Martine Mussies

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—Autoethnography may be regarded as writing of and about the self as embedded in culture; however, neurotypical status affects autoethnographic perception, and such so-called autiethnographies can cross the boundaries of humanism by providing examples of metahumanist subjectivity. As an autistic gamer, I engage with games in a different way, showcasing how (dis)abled gaming, neurotypicality, fannishness, and sociopolitical responses are never independent from one another. Autiethnographies blur the limitations of science and creative writing, and may be expressed through other forms of communication, such as a performance, a podcast, or a work of visual art.

[0.2] Keywords—Autism; Autoethnography; Disability; Ethnography; Fan art; Gaming; Intersectionality; Ministeck Stalin

Mussies, Martine. 2020. "Autiethnography." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction

[1.1] This article is about the methodology I use in both my doctoral work and the book I am working on now, a close reading of the genealogy of a cultural icon speaking to the imagination and consciousness through the lens of what I call my "autiethnography"—a writing of and about the autistic self. Neurotypical status (note 1) is quite an important aspect of intersectionality, given how it affects autoethnographic perception. Autiethnographies can thus not only tell stories about autism as a special way of being-in-the-world, but also cross the boundaries of humanism by giving examples of metahumanist subjectivity (note 2). Another reason why I think it is important for me to express my personal experiences is, to paraphrase Gloria Wekker (in her 2006 portrait of Misi Juliette Cummings), that while my narrative is a uniquely individual story, it is as much a collective story, a story of a female gamer and acafan (note 3) with Asperger syndrome. By zooming in and out in the writing of an autiethnography, issues of intersectionality versus simultaneity (its opposite) can be addressed as well (note 4).

[1.2] This article will open with an exploration of the concept of storytelling and an overview of the literature on autoethnographic research and its particular usefulness and implementation for gamers with disabilities. After that I will introduce my idea of the autiethnography and give some personal examples of it. I will conclude with a case study as an example of a nonwritten autiethnography, the Ministeck Stalin I use to critique the many problematic aspects of turn-based strategy video games.

2. Autoethnography

[2.1] There is a clear gap in the autoethnographic research on autistic gaming experiences, as well as in the autoethnographic research on turn-based strategy games. Therefore, through the lens of autiethnography, I am working on a book (working title: #KingAlfred) that explores the genealogy of a cultural item: how images travel within structures that never die, following the (semiotic) traces of where the figure has been and what its function was, how it was used to construct meanings, and so on. Because there is no scholarly writing about the depiction of Alfred the Great in video games, I hope that I can make a contribution toward an understanding of historical reimagining and identity-building methods in games that will be beneficial in the context of imaginary creature studies, where virtual manifestations of historical figures remain underexplored as well (note 5).

[2.2] As a method of examining how gamers might perceive this representation, I have chosen to write an autiethnography, an autistic autoethnography. The combination of autobiography and ethnography can be regarded as writing of and about the self, embedded in culture. The way I use it is very similar to the practice of autoethnography as mobilized by Magdalena Górska (2016): "[it] is not mobilized here in the form of a method that produces a 'research object.' It, rather, provides a specific corpo-affective attention and sensitivity through which I ask questions, intervene, and analyze" (197). Storytelling might be a rather new method of performing scholarly research, but it is in its essence something very natural to do. When an event seems incomprehensible, people will try to make a story of it so that the misunderstood becomes recognizable (Olthof and Vermetten 1994, 104). The construction of stories is therefore a very common form of interpretation, as by organizing observations and by creating cohesion within a story, people make sense of the world around them (Crossley 2000, 10).

[2.3] The need for explanatory stories seems even stronger when events force an entirely new storyline (Baart 2002, 40). In order to get a crisis under control, the construction of stories is inevitable: we describe what happens to be able to understand it (Olthof and Vermetten 1994, 103). In this way, storytelling seems to be an inescapable reaction to adversity. As the story changes continuously, it greatly affects the narrator and the narrator's vision of the past, the present, and the future (Frank 1995, 55). This form of scholarly writing is very much connected to what Donna Haraway (1988) has called "situated knowledges"—knowledge that is located, embodied, and marked by subjective experiences.

[2.4] The application of autoethnography to gaming has generated a lot of interest, in consideration of the versatility and practicality that autoethnography brings to the scene. Put succinctly, autoethnography allows for gaming to be more relatable and realistic to the player because it mirrors personal aspects that the gamers can relate to, by examining the gaming experience through the lens of the player's reactions (e.g., Miller 2008; Borchard 2015; Cuttell 2015). There already has been a great deal of scholarly research conducted using the theory of autoethnography in gaming to explore a gamer's subjective reactions (e.g., Miller 2008; Borchard 2015; Cuttell 2015). Many researchers have focused on using autoethnography to outline how the gaming culture discriminates against disabled persons, thereby rendering gaming a problematic or impossible activity for many disabled persons (Romano 2014). Others have explored autoethnographic studies on the impact of gaming in dealing with (so-called) psychological disorders and trauma. Predominantly, autoethnographic research in gaming has been used to gain a better understanding of sports fans to tailor the games to be more suitable for the sports fandom. Additionally, autoethnographic research on sports fandom has been used in dealing with the obsessive passions often found among sports fans (Parry 2012).

