Friday, 22 January 2016

Video Games Literally Saved My Life

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 could possibly be attributed to depression, no less) 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, 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, as though we're not quite fully grown functioning members of society yet. I've experienced attitudes from other adults of a similar age that were downright rude, ranging from 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?" to 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 inflections can 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 can cause some people to stop pursuing the one activity that brings them enjoyment. My advice for fellow sufferers of depression is to make sure you hold on to those things you enjoy, regardless of what they are...unless you enjoy murdering kittens or genuinely enjoy inflicting damage to yourself or others, in which case, do seek professional help.

Gaming enriches my experience of life, 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 ignoring your problem or displacing it never really helps, it doesn't 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. This is incredibly helpful and encourages motivation, I feel a sense of worth and I feel good when I complete objectives.

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 are both good and bad days), I boot up my Xbox One and play for about 30 minutes after which, I start to feel more positive about myself and my situation.

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.

On another note, gaming gives me perspective - taking on the role of a character, stepping into a different life is liberating. Even the fact I am playing game reminds me that I am incredibly privileged. I am lucky to be able to afford games, fortunate enough to live in the Western world in a place where I am not demonised or stripped of freedom. This perspective helps on those darker days because it's hard to detach yourself from depression and view things objectively because depression is a very personal and selfish illness.

I'm currently managing my depression but I know there will be times when it will defeat me. But 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 genuinely didn't know who I was and yes, during the darkest of times I actually felt as though I didn't want to live. Yet, 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.

One particular game helped me overcome stress and anxiety during my school days and also kept me strong when I was being bullied. Teenage years are so lonely, whether you have a lot of friends or none, no teenager knows what they want, who they are and why they are going through so much pain, anguish and dramatic hormonal changes. The aforementioned game? The Legend Of Zelda series. I latched onto a part of the game's ideology, the Triforce (this 'force' is made up of three parts, each one attributed to the characters of Link, Zelda and Ganondorf.

The Triforce is made up for three triangles and each one represents a trait, they are Courage, Wisdom, Power and they must all remain in balance. This became my mantra when things got hard and to this day, it still is (I even have the Triforce engraved on my wedding ring), it helped me to centre myself, be brave and do things that I might not have wanted to do or lacked the confidence to do, it reminded me that my education was important and kept me on a studious path, even when I was bullied for it. It made me believe I was powerful enough to do anything I put my mind to without fear.

This is why I hold video games in such high regard, they are more than a mindless activity or a hobby, they are a necessity in my life, my coping mechanism.

I suppose when you think about what a game is, it make sense why gaming would help someone through depression because when 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. It requires progression 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...well, anything in life.

Not to mention the endorphins that games inspire, those happy little chemicals that fire up in the brain whenever you feel good are amazing. I'm pretty sure the two weeks that followed the release of Fallout 4 I was in a hormonal bubble of happiness. 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 fortnightly for Forces Of Geek, helps me to manage my depression and offers me the perspective I need to keep on going.

So, I just wanted to say, thank you video games, you have literally saved my life.

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