A revised version of this article was published with The Huffington Post on 10/10/2016. It featured on both their Young Voices page and their overall UK homepage that morning. Its permalink can be found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ollie-ship/mental-health-video-games_b_12363802.html
For the longest time I’ve struggled with my mental health.
The shortest ‘answer’ I have come to is find the things that make it all worthwhile –– from the smallest coffee with a friend to a favourite book or event –– and cling on to them as best you can. As it is the things that give us reason that make perseverance in anyway possible.
But how we fight the proverbial demons is less clear cut. Like many others, I struggle to switch off. Whether that be back-burning anxiety or a knack to overthink what lies in front of me; it plagues my very productivity regardless of how better I’m feeling on the whole. I won’t digress into the finer details, but a relapse or set-back is an unfathomable problem. It’s a physical issue that you simply cannot prepare for.
I have, however, found a couple of precautions. These are by no means be-all-end-all but they are methods that have proved successful for me.
The predominant one is exercise. Every doctor will support this. I like to joke about running away from my problems, but it certainly works. Yes, my eyes rolled too when I was told this, but seriously –– it does work.
The other, less conventional activity, is video games.
As the audience gasps at the medium supposedly causing Millennial violence, corrupting young minds and promoting poor health –– hear me out. I genuinely believe the medium supposedly damaging our brains is actually a vessel for clearing them.
Video games are, in short, the most demanding medium of our time. Whilst I insist intellectually that they are no different to any other art form –– this very blog dissects its use of character and narrative as merely another text –– it boasts an interactivity that no other format can obtain. For many this is perceived as low taste: film or literature can hold one’s attention without such spectacle or obtrusiveness. It does so with a supposed greater intellectualism too. But there is something deeply cathartic about the video game’s forthrightness; in its inability to be passive.
For years I’ve seen video games as a very tangible form of escapism. A film can be paused, a page can be folded and whilst I’m well aware similar features exist for games, it demands attention with greater ferocity. Although I don’t consider myself ‘a gamer’, I certainly notice the physicality of what it entails. It forces attention away form other parties. I’m not inundated with job rejection emails, unread Tinder messages, #HealthKick hashtags and the anxiety-inducing bullshit wagon that is the iPhone Notification Centre when I’m fighting aliens. I’m not itching for my phone — something I invariably do — when I have a world to save or tombs to raid. Even for a self-confessed film aficionado, I find only in the confinement of the cinema that I no longer contend with distraction. Gaming, therefore, represents the most immediate disconnect from reality. Making it a damn useful waste of my time.
Whilst I appreciate that for many gaming is merely another facet of their digital lives –– making this viewpoint entirely meaningless –– note that such a medium strives hardest to unplug the real world. To stick two-fingers up to reality through the very activity it implores. For that they must be lauded. As of late, however, I’ve identified a deeper quality. In its simplest form, video games offer a sense of challenge and progression. You may be knocked back but in perseverance and time you inevitably win the match, beat the level and defeat the bad guy. Albeit it online rankings or merely progressing though a single-player campaign, the very structure of video games is designed to be a progressive exercise.
Of course, the benefits of such is entirely trivial. Your digital prestige means fuck all in the real world. But I am not equating video game achievement to real-world success. The highest Gamerscore does not garner respect from myself or anyone I know. But rather, the process in gaining such is cognitive and therapeutic itself. It allows one to vent stress –– usually though action-packed or adventurous scenarios –– and project anxieties upon the ‘stupid game’ before them. In offering this structural investment and reward, it becomes more systematic than mere extravagant escapism. Rinse and repeat.
The correlation between this is far from scientific. I feel it’s more socialised. We’re told that video games are a waste of time, shunned by high-culture as being somehow introverted or weird. But in lieu of recent phenomenons, namely Pokemon Go, we see a wider shift towards celebrating this medium. In fact, in a clumsy attempt of product placement in House of Cards, Frank Underwood remarks that playing video games help him cope with the stresses of political life. It offers little more than fleeting character development, but his defence for video games has heavier weight. Not that gaming turns political figures into machiavellian maniacs, but rather, the video game is a switch-off; a fire-exit from the stress of everyday life. One that can help even the highest in society. Ergo, I see this process –– the rewarding, low-brow attention sponge it may be –– as something radically useful. Yet it’s rarely taken seriously.
I guess the point I should be making is far looser: find things that let you escape. It’s the other half to the equation I opened with: find what gives you reason. I’m certain there are plenty of substitutes for everything I have described here. But there is something unique about the gaming experience that is deeply therapeutic, if not relevant, to the issues at hand. Its physicality and immersion is most pertinent. And it quite literally keeps me sane.
Above all else, it requires clearing your head through whatever means that takes. I would suggest eating well, exercising regularly and switching off your phone every once in a while. But it’s not my place to say how one should combat these things. To this day, I still struggle with my mental health when it strikes. All we can really do is open a discussion and appease the moments we falter. However, note that fighting demons, be it internal, external or of the intergalactic variety, is a hell of a lot easier with an M41A pulse rifle. And it’s bloody good fun doing so.
Image Credit: House Of Cards: Season 1, Episode 9 (Netflix, 2013)