“I just want to play and build games all day!”

My son, Frederic, is in 5th grade. He’s struggling in school, as he always has been. He has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, but I attribute every one of his struggles to my utter ineptitude at parenting. After wallowing for a decade in the bowels of religious instruction on how to be a godly dad, which led to complacency in shittiness, being I had the rule book at my fingertips whenever I needed to crack open the Holy Bible, I finally decided to step outside of myself and learn a few things from good people, lacking dogma.

Yesterday, Juaca Baby (Fred) brought home a grammar test for his parents to sign. We were expected to sign the thing because he got 32 out of 32 wrong. It quickly became obvious that he randomly selected the multiple choice answers. After all, a line of symmetry is most definitely not a three-sided shape.

I soon found out that this was actually the sixth time he had taken this exact same test. The students were expected to get 100% before they could stop taking it. It was direct preparation for what would be in the state-mandated testing material.

Needless to say, I was beyond frustrated. Worse, Fred didn’t want to talk about it, no matter how excitable my pleadings to the value of education were.

Enter my bride.

She got The Boy to talk and soon discovered that he was indifferent, nay, antagonistic toward his education.

“Fred, do you feel math will help you get a job?”




“Reading and writing?”


“What do you want to do for a career when you grow up?”

“I just want to play and build games all day!”

Then, my wife went into how getting a good job, these days, especially in the field of computer science, nearly always requires a Bachelor’s degree, which includes science, mathematics, and plenty of reading and writing, even if the job duties don’t require a substantial knowledge in some of those disciplines.

She did well, yet, in my estimation, Frederic shrugged off the logic.

Anyone else have a better suggestion on how to excite him? Quite frankly, his teacher sucks this year, seemingly hell bent on humiliation and intimidation – two things Fred does not respond to well.


  1. katybe says

    First off, welcome.

    And, not a parent, so take this with a gigantic pinch of salt, etc, but I’ve seen Rhianna Pratchett (yes, Terry’s daughter) has done quite a bit of campaigning about how story is important in games – here’s an article that she’s just retweeted a link to today – http://www.polygon.com/2016/2/18/11056818/rhianna-pratchett-calls-for-more-focus-on-game-stories – which might be a way to get him to see why some of the skills he’s supposed to learn at school are going to be useful. Maybe look at some of the games he most enjoys and point out how some understanding of academic subjects has made it better to play (using angles to hit a target, breeding generations of some creature, designing a landscape that works as another world, etc) so he can see that there’s a direct correlation between soaking up information now and having more fun designing games that will be enjoyable to play later.

  2. besomyka says

    Hi Joe! I’m a lead software engineer in the video game industry. I do, in fact, make and play games all day (make by day, play by night!).

    Math, particularly algebra, linear algebra, and calculus are a critical part of the job. I have two questions I ask applicants that want to be what we call Gameplay Engineers. that is the engineers that build the systems that make the game itslef as opposed to the systems that interact directly with hardware (like sound, graphics, networking, etc). It’s what most people think of as ‘making a game’.

    1) Lets say that you are making a 17th century naval/pirate simulator and the ship has a row of cannons on either side of the ship. The game design says that the space bar fires the cannons, but they only want the cannons on the side of the ship facing an opposing ship to fire. We don’t want to waste ammunition! Given that each game object has a position and orientation, how would you determine which row of cannons to fire?

    2) Same game, but now the game designers want to implement an armor system, and ammunition that can penetrate that armor. Yay, ironclads! The game abstracts this out by saying that if the impact of a projectile is shallow enough along the armor, that it will result in a ricochet rather than a hit. Given the surface normal of the impact point, and the velocity of the projectile, how would you determine if this shot is a hit or a ricochet?

    Nearly all games require math beyond simple addition and multiplication. How would you make the flight of a cannonball arch? How would you make the boats move correctly though the digital water? How would you make an AI that can control the boat in a realistic way?

    Math, English, Writing, Computational Science, and detailed knowledge about how computers work (cache systems, pipelines, etc) is all critical to the job. It’s not just a prerequisite that you’ll never really use.

    There are many tools out there now that make it easier and quicker, but they still haven’t made that sort of knowledge obsolete.

