Phoenix Down: Video Games and (My) Mental Health

I love video games. I probably don’t need to say that. I created a website to spew poorly organized, mediocre writing about the things, knowing that virtually no one will read it. That’s probably not something you do for a hobby you don’t care about. I don’t allow this love to identify me as a person. The older I get, the less I feel comfortable about calling myself something and allowing others to make assumptions about me based on those labels. But there are times when I realize just how much games mean to me. The loud, popular media narrative about video games often focuses on their potential to negatively affect people’s mental health. That wouldn’t be a surprise for people who follow the industry, and it would also not be much of a surprise to hear about the many (but less popular) articles, academic papers, and presentations about the potential for positive impact on people’s mental health.

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The tale is probably familiar and almost cliché to many video game fans: “video games saved my life,” the refrain goes. For people who don’t play games, or do and have little experience with mental health issues, it probably sounds trite or hyperbolic. And maybe in some cases it is. There are always people who exaggerate things because, well, I don’t really care why. It doesn’t matter. Some people might claim that something has saved their life every other week, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who claims it is lying or being hyperbolic. Some of the mistrust is probably due to the ambiguity surrounding the claim that anything other than the obvious (a medic giving you CPR, an injection of adrenaline, a deployed airbag, etc.) can save your life. It’s easy to point to something like bypass surgery and say that it saved your life, but mental health issues are far more nebulous. It’s much harder to definitively prove that a video game, or a therapy session, or a hug prevented someone from losing the will to live and giving up on life (literally, in terms of suicide, or figuratively, in terms of completely withdrawing from friends, family, work, etc.).

This is all just a longwinded introduction to talking about my recent experience with video games and mental health. Even though I’m not making the claim that video games saved my life, because I don’t know how close I was to being suicidal or in danger of serious social and professional withdrawal, I can say that last year (2016) was a very dark year for me. I was having internal crises in every aspect of my life. Success in one or more sector of my life usually gives me a sense of balance, or at least staves off the feeling of complete uselessness or self-loathing. I felt no such balance during that time. Every sector felt like it was collapsing, and I was struggling to feel optimistic about any of it.

It’s a far too complex story to share here, but I was engaged in a constantly escalating battle with my university’s housing and financial offices in the fall of 2015. I had clear evidence that they were at fault, but I had to go all the way to a neutral appeals panel – after months of fighting – to win my claim. ‘Winning’ meant that I could stay at the university, but I didn’t exactly feel welcomed anymore. No one fought for me. I was told more than once that no one at the university could help me or stand up for me because it would be acting against the university’s best interest (which didn’t make sense, because if the housing and finance offices had won I would have had to leave the university and they would have lost out on the money that they were trying to unjustly squeeze from me anyway).

So I began 2016 feeling less than enthused about my place of work – I teach here as well, as part of my grad student financial aid package – and academic study. Where I once felt like I was wanted and valued, I then felt like I was a troublemaker who would have been better off somewhere else. Combine this with my first issue with a grad professor who seemed to have a personal problem with me during the spring semester, financial problems from the fight with the school and having to move on such short notice (again, as a result of the fight with the school), and summer was not as fun as it should have been. I tutored seventh grade math over the summer, and that went relatively well, but it didn’t do much for my career so it felt like a bit of a hollow victory. The rest of the summer was a haze that I barely even remember now.

I dreaded starting school again in the fall, and I’d been experiencing some chest pains and breathing issues just before the semester started, but I had to wait for the official start of the semester to see a doctor because I have student insurance. I was feeling easily winded, sweating profusely from short walks, having moments of dizziness where I felt like I couldn’t stand, and my legs often just felt weak. Granted, I’d gained a lot of weight over the preceding months, but all of this was new to me and I was worried that I was having heart problems or had developed diabetes. I was at the doctor’s office every other week for most of the semester, being tested and trying various medications that had varying levels of non-success. Mentally and emotionally, I felt detached from most things. I dropped one of my classes early in the semester, and I was having trouble keeping up with one of the remaining two classes I was taking. The attendance in the classes I was teaching was lower than normal. I felt distant from my friends and family, and my relationship was suffering (more than it had been previously).