[2.5] Despite the existent corpus on autoethnography in gaming, there is a dearth of information concerning the suitability of the practice with the solitary gamer (Shaw 2012). Additionally, most autoethnographic research in gaming has focused on role-playing games because these game worlds seem like they were made for playing the anthropologist; as Jakub Majewski (2018) said about Skyrim, "the player learns about society and culture as an engaged insider who must personally talk to others and learn ways of doing in the right contexts and locations" (150). There is a clear gap in autoethnographic research about turn-based strategy games, which is odd, considering the popularity of this genre. Most autoethnographies on gaming also do not consider the extraludic narratives (Anderson 2018), the game narratives that are communicated outside of the game, which for me as a gamer form an inseparable part of my experience.

[2.6] On the whole, the subject of autoethnography in gaming has been explored to some extent, but there is ample room for additional work, especially when it comes to autoethnographies written by someone from a minority group—which I am, as an autistic gamer. Moreover, I find it strange that little attention is given to the challenges that are faced by researchers who use nontraditional methodologies such as autoethnography; it is a common occurrence that much of these researchers' work is not well received on social media (Campbell 2017).

3. Autiethnography

[3.1] The label "autism" refers to a range of complex neurological aspects that lead to the autistic brain being wired differently. But just like the label on a jam pot might list the ingredients but reveal little about the taste or one's experience in eating the jam, the label that a person likes to identify him/herself with tells little about the lived experiences. What does being autistic mean for an autistic person? I plead for a type of fan studies research from the angle that everyone has different perceptions in mind and that the human memory is more reconstructive than reproductive in nature. That means that nobody can accurately interpret our actions and feelings without us expressing them ourselves.

[3.2] In first-person writing, the narrator is not the author but rather a (re)construction, a virtual persona that allows for space to think and interpret. As Teunie van der Palen (2014) explained, "autism offers a position from which to regard this zeitgeist which it is said to characterise" (3). Autism will help us to practice humanism, as most of the existing literature about the realities of autism is codified as uncontroversial, commoditized, and uncritical (Said 2004, 22, 28). As a method to offer an impression of these lived experiences, a significant part of my scholarly work consists of creating what I call an autiethnographies: forms of autoethnography by someone who identifies as being on the autistic spectrum.

[3.3] In my case, autiethnography is based on three pillars. First and foremost is my experiential expertise as an autistic person as well as the reflection on it from various angles (mostly psychological theories). Second is the scholarly discourse—academic research on autism (within game) studies, musicology, sociology, gender studies, disability studies, and so forth. Third is my perspective from counseling children with autism. (I also graduated in applied child psychology, with a focus on the effect of music on children with autism.) To theoretically frame my views and experiences, I like to build on a lot of different theories from various disciplines. It is as though I am walking through a secondhand shop and taking everything that looks interesting. It does not matter what it was designed for earlier so long as I can adjust it to help me. Also, I do not want to limit myself by only shopping in preselected departments.

[3.4] My approach is similar to what Jack Halberstam (writing as Judith, in 2011) has called "low theory" (a term adapted from Stuart Hall's work) as a model of thinking that "revels in the detours, twists and turns through knowing and confusion" to employ new dimensions of "the unplanned, the unexpected, the improvised, and the surprising" (15) with the aim to "push through the divisions between life and art, practice and theory, thinking and doing, and into a more chaotic realm of knowing and unknowing" (2). It is important that autiethnographies are being written as a commentary on the norms and beliefs about autism based on writings by nonautistic people about people living with autistic conditions. A personal and true experience can only be illuminated by self-writing (Kronstein 2017). Through autiethnography, others can truly understand the identity of an autistic person subjectively.

[3.5] As an autistic gamer, I engage with games in a different way. For example, I am much more focused on the details, and I have difficulty keeping track of the whole game play. For this reason, I altered the game Fallout: New Vegas (Bethesda Softworks, 2010) in such a way that the nonplayer characters (NPCs) who want to shoot at me immediately drop dead—this gives me time to examine all the little, beautiful graphic details to my heart's content. Another aspect of my gameplay is that I quickly become attached to my virtual characters; this is why I hacked Nadia (my character from Fallout) into Wasteland 2 (Deep Silver, 2014) as well. This was a trick I had done many times before as a kid in creating my own games; for example, on my Dad's 386 DOS PC, I made Roger Wilco from Sierra On-Line's Space Quest series into an NPC in an altered King's Quest series (Sierra Entertainment, 1980–), with some platform levels featuring both Commander Keen (from the id Software games) and Yoshi (from Nintendo's Super Mario games). Also, because I am very sensitive to sound and music, I often hear what Gorbman (1987) has called "unheard melodies"—the background or wallpaper music in games—and I love to play them on my piano, cello, and flutes. These personal examples showcase how gaming, neurotypicality, fannishness, and sociopolitical responses are never independent from one another. They show that autiethnographies are not always expressed through writing alone, which is also the case with Ministeck Stalin, my case study.

