What draws me to gaming? This is a question I ask myself often now, having reached the age of 32 without experiencing the customary loss of interest in the medium. My usage of the word ‘customary’, in fact, perfectly reflects my conflicted relationship with video games. As a kid, it was made clear to me by adults that my favorite pastime, in their eyes, fell somewhere on the spectrum between ‘a waste of time’ and ‘an unhealthy habit’. The resulting feeling of guilt remains a constant in my life even now, hovering over my shoulder as I strategize in Civilization 5, shoot up aliens in Destiny, or lead a party of adventurers through the elaborate world of Pillars of Eternity.
I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression for as far back as I can remember. It has always been a struggle for me to find meaning on earth, to remain functional enough to work effectively while maintaining a social life. It has always been overwhelmingly difficult for me to deal with Others, especially when they decide to gather in Large Groups. I also have, and this is putting it mildly, an addictive personality. I tend to repeat behaviors that lead to short term pleasure, often sacrificing long term satisfaction and causing harm to myself and others. This is due to the fact that I find it difficult or even impossible to react to the knowledge that it is Time To Stop. Most of the cues—discomfort, loss of joy, boredom—that lead others to cease an activity can be overridden within me by an obsessive drive, a dictatorial voice with only one mantra: “more.” Even when it hurts, when it’s not fun anymore, when everyone has become frustrated with my single-mindedness. No matter. “More.” From the outside, loved ones, it must be frustrating. You are saying: “open your eyes! You’re not blind. You just have your eyes closed!” And we are saying: “I can’t.” Or even, “I am blind, stop being an asshole.” Both realities (being blind and not being blind) exist simultaneously. That is the power of the mind. That is the nature of mental illness. How it separates not our bodies but instead our realities.
So, and this is the central question I’ve been asking myself, are games just another form of addiction for me? Are they simply another negative force in my life stacked upon many others, a Thing To Deal With? Were the adults right? Short answer: no. Long answer: sort of. Let me break it down for you.
Anxiety and depression act over time. They don’t punch you in the face, or stab you in the gut, or shoot you in the leg. They’re like the ocean beating again and again against the cliffside of your psyche, wearing away the soil until it looks, years later, like a giant Kaiju came along and took a massive bite. It’s through their relentless nature, their omnipresence that these subtle mental illnesses take their toll. To ‘press pause’ on anxiety and depression, suspending them for a moment by playing a game (or reading a book, or watching a movie) is a form of therapy. It doesn’t fix us, but it curbs the long-term damage of the relentlessness itself. It allows us to take a break from it, and can often mean the difference between manifesting the most extreme results (a panic attack, a suicide) and the less extreme results (uncomfortable ups and downs, loss of motivation, difficulty to communicate). With anxiety and depression, you usually can’t win. You can manage them and keep your heart open to potential changes in your life, but it always makes me cringe when I hear a person’s relationship with these mental illnesses described as a “battle” or “war”. I prefer to think of it as a long, difficult, awkward negotiation (with moments of grace and lesson learning).
So does that mean video games are always a net positive in my life? Nope. Because, as mentioned earlier, I have difficulty escaping the cycle of short-term pleasure, I often (without noticing) make the transition from ‘pressing pause on depression and anxiety’ to ‘actively running away from depression and anxiety, along with direct human connection, eating well, exercising a little, and other positive forces in my life that counter-balance my mental illnesses’.
And yet, despite this risk, there lies true therapeutic value in games. Their otherness, their sense of fantasy, and their underlying logical systems can temporarily shift my sense of purpose and alter my perception of ‘self’ within the framework of ‘life’, oftentimes allowing for a moment of relief in an otherwise disorienting, illogical, decidedly un-fantastic period. These moments of disconnection can become fertile ground for a change of perspective which in turn can lead to a change of course in my ‘real life’. In this case then, it is worth alleviating my symptoms even if the act of playing a game doesn’t actually ‘cure’ the illness.
At the end of the day, there’s no easy answer. Gaming, like everything else, is best represented by the ancient, wise, underused yin yang symbol, containing both darkness and light. A game can be a safe place, a place of healing, just as it can be a weapon I wield against my own well-being. As Boba Wan Kenobus once said: “one time I thought I was gonna fart, but lo and behold, I did end up shitting myself.”