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Well-known druid blogger Lissanna lowers the boom(kin) on autism research

It's only been a couple of weeks since we reported on the crowdsourcing effort to fund the autism research of well-known Restokin blogger and Blizzard MVP poster Lissanna, aka Dr. Elisabeth Whyte of the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience at Penn State. So far, supporters have boosted Dr. Whyte to just over a quarter of her funding goal for the project, which focuses on how children and adolescents with autism understand language and process information from faces (such as recognizing people or understanding emotional expressions). Her goal: designing a video game to help kids with autism improve these skills.

How does an MMO-playing grad student transform from anonymous gamer to well-known WoW blogger, Blizzard forum MVP, and Ph.D.-level researcher bringing gamification to the treatment of autism? If you follow the example of this lady: with ease.

WoW Insider: One-fourth of your funding already under your belt -- congratulations! Our readers already know that WoW can be beneficial to kids with autism, so it's exciting to hear about a gamification project designed to help kids with autism.

Lissanna: Many kids and adults with autism seem to enjoy playing video games. We have some evidence that using fun activities can motivate learning. Our goal is to develop and test the efficacy of an educational game that impacts face processing abilities and social skills. With much of the research focused on important early intervention work, there is a huge gap in the services that individuals with autism can receive when they are older. We think that a sophisticated game can fill the need for social skills services targeting older individuals to help with tasks like preparing them for jobs or developing friendships with their peers.

Wellknown druid blogger Lissanna lowers the boomkin on autism researchMain characters Lissanda, level 90 mage; Lissanna, level 85 druid
Guild Undying Resolution
Realm Elune (US)

WoW Insider: So how did playing WoW lead you to research gamification with children with autism? Are you finding any aspects of your WoW experience particularly provocative or useful in your research?

Lissanna: This is a fairly recent development for me. I graduated with my Ph.D. this summer (2012) and started a new job. Working with two new faculty members has opened up new opportunities for me. Dr. Scherf is a researcher who studies face processing abilities including the design of an intervention for adolescents with autism. Dr. Smyth is a researcher who has done previous research on video games. This new direction has the perfect overlap between the three of our interests.

I really believe that to make an educational video game, you need to understand how video games work. What makes them fun? What can you do in the game that could still be fun and be tied to educational objectives? The skills I've developed through playing WoW and writing about the game in my blog has given me tools that I'm using in thinking more creatively about how interventions can be designed.

After we posted a note about your crowdfunding effort, one reader wrote in to claim that autism research -- including your project -- focuses not on the needs and desires of people with autism but on what parents and doctors would like for them, implying that autistic people are somehow less competent or valuable than others. Have you encountered that viewpoint before?

Parents and educators want what is best for any person. Scientists ask kids, teenagers, and adults with autism and Asperger's syndrome about their experiences quite often. The research indicates that the majority of adolescents with autism want to have friends. However, the adolescents don't always possess the skills that would allow them to be successful, even after years and years of therapy. Individuals with autism are more likely to be bullied by their peers and are less likely to go to college or have jobs.

Adolescents and adults with autism often report that they are lonely. Any intervention program is designed around what we think will give individuals with autism to have the best chance of success and happiness in life. No video game or intervention will ever change someone's personality or who that person is. An educational game can only (at best) give an individual tools that allows the individual to be able to better make choices about their own lives.
Wellknown druid blogger Lissanna lowers the boomkin on autism research

A major problem with most interventions is that they are boring. In this way, I don't blame teenagers and adults with autism for being frustrated with the options available to them today. It's not fun to take your medicine. It's not fun having to do your homework before you get to play your video game. However, if your homework was to play a video game ... if your medicine was a video game, you may enjoy learning new skills a whole lot more.

In this way, the game we want to build is based on listening to what teenagers with autism and their parents want. The teens want to play video games and the parents want them to learn things. So, if we can make a video game where the individuals with autism have fun while learning, then everyone wins.

You "came out" to the WoW community with your real-life identity last month. Was your former anonymity more to protect your real-life contacts from knowing how deeply you've embedded in WoW and gaming, or did you feel hesitant about identifying yourself to the online community?

It was about both. Using a persona in my blogging and writing about WoW and downplaying my gaming accomplishments to my academia colleagues was really about keeping the two worlds separated. For six of the eight years since World of Warcraft's release, I was a graduate student. I was concerned that playing WoW would make me look less serious about my studies. In addition, as a female gamer in my young 20s at the time the game was released, it always seemed easier to just keep gaming and research separated.

What has the reaction been like, from both sides of the online/offline divide?

Over the last few years, I have become a little more comfortable in my own skin, so to speak. Joining the MVP program meant that all the other MVPs saw my real-life name, and I've been more comfortable about adding WoW friends to my real-life Facebook.

