Gamers and Mental Health: You Are Not Alone

Gamers and mental health header

On January 4th 2015, I lost my fa­ther to a long bat­tle with can­cer. The pe­ri­od since then has been chal­leng­ing, with oth­er fam­i­ly ill­ness­es & tur­bu­lence. Along the way I’ve been di­ag­nosed with clin­i­cal de­pres­sion, some­thing I’ve strug­gled with in the past and like­ly a by-product of what’s been a chal­leng­ing 18 months.

I’m not here to ask for your pity, but to give you some con­text to the thoughts I’m shar­ing to­day, as I think they’re ex­treme­ly im­por­tant to many gamers out there who suf­fer from the same men­tal health is­sues, like de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. It’s im­por­tant be­cause video games and the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty have helped me and oth­ers I know im­mense­ly when try­ing to fight against men­tal illness.

I want to tell peo­ple that you aren’t alone in deal­ing with these prob­lems, and also that you aren’t alone in hav­ing drawn strength from video games and the gamers around them. This isn’t a piece about de­pres­sion, but rather, a piece about hope, and a won­der­ful medi­um and com­mu­ni­ty that pro­vides that hope to millions.

The at­ti­tude that gamers can draw strength from the things they’ve achieved in a video game, or ap­ply lessons learned in real life, is looked down upon. It’s seen as pa­thet­ic to take pride in what you’ve done in a dig­i­tal world — a sign of be­ing un­health­ily de­tached from re­al­i­ty.  But of­ten it can be that first step, that one ac­tiv­i­ty, that helps lift you above the mire and fog of an ill­ness like depression.

Fighting de­pres­sion is about recog­nis­ing small ac­com­plish­ments; it’s about be­ing able to ad­mit to your­self that just get­ting out of bed can be an achieve­ment. That clean­ing your house and go­ing to the store is some­thing of a mile­stone. When we can do noth­ing else, games of­fer us those small vic­to­ries, those lit­tle boosts of self-confidence. You climb a psy­cho­log­i­cal moun­tain like you’d climb a real moun­tain: one step at a time. If you can’t make those small pieces of progress, you can’t even get near the big­ger ones.

That’s what video games have pro­vid­ed for me; win­ning a game in Overwatch or even just know­ing I fought re­al­ly well against a very skill­ful team makes me feel bet­ter. Playing lo­cal co-op with a friend all the way through Super Mario Bros 3, or get­ting a dif­fi­cult tro­phy in a video game gives you that sense of accomplishment.

Mental Health insert 1

Video games aren’t pas­sive; they re­quire in­ter­ac­tion. This has of­ten led to them be­ing wrong­ly sin­gled out as sources of de­struc­tive be­hav­iours, with terms like “game ad­dic­tion” splashed across news­pa­pers and web­sites, and alarmist sto­ries equat­ing games to drugs or gam­bling. Games’ in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty is what gives them their mea­sur­able cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits, help­ing main­tain brain func­tion or train­ing sharp­er re­ac­tion times.

As a brief aside, like all things, there are two sides to this coin. I re­cent­ly en­coun­tered some­one who was se­vere­ly dis­abled, who had in­vest­ed a large sum of mon­ey into a game as a means of es­cape. Predatory pric­ing is the oth­er side of this cog­ni­tive coin, the Skinner box ef­fect that can tempt peo­ple with the feel­ing of achieve­ment for con­tin­ued in­puts of cash. This over-investing can be a sign of un­der­ly­ing men­tal health is­sues that some busi­ness mod­els at­tempt to ex­ploit. I think we need to recog­nise and root out those com­pa­nies, large­ly in the mo­bile sphere, that ex­ploit vul­ner­a­ble gamers.

But games them­selves don’t pro­mote iso­la­tion or cause peo­ple to be­come “ad­dict­ed”; rather, peo­ple with an un­der­ly­ing ill­ness who are al­ready iso­lat­ed or look­ing for a time-sink will grav­i­tate to­wards video games. This is yet an­oth­er case of our so­ci­ety blam­ing an emerg­ing medi­um in­stead of con­fronting the dif­fi­cult ques­tions sur­round­ing men­tal health. If you im­merse your­self in books all day, it’s con­sid­ered a smart, no­ble pur­suit. Someone sit­ting in front of the TV all day un­able to func­tion be­cause of their de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety isn’t a news sto­ry, but some­one who does that with a video game sud­den­ly is. 

