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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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