My doctor ended up diagnosing me with depression and anxiety, and said that I was having physical manifestations of the two – I was having frequent ‘panic attacks.’ The diagnosis didn’t really help like I thought it might. It made me feel worse, actually. How could I not handle my life? Surely I’d been under greater stress in the military. I’d been through divorce, uprooting my whole life, being asked to suddenly move out as a teenager – how could I have gotten to a point where I was physically breaking down because I couldn’t handle the mental and emotional pressure? By the time the semester ended and winter break approached, I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t check my grades. I stopped checking my email. I avoided social commitments. I wished I was dead.

That sounds dramatic, but it was a thought that passed through my mind at least             once every couple of days. I didn’t want to kill myself, and I wasn’t fantasizing about dying or how my death would affect others – I just didn’t want to have to deal with my life and I didn’t see any reasonable way out of it. I didn’t want pity or people to think that I was overreacting, so I stayed pretty quiet about it.

Winter break was very busy and had its share of headaches, but ultimately I came out of it in a much better place. The various medications that I’d tried during the fall hadn’t helped, and most of the issues I had were either still around or poised to get worse in the coming months, but at some point I became angry about where I was in life and became determined to not let it defeat me. I live my life in Batman metaphors (I know, don’t we all?), so I couldn’t help but think about my situation as being similar to Bruce Wayne in Bane’s prison in The Dark Knight Rises. He ended up there because he felt lost and irrelevant, and as Bane points out, he’d wanted to die. I didn’t have a city that needed me, but I felt a similar kind of anger and determination to pull myself out of the hole I had gotten myself into, so I began my own journey out of darkness. And here I am. I still have a lot to deal with, but I feel strong enough to deal with it. Bring it, life.

So where do video games play into all of this? Did video games play a role in causing my mental health issues or pulling me out of it? Those are hard questions to answer and I’m not going to try and argue for either, but I do want to lay my gaming experience alongside my mental health issues and see what comes up. The reason I’m even thinking about it, honestly, is because I had pretty much given up on playing video games until the spring before all of this started. That spring, around a year and a half ago, I decided to make room in my life for games again, regardless of how hectic and busy it might seem at times. Prior to that, I’d basically given up on gaming completely during school months, but I was increasingly resentful about feeling guilty over wanting to do something that I enjoyed because of perceived professional pressure (say that three times fast). So I wanted to change that, and have been pretty good about keeping my promise to myself throughout all of my health issues.

I don’t think I ever let my game playing get too out of hand, to the point where I was missing out on important work stuff, so I don’t think it was a direct contributor to the decline in my mental health. It seems more likely, if anything, that I was perhaps avoiding having to face some of my issues by doing one of the only fun things I had access to, which was playing games. That could also be considered a positive thing, though, if you consider it a coping mechanism. I might have engaged in some other kind of avoidance, though, like YouTube binges or aimless Internet browsing, if I hadn’t played games. I thought, during the summer, at the center of that storm, that having more than a month to play video games and relax would recharge me and pull me out of what I thought was a temporary funk. I had no such luck, which means that video games aren’t necessarily like a medication that you can take regularly to get well. At least, they weren’t for me at that time.

Something happened when I started playing Final Fantasy XV over this past winter break, though. It was somewhere in the middle of my playthrough that I began to feel differently about my future and my ability to overcome my recent mental blocks and anxiety issues. I don’t necessarily think it was the game itself, but it felt like it had to be a part of it. It was the kind of game that I looked forward to playing, that I would think about when I wasn’t playing, that I would wish I could dream about every night. It wasn’t just a distraction, or something to keep my mind from drifting to stressful topics, it genuinely brought me happiness and filled my brain with positive chemicals and hormones. It was the kind of game that made me remember just how deep my love for video games runs, and what they bring to my life.

Let me just reiterate that I’m not claiming that Final Fantasy XV or video games ‘saved my life’ or in any way solved any of my major life problems. In fact, I still have many of those problems to face as of this writing. But with my love of video games rekindled at a pitch that I haven’t experienced in some time, I can’t deny that video games are playing at least a relevant part in how I see the near future. Will I love every game as much as I did Final Fantasy XV? Probably not. But with high quality games like Resident Evil 7, which I’m playing now, and Horizon Zero Dawn, which I just got in the mail today and getting almost universal praise, I have joyous experiences to look forward to. Even if the rest of my life crumbles around me, I’ll have something. And that means so much.

2 thoughts on “Phoenix Down: Video Games and (My) Mental Health”

  1. This was a really great read. It’s one of the best feelings to find something positive in your life amidst a storm of dark. Keep writing, cuz you’re awesome at it! Posts such as this are an inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

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