On Anxiety, Control, and Video Games

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There is a piece of advice that anyone who writes anything for the internet is given, at least once and usually multiple times: ‘Don’t post anything personal, they’ll eat you alive if you do’. And, thus far, with very few exceptions, I’ve stuck to that. I keep my personal stuff more or less offline, mostly because I don’t want to risk over-sharing. However, this time, I’m going to break that rule just a little bit so that I can talk, briefly, about my experiences with video games and anxiety disorder.

First, a little background.

I don’t know when I first realized that I was more prone to anxiety than most other people were. I mean, I know when it was that I was first diagnosed with anxiety disorder, but the problems, of course, originate further back than all that, and I’m still not really sure what the root causes are. Not really. What I do know is that sometimes things get so overwhelming that I just shut down. I can’t deal with it. It manifests itself in social situations as well. Sometimes, I can’t deal with being in crowds, or carrying on conversations with people even though I’ve known them for years. And there’s a lot more to it than even what I let on. Suffice to say, anxiety is a part of my thought process that I have had to struggle with a lot, off and on.

The other constant in my life has been video games. That one is pretty obvious, and I’ve talked about it a lot before. I’m not one of those people who thinks that video games have to be serious business all the time, even though I do consider them to be a legitimate, if young, art form. When I’m asked why I play video games, I usually respond with a somewhat general answer like “Escapism”. And that is not an invalid answer, either, since that’s really what they’re made for anyway. What I’m saying, though, is that I don’t really play for competition or as a test of skill. So, for me, escapism is probably the most valid generic answer that I can give. But is it really the whole story?

Escaping from what, exactly?

The thing with a word like ‘escape’ means that it’s implying that there is something from which you want to get away. I think that the common use of the word implies an escape from everyday life for a short time. Action movies are called ‘escapism’ because they give us a glimpse of some other world in which people are able to do, and possibly survive, things that you and I couldn’t. Video games can be seen as the extension of that, because we’re given control over a character that is able to do those things. There are definitely no shortage of games that let us shoot guns that may or may not exist, drive fast cars, planes, or spaceships, and generally be a more awesome person than we probably ever would get the chance to be in our own lives.

But is that the only kind of escapism there is?

Control, and the loss thereof.

Anxiety manifests in a great many ways in a great many people, but one common theme that runs through quite a few instances of anxiety is fear of the loss of control of one’s own life. Whether the instigator for that fear is money, relationships, work-related occurrences, illness, automobile accidents, or really anything else, the point is that something is making one feel as if they have no control over the direction their own life is taking.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

assuming direct control

Video games are, at their most basic level, about being in control of how things are going. Oh, sure there is challenge and there are obstacles, but the most basic assumption in a video game is that the player has control of the character. That control might be highly dependent on skill, and sure there are games that do, at some point or another, briefly remove control from the player for narrative effect.  In general, in order for it to be a game and not some other form of structured narrative, there must exist an interface for the player to interact with the game.

More than the basics.

But it’s more than that, really, at least for me. Sure, there’s the issue of control, but there is also the secondary issue of implied progress. It’s the idea that if I work hard enough, there will be some kind of forward momentum. Now, I’m not the kind of person who expects a reward out of life every step of the way, but I know that in the real world, the deck is overwhelmingly stacked against anyone seeking to get ahead.

A video game, on the other hand, is a closed system that is centered solely around the experience of the player. Therefore, there is always a method of forward progress. Not enough money for a new armor set? Fight some random battles to save up. Seeking the experience of being a necessary and valued member of a team? Queue up for a dungeon in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV. Can’t make it through an area in Dark Souls? Work on your reflexes, muscle memory, and remembering where the enemies are.

Okay so maybe not the best example out there.

An escape from anxiety.

The point of all of this is that the term ‘escapism’, for me, reflects the way that video games can take my mind off of my real-world anxieties for a short time. I know that there is an inherent danger there that the artificial progress in video games can remove the desire to put effort into the real world where progress is not guaranteed. However, that danger is present in any form of entertainment-based escapism. The important part is that it’s there. For a time, I can feel as if I am in control of my existence and that my choices matter.

In doing so, I can start to develop coping mechanisms for the times in my actual life in which I feel like control is slipping away. Sure, I may not be buying a full set of armor and a broadsword, but I can apply goal-oriented money management techniques. I might not be taking down a cult of necromancers with four other people, but I can still learn the focus that is needed to do the very best that I can in the role I fill on my team at work. And I might not be careening down a racetrack, dodging reckless drivers of both the homicidal and suicidal variety, but…. well, scratch that, I do drive on the interstate every day, so that skill is actually directly applicable.

Pictured: a typical interaction on Interstate 35.

In conclusion?

I’m not saying that video games are the pinnacle of treatment here. At best, they offer us what any other entertainment offers us: a brief escape from the reality that the world might not be what we would like it to be. If a person does have severe anxiety issues, I urge that person to seek treatment and counseling. What I am saying is that sometimes, in the moment, it helps to be able to have control of something. To know that effort will result in progress. To know that for a time, the world can have clearly defined systems and boundaries, and a story can have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

And sometimes, for a brief moment, that’s all a person needs.

1 comments on “On Anxiety, Control, and Video Games”

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