Gaming is often and unfairly labelled as violent and destructive. We think differently. Dave Green argues that gaming can be a helpful tool in a condition many people are still reluctant talk about, but maybe this can be a start…
I was diagnosed with depression just over 10 years ago. Looking back, I’ve been living with it much longer than that – but that was when I first admitted to myself that I needed help and went looking for it which, for me, is the first stage of dealing and overcoming the disease. In hindsight, I can pinpoint a couple of major events in my teenage life that had a huge impact on me which I failed for many years to come to terms with until much later in life. The benefit of wisdom, I guess. So, you’re probably thinking – what is this doing on Low Fat Gaming? Well, constant reader, I want to talk to you about how my love of gaming very much helped me deal with my depression, from an early age to today. I’m not about to say that videogames are the key – they’re not, not one thing is. In my experience, accepting you need help is the first step, opening up about it, talking about it and finding yourself a support structure you’re comfortable with are all important. So is focusing on those things that make you happy – the things, people and hobbies that you love and want in your life. I’m lucky that I have met some essential and wonderful people in my life that I can rely on – I’m also lucky I had a means of escape, and that came in the form of my videogame hobby.
At my very lowest point, I pushed everything and everyone away. That’s what depression does. Many people associate depression with sadness. They’d be right to a point. Sometimes you are sad. Sometimes you’re not. With me, it was a range of things – unpredictable behaviour, mood swings, irrational decision-making and a desire to isolate myself. Depression led me to make many mistakes, especially in my early 20s – chief amongst these was never dealing with it and shutting myself away. You need, and want, to talk about it – but you don’t feel you can. You can feel embarrassed and ashamed, the last thing you want to do is burden people who care about you with how your mind is. So you don’t. You end up in a spiral of self-pity and loathing, you don’t deserve the good things in your life, so you purposely don’t experience them anymore. Another mistake, and one I made many times.
It was around this time that I stopped playing videogames. Up until this point, I’d played with regularity since I was a child. It made me happy. It transported me into worlds, characters and stories that I would never experience in real-life, and in a way different to a good book or film. I hadn’t really realised just how important gaming was to me and how it supported my mental state until I gave it up. Nowadays, I don’t always have the time I used to have to game, but that’s OK. I’ve come a long way in the last decade and I understand myself much better – but I can’t underestimate how important my hobby has been in dealing with the depression, the anxiety, isolation and stress.
As I mentioned earlier, there were two monumental points in my teenage years that I can pinpoint as the beginnings of my condition. I won’t go into too many details with them, but the first was the loss of someone incredibly important to me at that stage in my life. I was 11 and was the one to find this person when they passed on unexpectedly. Naturally, it changed me and I had no real way of coping with it at the time. At age 15, just as I was about to start my final year of High School, I had an operation that reconstructed my lower jaw. I was bedridden for 4 months afterwards, missing the start of that school year. More importantly, I had no contact with anyone – and not completely by choice. My jaw was wired, so speech was ruled out as no-one could understand me. It was summer, so why would my friends want to be stuck inside a bedroom with a visibly sick boy who couldn’t communicate? I was never the most confident of teenagers, and my self-confidence took a battering for a long-time afterwards.
Again, what does this have to do with gaming? Well, during the recovery from the operation I had at 15 the only constant friend I had was my N64. Sounds a bit dramatic, right? But it was true. It helped me fight of isolation and self-pity. While I could hear kids playing football outside, I could escape into the world of spies and intrigue in GoldenEye 64; adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom in Mario 64 or blow of some steam in Mario Kart. Crucially, it gave me a form of communication and community with my friends and family – we couldn’t speak, but when they did visit, we played N64 and were able to connect. Now don’t think I’m belittling the condition by pinpointing these two instances as the reason for the condition in my case – the reasons can be myriad and unknown; but looking for the genesis of it can help. It helped me.
