Depression and Gaming: A Personal Journey

By on October 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm

We’ve all read the scare stories in the mainstream media. You know the ones, telling the uninformed of the horrible things that a life of playing video-games can cause. The list of alleged negative impacts for our favourite pastime is ever growing, as we regularly shake our heads at tabloids declaring the likes of increased aggression, desensitisation to violence (make your mind up media; it can’t be both), and now even outright death among the things to fear from gaming.

One thing that is mentioned less than others, is depression. While it doesn’t grab the headlines for the daily rags (the UK ones in particular) as successfully as ”criminal scum played games”, it’s a link that often frustrates me. The reason? I, until recently, have been struggling with moderate-severe depression for most of my adult life, and I found games to have an actually positive, profound effect upon my life.

It’s a strange thing. Depression nearly always gets mentioned when someone in the public eye has their knickers in a twist about videogames, yet there is very little referable research on the matter. I really wanted to be that guy, the one that came forward with a balanced, insightful piece that covered all the bases and reported the facts as research showed it. Unfortunately, however, any such conclusive evidence is a very hard thing to find. Try as I might, I could only find articles quoting the words of “experts”, with no actual linkage to any published works. In the end, the only thing I could do is use myself as the case study and tell you about my own situation over the last decade.

As the effects and nature of depression is so different to everyone, it would probably be best to start by explaining a little about my own background. While the actual cause of my depression was never completely pinpointed, I first became fully aware of the term “mental illness” in my early twenties. Looking back it’s easy to see that the problems I faced were probably affecting me long before that, especially in social situations, however it was only around then that I started to figure that I may have some underlying issues. Not that anyone around me would know about it. As exhausting as it was, I became an expert at hiding it from my closest friends and family; to them I was a normal guy for my age, happy-go-lucky and social, where in reality I was often deeply uncomfortable.

Eventually the charade became too much, and it made me withdraw, made me not want to do anything, made me hate my work and everything I did. Following advice on the internet I would still try to force myself into ‘normal’ situations, as living a normal life was always cited to be the saviour. It’s easy for those that don’t understand to say “just buck up” and “snap out of it”, but it’s never that simple as you just can’t summon the energy even if you wanted to. Nothing ever really worked, as I only ever felt safe in my cocoon of loneliness, and that in itself made me feel numb.

I probably seem as if I’m trying to paint a romantic picture of some sort of tragic, tortured artiste, but it couldn’t further from the truth as I was happy in spells. Depression is not cool, it’s not avant-garde or anything like that, I wasn’t playing on it for attention as was hinted by some in my circles when I went public (I didn’t want the attention); it’s a horrible place to be and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Many people don’t have something that they can turn to that will make things feel better, but I had gaming, and it would often help to pull me out of the worst of emotional slumps.

Gaming offered me a place where I didn’t have to be an insignificant loser. It gave me a place to be the hero, or the villain, if I so wanted. It gave me new worlds and entire universes to explore that were more welcoming than my own, providing intricate stories I could be a part of and have a direct effect on. It was these simple pleasures that would deflect the darkest of thoughts and pull me through slightly happier on the other side.

It wasn’t just in deep single-player games that I found solace, either. In online gaming I found it a way to make me feel self-worth; I could be useful or vital to a team, be their major player, be complimented because I’d performed well. These were all feelings that I was desperately missing from real-life, and gaming helped fill the void. Maybe I was taking it all too seriously, maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough in the people I physically had around me, but it’s all I felt I had.

For every moment I felt at my absolute lowest, there was a Resident Evil 4, there was a Mass Effect, a Bioshock, a Bayonetta. They were all there, non-judgemental and ready to pull me through and have me smiling come the end. At the very least it could give me a way to walk out into the world slightly happier, at least feeling something. Street Fighter IV alone kept me going throughout the toughest period I faced, a long six months where I battled combatants around the world as well as my own demons. Gaming helped keep my mind active and occupied where there would have only been bile and anger.

That was just the immediate aid that gaming gave me, as it would go on to have far deeper effects through sheer circumstance. It was through playing online that I would eventually meet two of the best friends I’ve ever had in real-life, people who would be the catalysts to my eventual recovery. They were the first to encourage me to seek professional and medical help for what I was going through. These are nice people that had a positive impact on me, nice people who I wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for playing videogames.

It was also early on in that period that I started to write about games, carving a way for me to express myself creatively, eventually allowing me to be fortunate enough to start making money from my passion while sowing the seeds for future careers. The knock-on effect of that alone lead me to have the first random encounters with my wife; something that I will forever be thankful for.

I’m on the other side of that dark place now, happy and content; life is good. Sounds hammy and too sickly to be true, doesn’t it? Fear not, I’ll be the last person to claim that gaming “saved my life”. The point of this piece is not to claim that the links between depression are either accurate or bogus, as I don’t have those answers and anyone who claims to have them, in either direction, is probably lying. I’m not about to insinuate that gaming is the answer to depression, either; my experiences won’t be the same for everyone. I merely wanted to present one story where gaming has had a positive influence on someone’s life rather than a negative – a sadly rare thing to see in this day and age.

This is a reprinted article from the previous version of games.on.net. The original comment thread is located here.

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