Overcoming Gaming Anxiety

I've set myself a challenge to play the video games that make me anxious in the hope to improve my mental health. Below are the results (so far).

Overcoming My Gaming Anxiety - The Challenge
Posted 22/04/2018

My recent trip to EGX Rezzed reminded me of one thing; I really like video games.

There is something special about following one character and not only feeling invested in the story but also feeling like you have control over what happens to them, even if you don't.
This sense of oneness with the protagonist increases your connection to the story and, ultimately, their fate, in a way that TV or film cannot.

Of course, there are some games that are just fun and that's great too.

Unfortunately for me, I can only experience the majority of games that I like, second hand.

In the last few years, I have been very open about my struggle with anxiety and depression as I believe it is very important to talk about mental health wherever possible. My anxiety hinders my ability to play the games that I love so much. Where most feel excitement and curiosity whilst playing, I feel stress and panic. I cannot hide in the forest with Lara Croft. I can't stealth kill alongside Solid Snake. I cannot explore a frightening new world with Joel and Ellie.

Thinking back, this has always been a problem for me. Back in the mid-nineties, I would always 'visit the bathroom' whenever my parents got to the evil scarecrow scene in Toonstruck.

The fight or flight response is something that everyone will come across and some point in their life, but for anxiety sufferers, there is a third option; freeze. The impulse to cease all movement in a distressing situation can become extremely overwhelming, even during video games. For me, the ranking of actions that I can take when nervous are: 

1. Freeze
2. Run away from the situation (flight) 
3. Fight (rarely!)

Of course, I don't avoid all games. Give me a platformer with no consequences for my actions or a team-based shooter based on paintballing and I'm there. The Nintendo Switch has really helped quench my gaming thirst this year, but I want to experience more.

I realised that the reaction my body was having to these games is the same reaction it has in the real world, the only difference being that in the virtual world I am 100% safe.  This made think; what if I can use video games to help me control my anxiety?

So that's exactly what I'm going to do. Starting with something simple, I will play the games that make me feel scared. That make me feel panicked. That make me feel anxious.
I will use the coping methods I have learnt over the last few years and apply them to these artificial worlds with the hope that this can then be transferred into the real world.

First Stop: The Sexy Brutale.

This is an adventure puzzle game that requires sneaking around rooms to solve mysteries whilst avoiding murderers. It may not seem like a challenge for most, but for me the idea of creeping around in the dark and hoping not to get caught makes me freeze up, despite the fact that you get ample time to make your escape when seen.

I'll let you know how I get on!

Challenge - The Sexy Brutale
Posted 06/05/2018

The Sexy Brutale is a great puzzle game where you have to discover and prevent various murders around the mansion using time travel.

[Minor spoilers below]

I first played this game a couple of months ago but immediately gave up during the tutorial. Within the game, you must move around the mansion without anyone seeing you. If they do, the scene goes dark and both yours and the other characters mask light on fire. You then have a certain amount of time to get out of the room.

When I first saw this scene I, without even waiting to see what happened, immediately gave up. I hated the idea of having to sneak around without being seen and didn't want to know what the consequences would be if I stuck around. The thought of simply being chased out of the room whilst everything went black was too much. My heart was pounding and I had to get away. I threw the controller towards my husband and said "Nope. Cant do it. You'll have to play it". So once again, I was sat watching someone else enjoy the game.

The second time, for this challenge, was very different. The game hadn't changed, but my perspective on the game had. Having seen the first hour of gameplay already, I was prepared for what was coming which completely changed how I approached it. I now knew that nothing bad was going to happen if I was in the room with someone. I knew that I had plenty of time to leave the room and that there was nothing at all to be concerned about. I had seen it all before, so I had mentally prepared myself for the game.

Although planning and being prepared for a situation can be a good way of dealing with anxiety, it is not a realistic way to try to get through each day. Unfortunately, you cannot plan for everything that will happen that day and, more often than not, you start to overthink it.

Later in the game, my anxious mind took over again. There was a cutscene that I wasn't prepared for. My character was thrown from a window into a creepy dark auditorium. A stranger appears, telling me that I'm not safe and that he'll be back for me. This made me panic.

I'd gone through the game this far thinking that I was safe and thinking that nothing bad can actually happen, yet here I am with a stranger telling me that this is not true.
After the cutscene, I am placed in a room and appear to be ready to continue the game as normal. But I feel uneasy as if something bad is going to happen. At one point in the game, the room I'm in went dark and I immediately assume that something is going to get me. Even when that doesn't happen, I'm still anxious.

It was time to take a break and calm down. After half an hour of Splatoon 2, I go back to the game. 

This is something that I do a lot of in real life. Finding a way to get away and take a break is a great way to calm yourself down and tell your anxious mind to quiet down. It's a way to step back and analyse the current situation and convince yourself that everything is ok. 

The Sexy Brutale is a great game. It's clever, interesting, and fun to play. Each minor character is interesting and has their own story. The time travel mechanic is nice, although I'm not sure I used it to its full potential.
With regards to anxiety, this game is on the lower end of the stress scale. The only obstacle was the unknown, which I got through using planning and pausing when required. 

Next Challenge: Assassin's Creed Rogue.

Having seen a lot of Assassin's Creed games in the past, I know that there are often missions which required stealth to complete them. Whether it's following an enemy or infiltrating a hostile base, there are, for your character, consequences for failing in these objectives. 

Come back later to see how I get on.

Sometimes, Failure is an Option
Posted 11/06/2018

My most recent gaming challenge was to play Assassin's Creed Rogue in order to test myself with games that have a small amount of stealth and see how I dealt with it.

The result of this challenge is simple. I failed.

I didn't manage to play much of the game at all, purely because I wasn't enjoying it. The beginning of the game is mostly focused on sailing, a mechanic that I was not only rubbish at, but one in which I had no interest.

I didn't complete the challenge, but that's ok. Failure can often be hard for people with anxiety and depression. The feeling that you're not good enough can be ovewhelming, no matter how big or small the defeat, but it's important to remember that you can't always be successful with everything. Sometimes, you just move on and face the next challange.

Whilst I was avoiding Assassins Creed, I found a game on the opposite side of the gaming (and stress) spectrum: Stardew Valley.

Stardew Valley is a game that I decided very early on that I wasn't going to play. Why would I play a pixelated game about farming? It turns out that the reason to play this game is that it is just so relaxing.

I finally decided to play this game after hearing a games reviewer, who speaks openly about their own mental health, talk about how it's a good game to turn to when you're feeling down and anti-social. He was completely right.

The beauty of Stardew Valley is the simplicity of the game. You plant seeds to grow crops, you mine for resources, and you raise cows for milk. You are pulled into a world where there are no big decisions, no negative impacts for your actions and no threats to your health.

It's safe to say that I've been addicted to this game over the last couple of weeks, but that's because it feels like an escape from the real world. If I'm feeling sad or anxious then I can focus on my crops to distract myself and sometimes, in that stress-filled moment, that's all you need to feel calm and safe again.

In the Eurogamer Youtube series Low Bateries, Johnny Chiodini perfectly describes how video games can help with the understanding and management of mental health.

You can find episode 1 of this series below.

The full playlist can be found here

Next Challenge: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

With Stardew Valley now at the top of my safe list, I need to set myself a new challenge. Lucky for me, this recently came through the post:

Wish me luck!

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