What Playing Video Games Has Taught Me About Managing Mental Health
Words: Joe Donnelly
On May 12, 2008, my uncle Jim killed himself. No matter how many times I write that sentence down, it still shocks me. That moment, 12 years ago, set me off on my own mental health journey, one which has delivered a handful of highs, a fair number of lows, and an inadvertent, but nevertheless enlightening, degree of self-discovery. In that time, video games have been a constant throughout.
Don't get me wrong, I've learned loads from books, film and television in my quest to understand the depression and anxiety disorder I now struggle with - brought on, so say doctors, by the brutal nature of my uncle's death. But the learn-by-doing nature of video games has taught me so much, and I've used them as a means of escapism time and time again in recent years, when things in real-life have left me overwhelmed.
It's Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK (May 18-24), and against the prolonged periods of isolation and social distancing we've faced over the last several weeks, stressing the positive links between mental health and gaming feels more important now than ever.
When my uncle Jim died, I threw myself into 2K Boston/Irrational Games' BioShock to escape my new reality, and revelled in battering the game's Splicer baddies upside the head with a wrench - a cathartic process that I found was similar to laying one on a punchbag at the gym. On the day I first visited my GP to discuss my ailing mental health, I almost missed my appointment due to the fact I just couldn't pull myself away from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
While starting out on a course of anti-depressant medication, I realised I shared more in common with Evan Winter, the protagonist in Will O'Neill's Actual Sunlight - a narrative game about an everyman fumbling through the 9-5 grind, while struggling with depression - more than I ever could with Nathan Drake. And I concluded that was totally fine.
There are a wealth of indie video games that tackle themes of mental illness head-on - such as Zoë Quinn's Depression Quest, WZO Games' Little Red Lie and Infinitap's Neverending Nightmares, to name but a few - whereas larger-scale endeavours such as Ninja Theory's dark-fantasy action battler Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice features a protagonist with psychosis.
While writing my upcoming book Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Our Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives (out July 2020, published by 404 Ink), I discovered a roleplaying community within Grand Theft Auto Online who meet up to discuss their mental health experiences, using Los Santos as a site for shared virtual therapy sessions.
In circumstances where real-world exploration is less straightforward, I had mental health professionals extoll the virtues of games like Minecraft, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the positive effects their far-reaching sandbox worlds can provide from a perspective of wellbeing, and how Fortnite's online spectrums are perfect for digital socialising during times where loneliness is a silent killer.
I also learned about Broadcast 4 Reps, an opt-in in-game counselling service that operates within the popular space simulation game EVE Online. Established following the tragic suicide of veteran player John Bellicose, this collective of good samaritans operates on a voluntary basis, offering other players anonymous advice and support as and when they might need it.
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"Day-to-day, our work with Broadcast 4 Reps can be as simple as monitoring our in-game channel and Discord server," says key member Glenn 'Tovanis' Patterson. "Traffic ebbs and flows around the year, but during holiday seasons, we tend to see more traffic. Sometimes it's just monitoring what's happening, sometimes it's dealing with individuals who've spoken up, and sometimes it can be dealing with more serious and involved issues as they might arise."
Another of the group's core members, Lukas 'Jezaja' Hielscher, adds: "The moderators monitor the chat channels. If someone wants to talk, we're there to pick it up. We speak via DMs or whatever suits the individual in need at any given time. EVE players, on average, are somewhere between 30 and 50 years old, and this is also the main age of young men who kill themselves. Awareness of this is one of the main reasons why I wanted to join and help Broadcast 4 Reps."
John's mother, who goes by the name 'Mom Bellicose', is also supportive of Broadcast 4 Reps, and through the initiative has become active in the EVE Online community, regularly attending the game's global fan events in Las Vegas and Reykjavík.
"That's the main message we always try to communicate," says Jezaja. "We are not professionals, we're simply trying to provide the missing link between the player who seeks help and the potential professional who they might seek out afterwards."
To be clear, I too am not a mental health professional. When I left school, I became a plumber and gas fitter, and decided to pursue a career in journalism in the wake of my uncle Jim's death. I wanted to write about video games and my mental health journey, and in publishing certain articles online, I had some of my closest friends contact me privately on social media, telling me they too had suffered bouts of poor mental health in the past, they'd started counselling, or they'd thought about embarking on a course of anti-depressant medication.
These are guys I played football with, guys I shared a pint with every week, and yet they never once cracked a light or suggested they were struggling behind the scenes. In an ideal world, we'd all feel comfortable enough to share those stories publicly, but the fact they felt able to do so via Twitter or Instagram DMs is definitely better than nothing. By using the common ground of video games, here were a handful of stiff-upper-lip, West of Scotland-born men sharing their feelings in the most unlikely yet heart-warming way.
Could more online video games have initiatives like EVE Online's Broadcast 4 Reps? I think a better question is: should more games have them? And I'm sure the answer is yes. Whether you play for fun, to escape the real world, to mix with friends or to learn; whether you play FIFA, Football Manager, Fortnite or Final Fantasy XIV - video games are such a powerful storytelling tool. And if playing video games can help generate mental health awareness or help improve individual mental health in the process, then that's surely a great thing. They've helped mine, and, through my own experiences, I'm sure they can help yours or someone you know.
Joe Donnelly writes about video games and mental health. His upcoming book Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Our Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives, published by 404 Ink, is due in July 2020. Follow the author on Twitter at @deaco2000, and GAMINGbible at @GAMINGbible.
Featured Image Credit: Ninja Theory / 2K Games