and how I might learn to bear them.

Nintendo was founded in 1889. I was born 100 years later. It didn’t take long for my parents to see how different I was from my older, neurotypical (non-autistic) brother. My senses were fragile, and easily overwhelmed. Loud environments like parties and restaurants compelled me to scream and hide, like a dog scared by fireworks on the Fourth of July. I began each day by sprinting from room to room, flipping on every light in the house to banish the oppressive dark. Worst of all, my nerves construed even the softest touch of another person as a brutal hammer strike. I lived with the certainty that I’d been dropped into a maze of spikes and lava from some gentler, faraway place, which would forever lie beyond my reach.

My parents were relieved to learn that these issues had a name: Asperger’s Syndrome. The condition was reclassified in 2013, and folded into the umbrella term of “autism spectrum disorder,” but I’ve continued to call it Asperger’s because I like that name, it belongs to me, and you’re not my dad, science. 

The diagnosis was a critical instrument for my family, but I still had a difficult road ahead. I outgrew my hypersensitivity, but as life became more complex, so did my obstacles. After learning to speak, I inexplicably went non-verbal for a few years, yammering at my family in a gibberish tongue which they found equal parts adorable and deeply unnerving. I recovered my voice in time for kindergarten, but this opened the Boss Door to my greatest lifelong challenge: social interaction.

It’s a common misconception that children with Asperger’s lack empathy. I absolutely could feel for others, but these feelings were confusing and inexpressible. Every day, from across the classroom, I saw my peers agreeing upon social cues and communal behaviors which remained alien to me. Whenever I reached out, it seemed I could only pester and push them away. They’d been given the instruction booklet, and I was just mashing the buttons.

Life among others, in those early years of school, was an invisible cage. The bars were shrinking and pressing into me, hurting me more than my hypersensitivity ever could. Few people could see my loneliness; they could only see the self-harm and violence which leaked out of it. I slammed my head in a desk, flung a pencil at a classmate, and screamed at a teacher. At five years old, my outbursts could only cause so much harm. But I wouldn’t be five forever, and these formative years were threatening a lifetime of isolation.

My parents were in a cage of their own — they diligently sought resources and advice to better understand their son, but my transgressions were outpacing their stalwart efforts. When they spent twenty dollars at a garage sale for a Nintendo Entertainment System, I doubt they saw it as a leap forward for my troubled development. But as I watched my brother playing Duck Hunt, and first bore witness to those angelic squares of light dancing across the screen, I entered a state of rapture.

My parents were astonished. They had never seen me sitting still before, not even for a bedtime story. Like Mario dashing past the Hammer Bros, they seized the opportunity: “Let’s let Cameron try.”

They set the 72 pins of the cartridge into place. I held that four-buttoned, black-and-red-and-white pad in my hands. It was cool to the touch. For the first time, something made sense.

NES Screenshots - Duck Hunt

It’s common for children with Asperger’s to latch onto a singular obsession, a field of fascination which suits them better than any other facet of this unruly world. This subject can be anything from trains, to molecular structures, to maps, to astronomy, and beyond. Nintendo was to be my central fasciniche, and more than that: it would be my lantern in the dark, offering me the means to comprehend my existence and the will to try. I had been a boy without a role, trapped in a world I couldn’t understand. But a game gives you a role. A game gives you a world you’re meant to understand. In a game, it’s impossible not to belong.

So I spent my blissful afternoons sailing freely over the bricks and pipes of the Mushroom Kingdom, deepening my understanding of consequence and spatial reasoning. I traversed the vast and mythical land of Hyrule, and learned to crave adventure and exploration. I delved into the caverns of Planet SR388, repelled the ghastly Metroids which sprang from the 8-bit shadows, and discovered the value of conquering my fears. Each session of Nintendo was an interdimensional voyage from which I would return with a greater sense of self-worth and enthusiasm for the real world that had no player’s guide.

