It’s easy to see how video games provide spaces for mental health management. They are defined by their variability and individuality, and even their most linear exemplars tell different stories, hold different memories, and offer different challenges with each play-through. As Johnny Chiodini puts it in his video series Low Batteries, video games are effective in this regard because coping mechanisms are as personal as mental health itself.
Chiodini’s most powerful concept from this series is the sadgame. We may make a deliberate decision to play our sadgame, but it is often automatic. One day, we look up and are playing more Skyrim or Mario Kart than usual, because, without realising, we needed the familiarity. A sadgame is not necessarily a game that makes us sad. It is a game we play when we are so.
Since my mother passed away six months ago, I have come to start most days with a cup of coffee and an hour or so on The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Its storytelling, score, and gorgeous gameplay are ample reason enough, yes, but I feel the attraction in my case is more therapeutic. Its pacing is well-balanced enough for each task to feel like a challenge while still being concise and segmented. Here, what G.K. Chesterton said of verbal stories is true of video games too:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
In this hour, I feel I can slay the dragon. This is important.
Many who game often will have applied skills earned from games in the real world. I’ve done well at go-karting because driving simulators taught me to slow down widely into corners so that accelerating tightly out is possible. As an Irish Guard cadet, I passed my marksman exam because, thanks to shooters, I was used to aiming small and timing shots with my lungs. These are specific skills, however.
The most powerful thing gaming endows is the meta-skill of just doing things. Of moving from point A to B. This is crucial. Goal-setting and achievement are essential steps towards recovering the motivation and self-confidence enervated by depressive episodes.
This is not all though.
Any who has dealt with the noonday demon will likely know the sensation of depersonalisation, when you become a detached observer of your own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. In this state, you don’t enjoy the things you used to. Video games are this for me: a far-off totem of the healthy self I used to be. So, I keep playing. In doing so, I honour the buried part of me I’d like to whole again. I’m pretending to a degree, but, as I wrote in the previous part of this series, play is a vital part of what it means to be human.
In his series, Chiodini also discusses games designed to heal specific maladies. At the most everyday level, this includes gamifying apps like Epic Win or Bounty Tasker, the idea behind which is to structure your life like a video game. You complete tasks and accumulate XP to create a sense of momentum. This doesn’t have to be explicit though. Some games do this because of this human imagination rather than specific engineering.
In 2016, Complex reported on Captain Steve Machuga, a soldier who found a way through PTSD by way of Warcraft. On his bad days, Machuga would tell himself he needed to go out and grab something before a raid. “It was like a mantra, a little thing that I could put in my head and focus on. That allowed me to go out.” In his bravery, Captain Machuga used Warcraft as a ritualistic anchor. A sadgame turned up to eleven. A middle finger to the dragon.
Since, Captain Machuga has gone on to form Stack Up, a charity that supports veterans through video games and, in their own words, “geek culture”. You can read more about their vital work here, but, in short, they put into practice what so much research has shown over the last decade: that video games can provide a safe space unlike any other.
Next time, I’ll explore this in detail. Despite what much political waffle would have you think, there are volumes that demonstrate the therapeutic and developmental benefits of video games. Often, it is a medium that provides a sense of control and agency to those who need it most.