Society loves a scapegoat, and all too often it's gaming that cops the blame. The violent nature of video games comes under scrutiny in the wake of tragic shootings, while the rise in mental health issues is, at times, attributed to the increased prevalence of gaming. The concern is for an alleged generation of isolated and introverted youth, lacking in social development due to hours spent in virtual worlds.
Some argue that in many cases gaming is responsible for common mental health conditions including social anxiety and depression, born out of dissatisfaction with the real world in comparison to the virtual space. A similar phenomenon, termed "Pandoran Depression," followed the immensely popular James Cameron film Avatar in 2009, when mundane daily life fell short of how viewers perceived the idyllic fantasy world of the film.
As a means to see how gaming and mental illness correlate in reality, I spoke with four self-professed "gamers" who have also been diagnosed with mental health disorders. Despite their fears of stigma, Lucy, David, Paul, and Erin* bravely opened up to me about how gaming has impacted their struggle with mental illness, for better and for worse.
Now a young woman, Lucy has struggled with social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder since her teenage years. Her life is drastically limited by her apprehension of social encounters and her fear of crowds. Over the past few months, however, the worldwide craze of Pokémon GO has had a big impact on her social life.
"Other than work I don't really go out much and I definitely don't speak to people unless I have to. At first I started playing Pokémon Go just along the creek by my house, and at a nature reserve. But it wasn't long before I started going to more crowded PokéStops or Gyms. Without even thinking about it, let alone stressing about it, I found myself in conversation with a complete stranger, laughing like we were old buddies as we showed each other our Pokédexes and gave advice on where to find ones the other hadn't found yet."
When I told Lucy that I hoped her newfound friendship lasted beyond having her iPhone in-hand, she smiled: "I've gotten a phone number and we've organised to go catch Pokémon together on the weekend … That said, the whole 'Gotta catch 'em all' thing hasn't been good for my OCD. Or Pokémon GO-C-D, I should say." Lucy left with a laugh.
David struggles with a relatively unknown, although dangerously under-diagnosed, condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Similarly to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, where slim people believe they are overweight, BDD is a distortion of body-image where people who appear normal to others believe that some aspect of their appearance, like a freckle or thinning hairline, is disfiguringly ugly and causes them much distress, coupled with obsessive mirror-checking behaviour.
"I'm a big fan of The Legend of Zelda, so, of course, I got Tri Force Heroes back when it came out. Understand, I was in a pretty bad frame of mind at the time. I was too disgusted by myself to even leave my house at all. I was suicidal, you know, pretty serious. When I got Tri Force Heroes, it left me in tears! It was like they were mocking me. Like they were trivialising my struggle, undermining it and turning it into one big joke."
In Tri Force Heroes Link travels to the fashion obsessed Kingdom of Hytopia, where Princess Styla is cursed by Lady Maud to wear an irremovable plain brown jumpsuit. Distraught and in tears, Styla locks herself in her room and doesn't leave until Link frees her from the ugly garb. To most players, the narrative of Tri Force Heroes is little more than a ridiculous afterthought woven around the core three-player gameplay concept. To David, it was emotionally disturbing.
"I know that it's not like they made the game with malicious intent, but a little less carelessness and more thought in the story would've been nice! . . . Once I was over that though, then I had to keep being reminded I was ultimately playing a three-player game all by myself [sigh]."
Akin to David, Paul had been going through a rough patch of mental health, and had lost any semblance of a social circle. Gaming became Paul's way to take his mind "off all the s**t and just get through the day," he said. "Getting home to play Mario Kart was sometimes all I had in my life, but, it got me through." For Paul, what became increasingly frustrating to him was just how social gaming had become, emphasizing how isolated he was.
"I was playing Bravely Default, and every time I'd boot it up there was this screen, 'everything's better with friends' or something like that, promoting all the StreetPass stuff. To me it was like a daily reminder: 'you're a loner!' I was like, 'Thanks, I knew that, can I just do some grinding now in peace?'"
Yet even Paul's story has a silver lining.
"There was a while there when I was so angry, because all these games have voice-chat or Miiverse, or some social network feature you can't escape. I just wanted to be alone… In a twist of events though, seen I couldn't avoid the social stuff, I eventually embraced Miiverse, and you know what, I did feel a bit better once I was talking to people online instead of avoiding everyone. It was a step forward."
Erin is a 17-year-old student who, in recent years, has found herself feeling overwhelmingly apprehensive, fearing teachers might ask her to answer questions in class, or even worse, to give an oral report in front of everyone. "I just like blending into the background, you know? … Sometimes I've even pretended to be sick so I don't have to go to school." It's thanks to playing the recent Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE that Erin has been able to address her social anxiety.
"I honestly didn't know anything about anxiety or depression before playing the game. It's not something that's talked about. I compared myself to my friends and other people and just thought I was weird for being so shy and nervous, anti-social even. Then, in the game, there's Tsubasa freaking out over having to shake-hands at a meet-and-great, because she had a thing called 'social anxiety'. It was a 'huzzuh' moment, like 'wow, this is actually a thing that people go through.' I wasn't alone."
In Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, there's a side-story where the protagonist Itsuki helps his friend Tsubasa overcome her social anxiety by encouraging her to approach strangers on the street and give them a flyer which invites them to attend her meet-and-greet event. This is what's known as immersion therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), where one faces the situation that causes them distress until they acclimate to it, realizing their feelings of excessive worry are unfounded, and over time they become increasingly less apprehensive.
"Seeing all of this in a game, like, the next time I was at my local doctor for something, I mentioned that I thought I might have anxiety, and from there I've been able to get help!"
Because of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Erin not only learned about mental health, but was diagnosed with anxiety and introduced to the therapy techniques used to combat it.
While certain aspects of Tri Force Heroes and Bravely Default were harmful blows to David and Paul's vulnerable emotional states, the social aspects of gaming also helped Paul get back on his feet and Lucy overcome her perpetual social phobia. Without video games, Erin would likely still be suffering in silence, thinking her anxiety was just her "weirdness," and Paul might not have had a release to take his mind off his woes.
What the stories of these four individuals reveal clearest is that nothing is as simple as black or white. There is no straight-forward correlation where situation 'X' always causes outcome 'Y', but rather, a whole plethora of biological and environmental facets in everyone's life feeding into the state of their mental health. Gaming is merely a medium, one that can be both social and solitary, just as it can both cause harm or be a great deal of help, depending on your circumstances.
*Please note that the people interviewed for this article elected to remain anonymous and so pseudonyms were used. All stories were published with permission. Thank you again to all contributors for sharing your experiences.