Love Thy Nerd
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Gaming, God, and Learning to Thrive with Autism

When I listen to nerd culture podcasts, a typical question that guests are asked is, “When did you discover that you were a nerd?” What’s fascinating for me is that my nerd story started out of necessity more than anything. My earliest memory of something I was nerdy about is from when I was around two-and-a-half or three years old, and it was the alphabet. I insisted on having as much information about the alphabet as possible all around my bedroom, and I did everything I could to learn more about it. So much so that I taught myself how to read (although what I thought was reading at the time really just amounted to decoding the letters and making the sounds without the full comprehension of what the words meant). When they tested my sight word vocabulary at the age of 4 ½, I could recognize over 250 words. My proctor actually ran out of the cards they had prepared for me.

What I didn’t fully grasp at the time was that my autism—and the many quirks that came with it—was not socially acceptable.

This was one of the many facets of what led to my diagnosis of high functioning autism (or PDD-NOS) when I was three years old. After receiving my diagnosis, my mom knew she needed to learn more about what this meant so that she would be able to help me better. Thus began a long journey of understanding how my brain obsesses over and processes information, and how I could harness that to my benefit. My brain would either go from tangent to tangent, or get so narrowly focused on one thing that it was hard for me to lose that focus. I also had a mess of sensory issues (which I still have to a somewhat lesser, but still impactful, extent). What I didn’t fully grasp at the time was that my autism—and the many quirks that came with it—was not socially acceptable.

Alone in my head

At first, I was placed in environments that would give me some fundamental skills to help me function in the world. I was put in special needs schools, where I fit in well because everyone had different levels of functioning. When it came time for me to transition to a public school, however, things were not as easy—especially with my peers. Academically, I was doing fine in school, but I was nervous about this new environment. I reacted to my discomfort with habits such as picking my nose and biting my nails. Because I was so different from my neurotypical peers, and because there really wasn’t as much education about autism back then, I was either ignored entirely or I was bullied and teased constantly. I had no idea how to engage with any of my peers and I appeared to be weak—this made me an easy target. I didn’t have anyone who was remotely interested in the new obsessions I had, such as the toys I played with or choir. My only reprieve was my home, where my mom did everything she could to help me. I grew to distrust everyone around me, and this continued throughout most of my public schooling. In many ways, I couldn’t really be myself around people at all. I was truly alone in my head even though I was surrounded by a sea of people.

I became determined to find people who I could associate with. At first, I was content with anyone. My low standards were extremely unhealthy and led me into some toxic situations.

Finding community through God

When I became an adult, I started to become a bit more desperate for some sort of peer connection. I became determined to find people who I could associate with. At first, I was content with anyone. My low standards were extremely unhealthy and led me into some toxic situations, which also prevented me from doing as well academically. My mom had become a Christian a few years before I became an adult (although she had brought me to Vacation Bible School as a child at the encouragement of some of her friends). When it came to my own relationship with God, I felt as though He was distant and didn’t really care. However, she introduced me to some of her Christian friends, and these friends treated me very differently than the people I had grown to distrust. Eventually I became a Christian myself as I grew to know more about God and how much He cares about me. He wanted me more than anyone else ever had. What also came with becoming a Christian was the church family that I was welcomed into. I actually started having meaningful friendships, which was completely new for me.

At my first Vacation Bible School (VBS)

Trusting others through games

One of the early ways that my mom had helped me become more comfortable with the people around me was using tabletop games. My mom always had cool new games that were not the typical ones like Monopoly or Sorry. The games she introduced me to came from this obscure (at the time) board game publisher by the name of Gamewright Games. I played Frog Juice, Slamwich, and Mummy Rummy, to name a few. Because of growing up with these games, I was open to the idea of new games that were not the mass market ones. So when a floormate of mine in college brought out Ticket to Ride, I was hooked. Much like how my faith began, I discovered there was a whole community behind modern board gaming and a whole bunch of games that I could discover. The ground rules of engaging that board games provided me with made it so much easier for me to be comfortable around people who, ordinarily, I would not trust at all.

Ticket to Ride, published by Days of Wonder

Open doors

Both of these communities and the intersections between them (I’m looking at you, Christian nerds) have helped me to develop into who I am today. Previously, I had no concept of being outside of my own world, the one that I created to protect myself from the scary outside world. Since then, these two obsessions—Jesus, how much He has changed me, and how much He loves us all; and board games, with all of their mechanisms and possibilities—have given me the tools I needed to succeed in life. I’ve turned my obsessions into an enthusiasm that has been infectious to those around me. I love and care for so many people now, whereas before I didn’t know how I was ever going to love anyone outside of my close family.

I love and care for so many people now, whereas before I didn’t know how I was ever going to love anyone outside of my close family.

Now, I contribute to my community by hosting board game nights at my local gaming space. I volunteer with board game publishers at conventions just so that I can help use that enthusiasm to promote great games, as well as the people who make them happen. I contribute to my church fellowship by hosting game days at my church, and I tell them about the nerds like myself who need to know that Jesus loves them. I even got the job I have now (running escape rooms) because of what I have done with tabletop games. These communities have opened doors for me that I could never have imagined.

Jeff Jackson Jr. is your resident chaotic good College of the Opera bard-barian. He is actively involved with Innroads Ministries, a ministry geared specifically to tabletop and RPG nerds, and is a moderator for their Facebook group, the Tavern. Currently, he works as a gamemaster for an escape room facility. If he’s tabletop gaming, he’s either playing a mid-weight Eurogame, or he’s playing a game that is easy to teach and hard—but enjoyable—to master.

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