Video games have become a large part of society today. While once considered a past-time for nerds, in recent years they have become mainstream, incorporating popular culture, movies, tv shows and sports in a way that appeals to the masses. From computers to consoles to games and apps on phones and tablets, video games are now seen as a widely accepted way for people to relax, unwind and pass the time.
Many people who struggle with mental illness have come to fully embrace the world of video games. Though gaming is seen as an acceptable past-time for others, unfortunately the stigma surrounding mental illness makes people assume that anyone struggling with a diagnosis such as depression is just being lazy when they play video games. The fact that someone is able to play, or even excel, at a game is seen as some sort of undeniable proof that a person is just “faking” or “exaggerating” their illness and that they would be fully capable of working and functioning to their full potential if they just “applied themselves”.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Playing video games as a tool for coping does not make a person lazy. Excelling at a game does not automatically mean a person would be able to excel at all other aspects of their lives equally. Playing a game does not negate or minimize a diagnosis. Gaming, however, can make some of the symptoms of mental illness more bearable and can be a healthy addition to our lives.
Video games can be very beneficial to someone struggling with mental illness. The focus needed to complete tasks in games can provide a much-needed distraction from aggressively looping negative thoughts. The repetition of many games can be soothing, helping to lower and lessen anxiety. When the world feels completely overwhelming and unbearable, video games can give a temporary escape so that someone on the verge of a meltdown or anxiety attack can catch their breath.
Though many are quick to counter with the fact that both meditation and exercise can do the same thing, they often don’t understand how the mentally ill mind works. I personally have taken classes for meditation, yoga and tai chi. While they are beneficial in their own way during times when I am already relatively calm, none have managed to silence the inner turmoil when my brain is already caught in the throes of an anxiety attack. While focused breathing might calm me long enough to stave off the panic attack for the moment, I often need to find some seemingly mindless task to distract my mind until the dust fully settles. When my mind is in an over-active loop, I usually need some type of busy work to pull my attention away before I can even begin to consider calming techniques. Video games provide those menial tasks to help distract my brain long enough to re-center myself.
Though exercise might be seen as a healthier alternative, as well, most do not consider the fact that, for many struggling with mental illness, it is hard some days to even pull ourselves out of bed. There are days we lay there for hours having to pee, not out of laziness but because, mentally and emotionally, the world feels so overwhelming, so unbearable, that we cannot bring ourselves to face it. Though simple exercises like going for a walk might seem like an ideal low-impact workout to others, when we are struggling with our illness, we tend to isolate, terrified of others seeing how much of a mess we truly are. It is not that we don’t want to get out there, exercise and be healthier. Some days, it takes everything we have to just go through the basic motions of life. Video games give us a way to virtually “get out there” on our terms and at our own pace even when we do not feel capable of physically facing the world.
Video games also give us a temporary escape from a world in which we feel broken. Instead of being that “crazy, unbalanced person” who “is lazy” and “can’t seem to pull their life together”, we can for a few moments in time be something more: a brave knight, a fierce jedi, a wise wizard, a pro athlete or an ingenious arch-villain. We can solve puzzles, reach goals, and build things, all on our terms at our own pace. We can achieve a sense of accomplishment at something, which is greatly needed at times when we feel we mess up everything we touch.
Many people struggling with mental illness feel like outcasts. Much like any other social platform, multiplayer games also give those who feel isolated and alone a way to socialize with other people with similar interests without the stress and anxiety of face-to-face interactions. Over the years and a variety of video games, I have chatted with many wonderful people and forged numerous lasting friendships. One thing I have discovered over many late night discussions with others is that there are many other people struggling with mental illness who are using gaming, as well, as a coping mechanism. None of us are alone when we log in. More people understand our struggles than many realize. We are a growing group within the gaming community.
There are people who ask why we can’t apply the same effort and energy to other aspects of our lives as we do to gaming. The answer is absurdly simple. Gaming does not run on a set schedule. Mental illness makes it difficult to function on a schedule because we are at the mercy of the chemicals in our brain. We do not know if from one day to the next, one hour to the next, we will crash, spiraling down uncontrollably. There is no way to predict our highs and lows. Most people cannot set their own work or school schedule, calling in to say “today’s looking like a good day – I’m going to work for ten hours straight” one day and then call in unable to function at all for the next three days. Most jobs expect a consistent level of productivity and won’t accept a person showing up, chatting and puttering around for a few hours because they don’t want to be alone. Most people cannot pop into work for a couple hours on a random Thursday night at 2 am because their anxiety won’t allow them to sleep or they keep having nightmares and need a distraction. Video games give us a virtual universe of vastly different worlds we can visit any hour of the day or night as needed without expectations beyond those we set for ourselves.
Video games have become a safe haven for those struggling with mental illness. Gaming is an outlet we can embrace any time, day or night. When our minds are caught in a negative loop or our anxiety is through the roof, we can distract ourselves from the safety of our own home. We can be anyone we want to be and achieve some sense of accomplishment, even when we feel otherwise broken. We can socialize and surround ourselves with others so we do not feel completely isolated and alone in the world, but on our own terms. We can build friendships and be a part of a community without the pressures of face-to-face interactions during times we do not feel capable of facing the world in person. Perhaps most importantly, we can log in and out at our own discretion. If we begin to feel overwhelmed at any time, we can leave the game or play something else. In a world that often feels like it is spinning wildly out of control, it gives us a sense of control.
I personally have used gaming for years as a coping mechanism and an outlet to work through overwhelming feelings such as depression, anxiety and anger. While video games have many benefits for those struggling with mental illness, they should never be used as a constant and continual escape. There needs to be balance and we must stay grounded in reality. We should never become so caught up in our gaming worlds that our actual lives suffer. Like any other illness, we need treatment to manage our symptoms and help us function to the best of our ability. We can, however, embrace video games as another tool in our arsenal to help us get through those overwhelming rough patches and to further enrich our lives. It’s a brave new world out there where we can log in and be whoever we want to be. Gaming has become a socially acceptable past-time these days and we have just as much right to enjoy and embrace it as everyone else. Many of us are already logged in and playing.