4. Case study: Ministeck Stalin

[4.1] Another character that I met on the 386 PC was Stalin, one of the playable leaders in Sid Meier's Civilization (MicroProse, 1991). Twenty years later, I wanted to personally respond to seeing a genocidal leader as a character in a game. Therefore, I ran a slightly altered version of the DOSBox emulation software on my Linux system, which allowed me to run this old video game and make a screenshot that could be rastered in GIMP image editing software. Armed with this rendering of the image I had remembered, I started to re-create it in Ministeck, which is a LEGO-like toy system for making mosaic pictures (with different colored pieces that have pins on their back, with which they are attached to appropriately perforated plastic plates).

[4.2] "But why?" you might ask (and indeed this often has been asked). First of all, I really like working with Ministeck—the focus on detail and need for repetitive movements really fit my autism. And the esthetics of the finished products are very similar to the pixelated art of my favorite retro games. But more importantly, I wanted to make an intervention by "changing the stories," as Haraway has put it. My Ministeck Stalin is a kind of anti-fan art that comments on the representation of Joseph Dzhugashvili in the game Civilization. It is not a parody—it is an observation about how we deal with that piece of history.

[4.3] As a child, I encountered Stalin in my game as "leader of the Russians"; as an adult, I see young people on the train wearing the hammer and sickle symbol. Similarly, if I were to see Hitler in a child's play then find myself on the train with passengers sporting swastikas, that would provoke great moral indignation. Stalin is one of the worst war criminals of recent history—the number of people who underwent an unnatural death during his reign is estimated at twenty million, plus another such number to comprise the Russian soldiers and civilians killed by the Germans in World War II. But in Civ, Stalin is depicted like a clownesque cartoon character.

[4.4] My Civ-Stalin is exemplary and symbolic for the many problems in representations through computer games. Many turn-based single or multiplayer strategy games have colonizing, if not fascist tendencies. They encourage colonial strategies (one game is even called Colonization) and are rather US-centric—for example, in their distribution of the world's "wonders." This is a very topical problem and has been noted by other game scholars as well. For example, Dom Ford (2016) demonstrated in his essay in Game Studies that Civilization V is also a very problematic game in terms of (post-)colonial thinking. And Alexander Galloway's Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006) critiques the whole Civilization series for "its nationalism and imperialism, its expansionist logic, as well as its implicit racism and classism." Representation is often problematic in cases of historical figures such as Stalin, as well as in the images provided for minority groups.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Autoethnography is a particular form of storytelling, a combination of autobiography and ethnography, that can be regarded as writing of and about the self, embedded in culture. In terms of intersectionality, neurotypical status affects autoethnographic perception. Because autism is a bodily experience, autiethnographies can cross the boundaries of humanism by providing examples of metahumanist subjectivity.

[5.2] As an autistic gamer, I engage with games in a different way, which can enrich our understanding of the perception of a particular game. I might notice unheard melodies and visual details that neurotypical gamers overlook. My personal examples showcase how gaming, neurotypicality, fannishness, and sociopolitical responses are never independent from one another for me. Moreover, my case study shows that this approach is not limited to writing.

[5.3] Autiethnographies are already blurring the limitations of science and creative writing, but their border-crossing does not have to stop there. One's lived experience can also be empathized with when it is not written down but expressed through other forms of communication—like a performance, a podcast, or a work of visual art. It is my hope that this technique can contribute toward broader understandings of people on the autism spectrum as well as of perceived experiences of playing a game.

6. Acknowledgments

I would like to express my special thanks of gratitude to Kristina Busse, Amy Finn, and Lori Morimoto, who gave me the golden opportunity to elaborate on this topic while providing me with thought-provoking feedback.

7. Notes

1. With "neurotypical," I refer to the term used by the autism community to describe what society refers to as "normal," aka not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior.

2. In the definition of Jaime del Val and Stefan Lorenz Sorgner (2010), metahumanism is "a critique of some of humanism's foundational premises such as the free will, autonomy and superiority of anthropoi due to their rationality" (¶ 1).

3. An acafan (also aca-fan and Aca/Fan) is an academic who identifies as a fan and vice versa, or in the words of Henry Jenkins, "a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic."

4. With "intersectionality," I refer to both the sociological term in general and to the specific intersection of the neurodivergence and autoethnographies, in which autiethnographies can represent this intersection.

5. My PhD thesis does something similar. It is on how fan art about the cyborg mermaid can empower misfits, in my case the autistic misfit. All case studies were found in the realm of "cyber fandom."

8. References

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