I finally wanted to learn things. I learned to read, so I could understand the Super Mario Bros. instruction booklet. I started to draw, so I could create my own bosses. I trained myself to play piano by ear, so I could replicate Koji Kondo’s masterful Legend of Zelda score. I learned to write, so I could create works of fan fiction, like my 80-page Redwall rip-off populated by Zelda characters, The Goron Chronicles. (I don’t think this book exists anymore.) These hobbies converged to form my childhood dream: to make Nintendo games of my own. I would spend countless hours applying felt-tip markers to stapled stacks of paper, creating kaleidoscopic player’s guides for games like Donkey Kong Country 4 (introducing Stinky Kong!) and Luigi’s RPG (featuring a long-overdue origin story for Waluigi). This ambition fueled my optimism and imagination through the hardest of years, and gave me a sense of purpose on days when I felt like an outcast.

The fanciful heroes of Nintendo became my personal icons. I drew from the bravery, resilience, and moral fortitude of Mario and Link, and formed many of my earliest values from their timeless interactive fables. The example of Metroid’s valiant, spacefaring female superhero, Samus Aran, inspired my nascent loathing of sexism, which had to endure years of carelessly bigoted remarks (“Quit running like a girl!”) from adults who never had their own Samus Aran.

Kirby's Adventure - EndingBut among the demanding NES games which launched my self-actualization, there was only one I could complete: Kirby’s Adventure, the storybook tale of a pink ball with a face, blessed with the power to swallow his enemies whole and copy their abilities. Kirby was on a mission to overthrow a selfish penguin-lord, recover the Star Rod, conquer a nightmare, blow up the moon, and restore good dreams to the land. Kirby’s fanciful mythos might seem like an LSD-assisted fever dream to most, but to me, it made more sense than kindergarten.

Even then, I think I recognized myself in Kirby. He was a solitary, vulnerable anomaly, lacking the skills of everyone around him. His only hope of survival lay in mimicking others, finding himself through a marathon of deliberate performances. If I was to become half as socially adept as my neurotypical peers, I thought, I would have to follow Kirby’s example (minus the cannibalism). By consciously imitating others’ behaviors, I slowly learned to communicate with them. My toxic anger loosened its Wallmaster-like grip over me. Still, my singular obsession rendered me an outsider. Even in the ’90s, most people wanted to discuss a non-Nintendo topic on occasion, and I didn’t know how to do that.

My parents also navigated my fixation carefully, recognizing it as their best means of connecting with me. They listened (and, I’m sure, pretended to listen) to my endless lectures on the tragic futility of Super Metroid’s ending. My dad played Donkey Kong Country with me and my brother, and my mom sewed for me a perfect Halloween costume based on the game’s crocodilian villain, King K. Rool. They spoke with my teachers before each school year began; my most amenable educators would schedule five-minute periods during recess when I could talk their ears off about the latest games, with the caveat that I would switch to a new topic once the timer went off. My parents were also firm enough to revoke my Nintendo privileges whenever my priorities fell out of whack – though they always did so in thoughtfully non-judgmental language, placing any blame on Nintendo as a personified entity (“The Nintendo needs to take a time-out”). In these and countless other nuanced ways, my parents supported my passion while gently guiding me toward a wider set of interests. Only now do I understand the tightrope that they walked; as a kid, I lacked such self-awareness, and took for granted that Nintendo would always be the center of the universe.

I reached a turning point at twelve years old, on a long ride home from a high school football game. I had spent most of that country drive bombarding my family with a monologue on the apocalyptic themes of Majora’s Mask. During the oft-arduous process of changing the subject, my mom casually referred to Nintendo as my “obsession.” I asked what the word meant. She defined it for me. For the first time, my link to Nintendo sounded like something excessive, something that perhaps ought to be changed. Something that I wasn’t sure could be changed – but finally, I wanted to try.

