I’ve suffered from depression for many years and have tried a great many things to help combat the low moods and irritability that come with it. In my experience, the most cathartic activity I’ve found is gaming.
Suffice to say I owe gaming a great deal, without games I would be less equipped to cope with my everyday life.
This is part of why I adore video games and why they mean so much to me. You might be surprised to know that the reason that games help is not only because I enjoy playing them, it’s more than that, because as anyone who suffers from depression can tell you, there are stages when you detach yourself from things you love or lose interest in the things you once enjoyed.
That’s why I wanted to discuss video games and mental illness, both are part of who I am and many people have misconceived notions about both which I want to highlight.
Firstly, video games are not about sitting on a room on your own, in the dark, eating junk food and mashing buttons.
This dated image, often a male living in his parents basement couldn’t be further from the truth but the stigma still exists and it’s perpetuated by overly concerned parents and the media who often like to demonise games.
Many parents have accused gaming of making their children despondent and disinterested (singular things that a part of a whole spectrum of symptoms but [ but let’s be honest here, when you’re a teenager you really couldn’t care less about what adults think and are disinterested in anything they have to say, especially if that adult happened to be your mum or dad. If your teenager wants to spend time with you, that’s when you should be worrying.
Sometimes of course, there are days when sitting on your own in a darkened room and slobbing out while you play the latest first person shooter is entirely necessary, I certainly can attest to that, but generally speaking, games aren’t really like that these days. There is quite literally something for everyone, plus there’s more competition now than ever, so making your game stand out is paramount. the sheer scale and variety of games is overwhelming!
Thus, the archaic view of games and what it is to be a gamer needs to shift, the industry might be fast-growing but the view of it is slower than the dark ages of dial-up internet (I would apologise to younger readers but you know what? It’s the Internet, work it out or Google it or whatever it is you kids do for information these days).
Because of this, many gamers are thought of like kids, we’re not quite fully grown up functioned members of society.
I’ve experienced attitudes from other adults of a similar age that were downright rude, surprised yet snobbish phrases like “Oh, you still play games? Who has the time for that? Don’t you have bills to pay and real things to do with your time?” or looks of disdain when you tell someone that you’ve booked time off of work especially for the release date of a new game (something I did recently for Fallout 4).
These attitudes are damaging to the image of gaming as a whole but more than that, to me or someone like me who has a mental illness, these flippant comments with their mocking tones can often make you feel worse.
Being told or being given the impression that something you love is childish or not normal is belittling and worse, it might cause some people to stop pursuing the one activity that brings them enjoyment.
Being able to focus on something, anything, is incredibly useful for someone suffering from depression, I don’t mean that in terms of escapism because I believe that never really helps, it doesn’t really tackle the problem. All games have an aim and require the player to focus on the game, learn from the tutorials and complete a mission, story or multiplayer objective.
Some days I find it hard to commit to doing much of anything (even making a cup of tea seems daunting) but by playing a game which has clear objectives and aims and by completing each mission and earning Xbox achievements, I start to feel like I am good at something. That sense of accomplishment is something I hold dear, if I am suffering particularly badly one day (because there good and bad days), I boot up my Xbox One and play for about 30 minutes after which, I start to feel more positive.
Even when I am doing particularly badly and feel like the least valued player, I feel more determined to do better and when I’m not playing games, I channel that same determination to get through the day. Gaming has made me resilient, it’s helped me climb back up from failures and push on. Not unlike practising a sport like fencing, gaming keeps me mentally strong. I feel emotions when I play games and if you’ve never experienced depression, you might think that sounds like an odd thing to say. However, at times you feel numb and unable to ‘feel’ so having something in your life that creates an emotional attachment is important.
I’m currently managing my depression but I know there will be times when it will defeat me, knowing a have a coping mechanism helps me stay strong and believe me, there was a time when my mental illness gut-punched me so hard that I felt at the time that I didn’t know who I was and didn’t want to live and by playing games, stepping into the role of a character, someone different, I was able to avoid spiralling down into a place I really did not want to be. I’d argue that having multiple lives as a gamer, isn’t a removal of oneself, nor is it an escape.
By living out various games, I was introduced to new perspectives that reminded me of who I was and it helped me to break out of the vicious cycle of self-interest and obsession that was detrimental to my health and my life.
I suppose when you think about what a game is, it really does make sense why gaming would help someone through depression because when you are focusing on completing a level or fighting a particularly difficult boss, you are mentally adapting, you get better at the game the more you play and progress so that when you eventually beat the boss or level up, reward triggers are sent to the brain, the same neurological triggers that activate when you do well at anything in life.
Not to mention the endorphins, those happy little chemicals that fire up in the brain whenever you feel good. After all, depression is really just a chemical imbalance within the brain, so anything that creates more endorphins, whether it be physical exercise, a delicious meal or playing a game is a positive thing. Absolutely anything gaming related I do in life, including creating my web series, Unlocked which is set in a video game world and even writing about games on the site fortnightly, helps me to manage my depression and offers me the perspective I need to keep on going.
So, thank you video games, you literally have saved my life.