Like 1 in 13 people worldwide¹, I have a history with anxiety. My specific mental health journey has involved developing generalized anxiety around the age of 12, my first panic attack occurring when I was 17, and the onset of moderate depression shortly thereafter. Thankfully, I kicked the depression by my second year of university, and I haven’t had a panic attack since 2014. Generally mild yet persistent anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies linger still, but I’ve become much better at recognizing my triggers and knowing instinctively what I need to do for myself to relieve my mental muddle.
Now in my late 20s, I’ve found another, rather surprising tool to add to my mental health mending kit – video games!
While I fondly remember the classic Game Boy ‘brick’ my parents gifted me with as a child, I didn’t truly delve into gaming until around the start of last year. Playing console games has opened up a whole new world (…many worlds, in fact) of entertainment. Not only that, but playing many of these games has helped me better manage my anxieties – and here’s how.
Learning to Let Flow
There’s this positive psychology idea called ‘flow,’ posited by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. Distilled, flow is a mental state in which a person doing an activity experiences intense, focused concentration, a strong sense of agency over what they are doing, and great enjoyment of the thing being done. In a nutshell, they are ‘in the zone.’²
There’s a bit more to it than just that. If you’re interested in learning more about flow, check out Csíkszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk – available here.
So, how do video games come into play? When I’m playing a familiar, enjoyable game, I can often feel ‘in the zone.’ Thanks to the considered design of video games, my goals are clear and challenges are well-matched to my personal skill at any given point during a playthrough. Gaining experience points and loot after taking down a baddie is both intrinsically rewarding and a satisfying form of immediate feedback. As my player character makes his or her way through their fictional world, I feel I have a direct impact on what comes to pass and how it happens – a feeling that can often be missing from everyday life. In times of being ‘in the zone,’ I am empowered.
Let’s talk briefly about how playing video games can help you feel empowered. Every game is different, with some providing their players with more options than others.
Take Dragon Age Inquisition, for example. Canadian video game developer Bioware, the maker of DA:I, is well-known for creating vast open world role playing games that give the player a plethora of options when it comes to interacting with and impacting the in-game world. As someone who gets anxious when I feel I have no choices and no power in a situation, I sure do appreciate that feeling of direct, impactful control that RPGs like DA:I give you.
Knowing it’s an interactive fiction, it still feels good to run around the Inquisitor’s world of Thedas doing good deeds for folks and saving the world from demons, darkspawn, and dragons. After a bit of time spent taking care of business as a butt-kicking, sword-swinging hero, I feel powered up and better able to take on my own real-life fearlings!
Butt-Kicking, Sword-Swinging Heroes
Speaking of heroes… I’m not afraid to admit that a few of my role models are fictional characters from favorite games. Aloy, protagonist of personal favorite game Horizon Zero Dawn, immediately springs to mind. Though fictional, she is a powerful reminder that although we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can determine how we react to unkind people and unfortunate events.
For those unfamiliar with the game, HZD is set far into our future – the year 3021, to be precise – following an initially unclear cataclysm which has left the world with scattered tribes of very few people. Nature has largely reclaimed the buildings and monuments of old, and intelligent, animal-like machines roam the lands. I won’t delve too deep into the story so as to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say Aloy is an outcast of her tribe, the Nora, for reasons beyond her control. Throughout her search for answers about her origins, a menacing threat against the tribe, and the cause of humanity’s decline, she encounters people who speak ill of her and others who mean to do her greater harm. Despite these things, she always remains kind, carrying herself with a sort of nobility that stems from being at peace with one’s self and decisions.
It’s nice having examples like this to look to in entertainment media, especially when feeling a bit unsure of one’s self or the way forward.
An Afterword, from the Author
For me, playing some video games – in particular action-packed, narrative-driven RPGs with strong, inspiring characters – can help me achieve a state of calm and collectedness when I’m feeling a surge of anxiety. I’ve covered a handful of the ways in which I feel I benefit from game play when stressed out, but there are of course others that could be discussed here. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I feel it is important to note that this has been my own personal experience and that others may not find that doing the same things has the same effect. Additionally, I in no way wish to imply that gaming is a panacea; in fact, in rare cases, people have developed an unhealthy reliance on playing video games, using them like a drug and neglecting other areas of life to the detriment of their mental health.³
Whatever tools you decide to store in your own mental health mending kit – be they meditation, nature walks, games, or something else besides – know that it’s all good. Your feelings are valid, it’s alright to talk about them, and you have every right to look after yourself both physically and mentally. In the future, I’ll be posting more about things that can do a mind and body good, and I hope you’ll find a few useful knowledge nuggets if you choose to journey along with me. In the meantime, may you be kind to yourself, and may you be well!
¹ “Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics. Accessed 18 September 2018.
² “Flow (psychology).” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology). Accessed 18 September 2018.
³ Scutti, Susan. “WHO classifies ‘gaming disorder’ as mental health condition.” CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/18/health/video-game-disorder-who/index.html. Accessed 21 September 2018.