So in high school, I made a serious effort to move beyond Nintendo, and to achieve a degree of social assimilation. I sought counsel from my older brother, who was happy to serve as a mentor and role model for how a “cool teen” might behave at a party, or on a date. With his help, I shook my reputation as an overbearing, Nintendo-worshipping pariah, and settled into a social niche as a lovable deadpan weirdo (which was acceptable among my peers at the time, if not quite ideal). As I branched out in my creative endeavors — playing Billy Joel songs, drawing celebrity likenesses, and writing poetry — my career aspirations shifted from game creation to screenwriting and film directing. My autism was playing a less intrusive role in my life than ever before, and I allowed Nintendo to drift out of the spotlight.

Yet where my most worrisome quirks had diminished, they left seeds of self-doubt. I was afraid to go to college. I waited an extra year to apply, gripped by a terror that my strangeness would resurface and render me unfit for academic life. But my fears were unfounded. At Michigan State, I found a community of people who actually welcomed and cherished eccentricity. I met friends beyond count, had my first romantic relationship, and began an independent film career alongside my brother, who had helped lead me to this fantastic place. My family and I had feared, for so long, that all these things were beyond my reach. Yet here they were, and even in the moment, I knew to be grateful.

The author and his brother in college Cameron [left] with his brother Brandon
Feeling free, I no longer felt a dramatic pull between my childhood fixation and the life of a well-adjusted adult. So I dusted off the old consoles, hung up a poster of Samus Aran, and threw a magnificent video game party with my roommates, serving drinks themed after every corner of the Nintendo multiverse. My brother and I decided that, one day, we would try to adapt The Legend of Zelda and Metroid to the silver screen, to honor those seminal works and all they had done for me. Nintendo, once again, had a seat at the table in my life.

I was tempted to view those wonderful college years as the uplifting, triumphant ending sequence to Asperger’s Quest 64. But autism is a part of who I am and always will be, and some of its challenges have a way of returning in new forms. The current, post-college period of my life – spent largely in that ghost-riddled castle called “the work force” – has been sporadically marred by depressive episodes, new social hurdles, anxiety, and the slow realization that my life with Asperger’s Syndrome will contain both hills and valleys. I’ve learned, however, to accept my autism – even if I can’t always love it in every single moment of my life. And I’m grateful in a way for the false ending of my college years, because they brought me a prize that I’d been seeking all my life – without knowing it – and which I doubt I’ll ever lose: the confidence to embrace my connection to Nintendo as a real and wonderful part of myself, even if it’s not as large a part as it used to be.

Halfway through college, I had the good fortune to spend a summer studying in Japan, where I decided to make a pilgrimage. While traveling through Kyoto, I printed out a walkthrough of sorts, and asked a couple of friends to accompany me. We rode the train to an unassuming neighborhood and followed the sketchy directions, trudging through a monsoon. Before us, in that epic downpour, stood the white walls of Nintendo’s headquarters.

There was no tour, no gift shop, and no special courtesy extended to the wandering fan; only a security guard in a booth, making an X with his arms and repeating “Ikanai” (“Can’t go”). I had expected nothing else. I had only come to see the place where a part of me was born.

As an Asperger’s child in search of an obsession, I guess I could’ve stumbled across anything. People can be strangely resistant to the fact that our art shapes our being, and video games remain one of our most undervalued art forms. Even now, it’s tempting to view my link to Nintendo as something arbitrary, something that could have been swapped out. With the devoted and accepting family I’d been born into, perhaps I would have turned out okay, whatever my fixation happened to be. Maybe I’d be more successful now if it had been molecular structures. But I’m glad it was Nintendo.

Cameron Laventure is an independent filmmaker with a Bachelor's degree in Film Studies from Michigan State University. He and his brother run a production company called Airship Cinema, and their latest film, the science fiction drama >1, is planned for release in early 2016. When Cameron isn't making films, he writes sentences for the Internet. Sometimes sentence fragments. Interjections!

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