Escaping Into Games: An Outlet For Anxiety & Depression
Written by Emily Kay (Guest Contributor) of The Games Diary
“Just let me finish this” is what I would usually chime when I’m finally being notified to the real world. It’s hard to pull away – and the thing I’m trying to finish could be anything from a full level, to a quick side mission or running to a save point. Then game off, console off and outside to the real world.
So how did I get here? How did I forget what the time was, or that dinner was cooked and now cold, 20 minutes ago? How did I miss my phone ringing, or a text alert, or someone sending me a WhatsApp? Even more concerning – why do I like this happening? Why do I know that when I say it, I actually want to delay leaving… I’ll happily say it 10 minutes later?
Recent events… well, I’ll go back to say, perhaps the past 6 months… have been difficult and trying. A lot of personal issues have developed, a lot of sudden emotional crises have taken place, resulting in what now could probably be diagnosed as some strain of depression and severe anxiety. I’m not ashamed of what has happened, although I could probably argue that I have been ashamed at the resulting behaviour. But I would admit that things have been difficult and that seeking professional help is my way forward. In some ways though, games have helped me to manage my anxiety and my thought processes. This, is hoping to explore and divulge why and how that has happened.
This article, upon reflection, is disjointed. It’s a mish mash of topics, reasons, explanations… it is as disjointed and confused as I feel. I had thought about editing it, changing it, making it more fluid, but then I decided against it. It sounds like I do right now – flitting between different thoughts, different anxieties. So it shall be. Under absolutely no circumstances must you think I’m any form of trained psychiatrist or psychologist – I’m just your average female gamer, diagnosed with whatever *this* mental stuff is [actually it’s high anxiety levels… according to my doctor. He must be qualified to know after all].
I’ve managed to complete maybe, 5 or 6 games since Christmas. That’s maybe about 6 weeks or so, which works out at a game a week. When I look back over my history of enjoying games, this is extremely high. I normally have one game as my main project over the Christmas break, which I’ll love and dote on as if it’s a new sibling. That one game would be my challenge – to complete as much of the game, as many side missions, challenges, missions as possible. To achieve something I’ve never managed – a 100% game completion score.
So what happened over Christmas?! Why did this suddenly shoot up? I went from 12,147 points on my Xbox live, to 14,127, the biggest statistical leap I’ve ever made in my gaming past.
I’d always kept a record of my achievement completion, an interesting side-project I started with my brother in attempt to beat his best mate to the highest achievement score. Over the years this got more complex and could identify rate of game completion, percentage of game completion across the number of games purchased, the type of games that we were perhaps more suited for and so on. This spreadsheet (or ‘delight’) has been around for maybe 2 years and has never been anything more than a bit of friendly competition against close knit friends. In some ways, this spreadsheet has always encouraged me to strive to complete games I’d stopped playing, or to go that bit further to do more side missions or play more of the game – after all, some of these I paid nearly £45 for upon release.
You may wonder why I bring up this incredibly ‘nerdy’ element of my personal life and the reality is, this ‘completionism’ aspect – this desire to complete games and attempt to get the most value out of them – has actually resulted in giving me more than one reason to play a game. I’m not just going through the motions now, doing the storyline and then being done with it. I’ve got more to achieve and an increased desire to be involved. Having to complete a game is one thing, but to have my own personal mini achievements, such as collecting all of one particular item in a game, or finishing all the side challenges – whether they are Xbox achievements or not – has given me motivation. It’s given me this extra boost. Right now, with my mental state in some state of disarray and confusion, having goals and motivation to complete tasks, whether they are focused on games or work based, is actually extremely productive. They are reasonable, diplomatic and puzzle solving thought processes – something which my mental state needs.
Who can argue with two beneficial results from this experience? Motivation and a proper, diplomatic thought process? Well now, that is just win-win.
Sometimes, the last thing I want to do when I get into a bad mental state, or go through all the different motions of anxiety, is to talk to a friend. Some subjects are hard to bring up, some I would never even consider bringing up with a friend and some well, they’re fun to talk about with the right people at the right time. The key to going through this negative mind-set with friends is – you just need them there. To do whatever friends do – buy you a drink, hang out, go to the movies, people watch, go shopping, whatever kids do these days. Sometimes, you don’t want to see them, whether that is physically or in text format, or on social media.