The reaction to my blog posting about who I am in real life has been overwhelmingly positive. I knew that I couldn't do the crowdfunding campaign without the support of the gaming community. Introducing myself as a researcher to the WoW community is my best attempt at showing the positive side of what gamers can do for the world. So, I knew that the crowdfunding campaign gave me a good reason to blur the line between my video game persona and who I am as a researcher. I have received many messages and emails from people with autism who are gamers and from parents of kids with autism who enjoy playing video games. So, I believe that the timing was right for me.

Wellknown druid blogger Lissanna lowers the boomkin on autism research
When did it first hit you that "Lissanna" was a well-known person within the WoW community?

The first time I attended BlizzCon, I introduced myself as Lissanna during one of the class Q&As. Later that day, I had two different @Lissanna posts pop up on the forums and actually got recognized by Blizzard employees at the convention. That was before I had started blogging and the first time I was really recognized outside of my normal druid forum interactions.

I don't think the scope of my popularity really hit me until WoW Insider crashed my blog by highlighting it in the first month that our blog had been out. We have since switched hosting services to something that is able to absorb even the heaviest traffic days, so crashing isn't a problem for us anymore.

Has your regard among WoW players changed the way you play or the things you blog about?

Even before I became an MVP, I had to be careful about what I said, and being an MVP makes every word I type really important. If I made things feel hopeless for the druid class, I would actually end up causing panic among the players. There is a lot of class feedback I don't post on my blog or the forums anymore, but instead there are a lot of things I say behind the scenes where I can't cause mass panic and chaos among my readers.

Changing mains to my mage took months of warning the druid class, explaining what I was going to do and why I needed to do it. Even then, people still use my rerolling as evidence of something being wrong with the druid class, even though my rerolling was much more personal than that.

Wellknown druid blogger Lissanna lowers the boomkin on autism research
Do you interact more with Blizzard or other players and WoW blogs/communities as you've become established in the WoW community?

I actually have a pretty unique situation, and a lot of what I do is covered by an NDA as an MVP right now. I became popular from posting on the WoW forums first and then moved into blogging, so my sense of being part of the community has certainly grown over time. I became more active in the blogging community once I had my own blog and moved out of posting exclusively on the forums. My interacting with Blizzard members has always been part of what I did, either on the forums or otherwise. Being an MVP gives me more direct lines to Blizzard than I previously had, and that's one of the reasons why I decided to accept the green text around a year ago even after already being fairly established in the community.

Also, Blizzard needs to buff healing shrooms, just for the record.

Well, you're certainly a pillar of the community. How long have you played, anyway?

I started playing around the second or third week after the game came out (before I went off to graduate school), since my entire social group at the time was playing the game. I leveled Lissanna as a restoration druid and was essentially a glorified hunter pet following people around and healing them (I made a lot of great friends that way). I raided the early vanilla and Burning Crusade raids in fairly hardcore guilds on Elune.

I moved from California to Pennsylvania shortly before The Burning Crusade launched. While I was able to keep up with a fairly hardcore raiding schedule my first few months of graduate school, I quickly found that I needed a healthier balance between work and play. So, I cut down on my raiding schedule and joined guilds that raided on schedules that fit better with my schoolwork and allowed me to have more flexibility to keep up with my studies.

And what about blogging?

In terms of writing and blogging, I have always been active in the druid community, since before there was even such a thing as moonkin. I took over the druid leveling guide in 2006 on the druid forums, and that guide reached over a million page views before they launched a new forum and I had to re-post my guides. I took over the healing guide by accident much more recently than that, around the time my blog launched in early 2009.

I started the blog "restokin" as a druid resource when Blizzard said that they were going to close the class forums and force us all to post in new role forums. While they eventually decided to keep the class forums open, it was also around the time that Resto 4 Life had decided to stop blogging, and I saw a real need for a resto druid blogger to take over.

Wellknown druid blogger Lissanna lowers the boomkin on autism research
But now you're putting your restokin on hiatus. I've swapped mains recently myself, and the plan the brain objectively decides isn't always the strategy the heart ends up following. How has the character change gone for you?

Lissanna, the druid, has been my main since vanilla. I have a total of more than 340 days /played on the character over the last eight years. I raided as a resto shaman for two tiers in The Burning Crusade when Chain Heal was overpowered, though I still considered my druid to be my main at the time, and I was temporarily raiding on an alt out of necessity.

Other than that period of time, Mists of Pandaria is the first time I changed mains. I went from a druid to a mage. After eight years of changes to the druid class, I was burnt out. I needed a break from my druid. I leveled up a mage to give me a mental break from my druid. The character switch has been going well. I really enjoy playing my mage.

So what are your plans for Mists?

I'm planning on leveling my druid over Christmas break, if I have some free time, and working on healing in things like LFR just to keep up my druid knowledge. I will still be blogging at Restokin.com about various World of Warcraft topics and maintaining my druid guides. I'll also be working hard at doing my science while trying to balance my career and gaming.

Find Lissanna's perspectives on WoW at her blog Restokin and at Team Waffle Podcast. Learn more about her autism research and donate on the project's RocketHub crowdsource funding page.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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