As mentioned before, connecting with things is one of the crucial aspects of dealing with depression, and it is something that gaming is particularly strong in. I’m a great lover of film and, in particular books, but the art form of gaming differs in some crucial aspects. In my experience, while reading a story you really connect with can be extremely cathartic, you can sometimes go a little too deep. At times, despite adoring a completely absorbing book I could become too introverted – something I increasingly tried to avoid (though, I must admit, not cut out completely. Self-inspection, and reflection, is something I’ve found to be of benefit at times). Film, as much as I’m an admirer, is mostly a passive form. You may connect with the very best, or the ones you find most personal to you, but for me it’s mostly an out for a couple of hours.
Gaming combines the very best of these forms – and brings something else. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was released at a crucial time in my development from reluctance to face the issue and acceptance. It gave me the (healthy) escape from the inside of my head for long-stretches at time, it gave me something substantial to explore in terms of world building and lore. It also triggered the creative parts of my brain – I don’t think anyone will even suggest the main storyline of Oblivion is up there with the very best films or novels (or the best ones found in games, for that matter), but what it did was allow me to create my own stories. The emergent worlds of the likes of Oblivion and later Fallout, The Witcher, Dishonored and the like kept me engaged and re-ignited my curious-self, a part of me that was sometimes missing, or dulled at any rate.
Another crucial aspect of gaming, beyond the escapism, and is different from other forms is the way videogames, particularly RPGs, examine morality. Now, you can say it is often approached in a heavy-handed way – and I’d mostly agree, I find the subtle approach, like the ones found in Dishonored or even Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are best. Despite that, titles such as Mass Effect allowed you to react to situations in a variety of ways – letting your own personality come out in a different situations. It’s an interesting style of self-examination and a way to look at your own character – why am I so angry in this situation? Why does this interaction with this character move me? Of course, these games can be played for laughs – it’s always fun to attempt to be the galaxies biggest arsehole in Mass Effect, but playing it as a true reflection of yourself can be extremely helpful. In my experience anyway.
My last point would be about something I touched on earlier – the way gaming can foster a sense of community. When fighting depression, your first instinct can be to shun friends and family who can sense that there’s something amiss with you – despite your desire to reach out. Gaming can overcome this. Going back to the early days, this would come in the shape of “couch” multiplayer or co-op. Pure gaming enjoyment. Despite everything that could be going on in your life, playing your favourite multiplayer game, sat next to another player is always a joyful experience. People that have done this at conferences or expos can attest to it helping form a kinship with someone you’ve just met.
Of course, gaming has developed to the point were almost every game has a social aspect. Buy an Xbox One and pick up Titanfall and you HAVE to play with others, you’ve no choice. And you know what? It’s all the better for it. Despite the negativity that comes from the vocal minorities of some gaming communities – the racism, the sexism, and the anger – I found gamers to be extremely interesting, social and empathic people. There are a lot of us gamers nowadays and a lot of them have dealt with, or are dealing with, the same issue you are. Joining a good online community, or getting involved with the social aspect of your favourite game, could see you connecting with a whole new, and vital, support structure.
So, is gaming the answer in dealing with depression? Of course not. Depression is not something that will simply go away after medication, like a cold or an infection. It’s with you for life, I’ve come to accept that. It’s a part of me but I understand it now and I know what I need to do to keep my mind healthy and to lead a full life. Gaming is a vital part of that. It’s a vital part of who I am, and a part of me I like – so I’ll always strive to do it. And THAT’S the key. Continue to do the things you love, seek help and talk about it. These things will help with your piece of mind. Gaming is just one of the things that works for me, and I’d hazard a guess that it works for many others, too. For an art form that is often accused of being too violent and for being a bad influence on children, let’s shout about the good things – how the LEGO series can bring children and adults together, how the likes of FIFA and Street Fighter can foster online communities across the world, how the likes of Minecraft, Dishonored and Hitman can foster creative thinking and problem solving.
And, yes, we should talk about how gaming CAN help people suffering with depression.
– Dave Green. Give him a follow on Twitter @davidpgreen83