Games are de­signed to give you mile­stones; good games keep you en­gaged by re­ward­ing the play­er. Completing a well-crafted game is an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence, and un­like watch­ing a movie, you also feel that the course of events are in your con­trol. This is why I hate the de­ri­sion of the “pow­er fan­ta­sy” that is so preva­lent in the preen­ing hip­ster gam­ing press. Using games to achieve things you nev­er could in every­day life is im­por­tant, as is the es­cape many games pro­vide. To try and pry that away from gamers via sham­ing, when they might well need that self-esteem boost, is frankly cruel.

When our re­al­i­ty is bleak, the last things we want are games that re­flect our hope­less re­al­i­ty; that’s why the ham-fisted “I have a sad” sim­u­la­tor Depression Quest failed so ut­ter­ly. It’s a game that uses de­pres­sion to score po­lit­i­cal points — it’s not even close to a cathar­tic tool to help you deal with de­pres­sion. For some­one like me, who is in­ti­mate­ly fa­mil­iar with the ill­ness, it felt like what a high-school project would turn out like if every­one in­volved has only read the Wikipedia ar­ti­cle on depression.

The pea­cock­ing that goes on around men­tal ill­ness is the fur­thest thing away from help­ful. Those deal­ing with it of­ten, by the very na­ture of their ill­ness, feel un­able or un­will­ing to talk about it. I know I’d be­come very adept at hid­ing my de­pres­sion un­til it be­came un­man­age­able. Any type of well-made game can help some­one heal; it doesn’t have to shove is­sues in your face. Any game can help your self es­teem if it mo­ti­vates you to con­tin­ue or en­gages you to achieve some­thing, it does­n’t have to scream “FEEL SOMETHING” at you.

Mental Health insert 2

But for most of you gamers, I’m just telling you what you al­ready know; it’s very in­tu­itive. Games them­selves can pro­vide an out­let and an es­cape for those who feel hope­less — but what has re­al­ly been the sav­ing grace for me, and many oth­ers, is the com­mu­ni­ty that sur­rounds video games: the much-maligned gamers, iron­i­cal­ly a group spat on by many I see virtue-signalling about men­tal health.

Gaming can help pro­vide that bridge, that first con­tact, that al­lows some­one to be­come less iso­lat­ed. Gaming is in­cred­i­bly so­cial. We’d think it odd to see a stranger mes­sag­ing us on our per­son­al Facebook, but we think noth­ing of in­ter­act­ing with strangers with­in a video game or invit­ing some­one to a TeamSpeak, Skype, or Discord group, who we have en­joyed play­ing a game with. We think noth­ing of adding some­one on PSN or Xbox LIVE. Yet all of these places pro­vide us with chances of real, mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships. Gaming has a very low bar­ri­er to en­try when it comes to hu­man interaction.

As a friend I know too has strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness in the past, I asked fel­low site con­trib­u­tor Darrell Hinkle to share his thoughts on this issue :

As some­one who suf­fers from se­vere so­cial anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, gam­ing’s been a boon to me. It’s a shared in­ter­est that makes ap­proach­ing peo­ple a lot eas­i­er for me than it would be oth­er­wise, and through it I’ve been lucky enough to meet some re­al­ly great peo­ple who have made a pos­i­tive im­pact on my life that I’ll be for­ev­er grate­ful for.

The crew at Super Nerd Land in par­tic­u­lar are some of the best peo­ple I’ve had the for­tune to meet. From Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed to Earth Defense Force, some of the best times I’ve had in re­cent years have been spent play­ing games with these guys and shoot­ing the shit with them in TeamSpeak.”

(Full quote here)

Without the in­ter­net, many se­vere­ly dis­abled peo­ple would have much small­er hori­zons. There re­al­ly are peo­ple who strug­gle to make it past their own front door for weeks or months at a time, due to var­i­ous phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal ail­ments. I’ve stopped count­ing the times I’ve met some­one who I think is amaz­ing on­line, and who I’ve be­come friends with, only to dis­cov­er that be­hind the scenes they are sol­dier­ing though heart-breaking ill­ness or cir­cum­stance — and who, with­out the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty, wouldn’t have a sup­port net­work to get them through that.

