This post has taken me several days to start and nearly a month to publish— hence my post-a-month New Year’s resolution’s spectacularly late debut. It’s not because I have been uninspired, or because I have nothing to say. I’m actually — intellectually speaking— really, really excited about the subject matter I’m researching this month. Unfortunately, a new medication recommended to help with persistent anxiety about the impending changes in my life backfired, sinking me into a three-week-long depressive haze thicker than any depression I have previously experienced (more on that next time). All motivation and sense of purpose left me, and I lacked the energy to pursue even a thought, let alone a tangible goal, to fruition. Thankfully, it seems that my doctor was right, and this crazy period was in fact my body adjusting to the new medication. After cutting my already-tiny dose in half I feel much more functional and am ready to write again.
So, I want to talk about video games!
Weird, I know. For those of you who know me personally, I am decidedly not a gamer. In fact, until a few weeks ago I fell decidedly into the category of girls-who-categorically-express-disdain-toward-all-video-games-and-those-who-play-them while never bothering to understand what all the fuss was about. The most mainstream iOS fad games that even my non-gamer friends played obsessively held no appeal— as my ballerina compatriots whiled away their subway rides with Candy Crush and explored the city with Pokemon Go, my phone remained sans games— and the hardcore games I’d heard of, like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, sounded downright repulsive. Video games of all varieties seriously felt like an unexciting, mildly addictive, despicably passive form of entertainment, like eating dollar-store potato chips mindlessly out of a bag for hours on end.
I grew up hearing that video games are bad for you, and that gamers are essentially those who have given up on real life. However, a few months ago I moved in with my best friends, a pair of avid gamers, and they are intelligent, complex, interesting people. They aren’t remotely violent, apathetic, or overly sedentary. In fact, they argued that for them, video games could actually be valuable, even therapeutic. I was skeptical, but undeniably intrigued at the discrepancy between my mental construct of gamers and my real-world experience of them. I began to research video games’ potential cognitive benefits, and the more I considered the facts, the more it seemed like my roommates might be right. I had read about virtual reality studies’ efficacy in treating anxiety, especially PTSD, and depression, and wondered if video games might be a similar, if less targeted, experience. I read a lot on the subject, and while there is definitely some contention, studies truly seem to suggest that the correlation between gaming and having a mood disorder might likely be correlative rather than causative. In other words, the latest hypothesis goes something like this: generally speaking, people don’t get depressed and isolated as a result of playing video games; people who are already depressed and isolated play video games as a form of self-medication, and it may actually work. You can read one of my favorite articles on this subject here, and try a new online game specifically made to help with mental health issues from social anxiety to alcoholism: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/11/how_video_games_can_teach_your_brain_to_fight_depression.html
Certain types of gaming may also act as a kind of therapeutic playground for people with social anxiety. Multi-player RPGs (Role-Playing Games, for the uninitiated) like my personal favorite, Final Fantasy XIV, allow people, in the guise of their characters, to exist in a populated world with predictable rules and modes of communication that provides a structured, low-stakes microcosm of real life social interaction. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Vol. 56, March 2016, p. 127-134) found that players of such games experience less social anxiety and loneliness online than in real-world interactions, and that such games provide “a highly social environment that encourages cooperation, communication, and friendship”. I do think it’s important to note, as McGonigal does in her article above, that the key to allowing video games to be helpful and not merely escapist lies in the conscious translation of online, in-game experiences to real-world situations, but these findings are significant, and I’ll be interested to see what insight further research brings.
Obviously gaming is not a panacea; it depends what kind of games you play, and your capacity to balance your life. Video game addiction is real, but then again so is alcoholism, and I like many others can handle an occasional drink without risk of dependence. I still adamantly shun graphic violence in all media, and I don’t think pretending to wreak wanton havoc and destruction, committing violent crimes and such onscreen and being rewarded for it, is healthy. I’m still very new to video games, though, and I’m not ready to make judgments about what will or won’t work for people. What I do know is what the latest research, like Ms. McGonigal’s, demonstrates: taking the mentality and structure of a video game and adopting a ‘gameful mindset’ toward life is actually an excellent coping mechanism when anxiety or depression or regular old life stress or exhaustion makes things tough. It worked for me: in those awful three weeks of crippling depression, playing Final Fantasy XIV with my roommates helped in ways that nothing else could. When fighting my own periods of finicky mental health, my instinct is to push hard: try to go to ballet, get outside, meditate, write, process. Sometimes, though, I’m learning that I just need something physically and cognitively easy. It doesn’t take much energy to sit on a couch with a controller in hand, but that doesn’t mean playing isn’t cognitively valuable: just as children play to learn new skills and makes sense of the real world, I play to practice skills I find difficult in real life: as my character explores unfamiliar territory, talks to strangers of all shapes and sizes, and goes bravely into (very magical, nonviolent) battles, the real me can take those safe, comfortable, but still-exciting experiences and translate them into real-life adventures of my own. In life as in the game, I am learning to trust myself and those around me. I have tools at my disposal, friends by my side, and a series of achievable quests to accomplish, both in parties and alone, and each of these small achievements advances my life and builds my identity and skill set in a small but meaningful way.
Please comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.