When I am ready to be around friends, this can come in a whole array of formats. The only one relevant to this article however, is that I can coop with them. I can do this online with friends a hundred miles away, or they can come over and split screen. Hey, give me a few PCs or laptops and we could probably get a funky little LAN party going on. For once – there’s no ‘how you feeling’ or ‘awwww you ok’ nonsense, said in that patronising tone that immediately makes you regret contacting someone. Instead, it’s “right, how are going to do this mission, I’ll be this role” or they’re beating your score and laughing about it. That’s all that matters.
Whether it is me, you or someone you know that’s going through anxiety or depression – if they want to talk about it, then they will – but to make them comfortable with you, have fun and laugh for the first time in a fortnight? That’s priceless. Those are the moments that they need you for.
I guess some could say that those who are very severely depressed won’t mention it and well, I’ve been there. I’ve been the one saying “well no one asked how I was” or “I didn’t want to bother you about it” – if you feel like someone is like that, then there is no harm asking. A friendly quick question over the mic will do no harm. What I’m saying is, I absolutely detest the look and the tone I get from someone phoning me or meeting up with me in person because it makes you feel about 12 years old, that they’re patronising sympathetic towards you, that they don’t really actually understand. A quick ‘are you okay’ or ‘how are you’, followed by being fragged and a giggle is much better received. Well – to each their own.
Involvement and Distraction
Stepping away from the ‘overview of gaming’ and to single, individual games, I am someone who is very involved. If you’ve ever text me, phoned me, or even tried to speak to me when I’m playing a game (or even just watching TV), the reality is you’ll receive a half-interested, inattentive response. I become so absorbed in the worlds, the characters, the storyline, the mission, my own set challenges, that frankly the outside world is not apparent during my gaming time. In some ways – this is a bad thing – I could miss a very important phone call, or not hear the doorbell for a parcel I’m expecting. But it isn’t all bad – my full and utter immersion into these games means that I leave behind me the issues which are causing me anxiety. It might not be solving the issues directly, or addressing them at all, but they are stopping them from getting worse. Anxiety is all about cycles, the repetition of worrying thoughts that eventually bring you down and down until you start getting depressed. By breaking the cycle, even by simply swapping my focus to an alternate reality, I’m stopping myself from getting worse.
Some anxiety attacks can be very severe, or at least in my experience. I am very sure that the number of you out there who have experienced these would have your own story to tell, different physical and psychological traits that happen to you, or reasons. But for me, these are thoughts which start off as a little niggling worry, just one thing, perhaps a question such as “why did this happen” or “why did it not go like this” or “what if I had done this” and so on. As my thoughts cycle round and I try to justify or provide reasonable explanations behind the questions, bigger questions get asked – “well, then why did you do that?” or “well surely if you had done that, this would still be like this” and so on. Bigger and bigger, until we finally get to the core of it all – sometimes three hours later, loss of appetite, not sleeping or difficulty breathing – “well this is your fault” or “this is what happens to you, it always does” or “you should have expected this by now”. It’s a very destructive cycle and after a number of years in counselling with different techniques (perhaps my favourite or most useful in practise being CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy), it is better for an individual with anxiety to cease and stop the anxiety thought cycle as soon as is reasonably possible. Whether they can do this immediately, or 3 hours later, or even 3 days later, isn’t the issue – doing it, and learning to stop is absolutely key.
I found my way to stop – or at least a way to stop – through the use of becoming so immersed within video games. Due to the interactive element of games, I don’t find my mind wandering like it would do if I was watching a movie (usually with my anxieties tailoring themselves to suit the storyline or the theme of the film) or a book. Frankly, I’m thankful I can do something interactive to rid my mind of the thoughts or at least to stop. I’ve tried other methods before in the past – gym is a good one and highly recommended, but even as I’m running I’m still stuck thinking about other things. Although doing exercise is a good release of endorphins… remember that!
…And finally – being able to turn the game off
My escapism with games is fine. It’s a fun hobby, it doesn’t distract me from my work and I find that it is beneficial for me dealing with my head mess. The last great part about games? When they’re going wrong, when I’ve had enough or I’m stuck, I can just turn them off. I can turn the problem off, knowing that it will stay there until I’m ready to play that game or the problem again. I can return to the game with a better idea of how to solve the issue. I know that the game is never going to go anywhere (except maybe if my Xbox hard drive died… cross fingers) and that there is no rush. No pressure, or stress to finish the game. It is what I make of it and I can choose how much, how little, or when to stop. Unlike anxiety, I am in control and it is wondrous.