A good per­son­al friend of mine and friend of the site, GwenLilyKnight, who I vis­it­ed back in January, has shown me first hand how im­por­tant video games and fel­low gamers are for dis­abled gamers fight­ing iso­la­tion and de­pres­sion. To quote her directly:

I didn’t like to see gamers be­ing at­tacked when games are so im­por­tant to me even stay­ing alive. The so­cial­iz­ing I have done over the web is im­por­tant, as it’s near­ly im­pos­si­ble for me to meet folks in real life due to my dis­abil­i­ties. Also, no one cares about who or what you are when you’re gam­ing. You just game. You can be ac­cept­ed as HUMAN. Which is all disabled/LGBT peo­ple like me want in the end.” 

Those of you with a long mem­o­ry might also recog­nise Gwen as be­ing the dis­abled gamer car­ried down the stairs by her part­ner at GGinDC, when a bomb threat was called into the event. Many gamers suf­fer from these is­sues first hand and I feel for­tu­nate to have two friends who can ar­tic­u­late these is­sues so well. Thanks to both Gwen and Darrell for shar­ing their very per­son­al experiences. 

Mental ill­ness can make you feel com­plete­ly alone and help­less. But you aren’t. When you’re part of the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty, you are not alone. Gamers have em­braced anonymi­ty and shunned iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics be­cause the user­name gives us pow­er. It al­lows us to open up to peo­ple when we oth­er­wise wouldn’t. Through gam­ing, I’ve learned that the vast ma­jor­i­ty of peo­ple aren’t shit­ty; there’s a good chance some­one who is a re­al­ly good team play­er in an on­line game is ac­tu­al­ly a pret­ty de­cent hu­man be­ing, too. Many of those who suf­fer with men­tal ill­ness do so be­cause they don’t have peo­ple around them in real life ap­pre­ci­at­ing them as a per­son, or who can give them even a friend­ly con­ver­sa­tion. If noth­ing else, gamers share that mu­tu­al re­spect that comes from a shared interest.

Mental Health insert3

Through fo­rums and com­mu­ni­ty plat­forms, we can grav­i­tate to­wards peo­ple who have sim­i­lar tastes and in­ter­ests to us. We can in­ter­act with con­tent cre­ators who fos­ter com­mu­ni­ties; I’ve be­come quite good per­son­al friends with some gamers where our first point of con­tact was me reach­ing out and say­ing I was a fan of their con­tent. It gives us so­cial en­trance points that can be sore­ly lack­ing in every­day life and in so­cial media.

I’ve writ­ten be­fore about the iso­lat­ing ef­fects so­cial me­dia can have; how it doesn’t fos­ter real and mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tion. But I can cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly say that video games and the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty can, and DO, fos­ter those vi­tal, mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tions. I’ve had peo­ple to whom I’d only men­tioned a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion  maybe once in pass­ing, check in with me If I hadn’t been on­line for a few days. Knowing that some­one who bare­ly knows you cares enough to both check in on you and to re­mem­ber a con­ver­sa­tion you had maybe weeks ago, is a com­fort­ing feel­ing. It can help you get through the day. People who have lit­tle in­cen­tive to act like a friend do it any­way, maybe just be­cause you played a game to­geth­er one time and bond­ed over that experience.

The act of show­ing some­one that they aren’t alone is pow­er­ful, even life­sav­ing, and over and above any oth­er com­mu­ni­ty I’ve been part of, gamers are ex­treme­ly good at beat­ing back iso­la­tion and al­low­ing those ca­su­al in­ter­ac­tions to blos­som into some­thing greater. 

Over and over I see this com­mu­ni­ty and hob­by help­ing peo­ple over­come hard­ship and sup­port­ing them through ill­ness, both phys­i­cal and men­tal. These aren’t just dis­tant in­spir­ing anec­dotes, but very per­son­al ex­pe­ri­ences that have helped me and those I care about cope and per­se­vere. All through some­thing as sim­ple as video games. As we be­come more at­tached to tech­nol­o­gy, I hope it can en­hance our abil­i­ty to reach out in a hu­man way, rather than hin­der it. Gamers are just ahead of the curve when it comes to liv­ing in the on­line world and liv­ing well.

A big thank you to GwenLilyKnight and Darrell Hinkle for shar­ing their thoughts and help­ing me de­vel­op this ar­ti­cle and thanks to Indigo Altaria for edit­ing it. Super Nerd Land some­times feels like a fam­i­ly and we could­n’t do what we do with­out that help and support. 

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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