    And, of course, making games IS pretty fun. It can be hard and frustrating too, but making something you’re proud of and that makes other people happy is quite rewarding.

    Good luck!

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Get him a simple games-design platform like Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/)
    (Optional: show it to him, then withhold it as a reward for once he’s passed the test. Bribery works.)

    Once he starts designing his own games, he should start seeing pretty quickly how this stuff is going to be relevant.

  4. says

    This may not be helpful, and I apologize if not, but my son much prefers the “doing” aspect of learning than the “sitting around in school”. So, last summer I took him on a dino-dig. He now is determined to be a paleontologist and is better focusing his grades towards that end.

    Perhaps, just perhaps, if possible a field trip somewhere where he can see his goals in action and speak to the actual people that do the magic…

  5. says

    Joe, I would say get him a proper autism diagnosis if in fact he is autistic, and it’s really worth checking into as that can open up new vistas in regards to special education and IEP’s etc. I have three autistic sons.

  6. lanir says

    Going off of memories of being a kid (which was awhile ago) as I don’t have little ones to care for. It sounds like his school really isn’t a good environment, which is something I can empathize with. I had similar issues. One of the things that helped me deal with it a lot was having a space to run off to and something interesting to do there. For me it happened to be pencil and paper roleplaying games and reading novels. I was interested in the games and read up on how they worked until I’d taught myself to play. A lot of the math in these games is simple but it’s constant. To figure out what happened you roll dice but it’s rarely about just what’s on the dice. You usually have to either add up several dice or add a value to it reflecting some skill of the character. And what you’re really doing the whole time can be explained as algebra. It’s just a formula you’re plugging numbers in from the dice and the character sheet.

    While that worked for me, it might not suit your Frederic. There are board games that can be useful in the same way and perhaps a bit easier to involve the rest of the family in if you think that could work. As long as he finds it interesting it’ll be rewarding and as others have noted you can emphasize the more scholastic aspects afterward.

  7. says

    Being Asperger myself, perhaps I can offer some general insights? Firstly, I imagine you’ve realised this yourself, but 0% on a multiple choice is not random. That’s deliberate, and honestly I think you’d have to know most if not all of the answers in order to be that consistent. My guess is that one or two of the questions just don’t make sense to someone with an atypical neurology, and after being told over and over that he’s wrong, without anyone being able to explain why, he’s rebelling in the only way he can, by deliberately failing.

    With regard specifically to the one test, I’d suggest going through each question until you find the one that he doesn’t understand. Perhaps ask him what the questions mean, rather than whether he knows the answer. I personally find any and all forms I have to fill out for any reason essentially impossible to complete, because the questions rarely make sense to me. I need help to do that sort of thing.

    There may be other factors which complicate his feelings toward school. I personally did well in school until I was around 13, at which point the social demands of the school environment became too much. I was overwhelmed and my grades suffered. Fred’s experience may differ, since our disabilities are not identical, but if he’s a smart child the problem is probably not the school work, but the school.

    I doubt the appeal to employment will gain much traction, but I’ve been mostly unemployed my entire life, so my perspective there may be an unhelpful one. For what it’s worth, I don’t really understand the notion of ‘getting a job’. What people do with their lives and what they get paid for are so radically disconnected that the entire system seems fundamentally irrational. So I dismiss it. That may just be me though, ymmv.

    I will say that in my experience it’s difficult for people with autistic spectrum disorders to live in the world, much less stick to a career path. You’re more likely to help if you focus on the things he is interested in, and work from there. Games are mostly about patterns and mathematics, both of which can be fascinating if you are not learning by rote in a classroom.

    Finally, as far as general advice for dealing with ASD people, give up on ever really understanding how we think. Consider how easily people you know can surprise you, even when their brains work essentially the same way. Then realise that an autistic brain in some ways works very differently. The way we understand the world may not be the same, and you’ll never know where the two diverge. So making any assumptions about how your son thinks will always be a minefield. It’s much better to ask, even about obvious things. The more you talk about how he’s seeing the world, the more you’ll learn. I’m 34 years old, and my mother is a kind, understanding woman with a professional background in special needs education, and more often than not she still has no idea why I do the things I do.

    Good luck, I hope any of this helps.

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