Since the age of 10, video games have been my favorite way to escape from reality. As a girl living in one of the most impoverished and violent areas of Chicago’s south side, I didn’t have a lot of freedom to go outside to play. Gaming became a huge part of my life. Video games were more than just entertainment for me, it was the way I bonded with my older brother. He indirectly used video games to improve my reading and problem solving skills, (and also to have someone to PWN regularly.)
Growing up, I regularly heard negative opinions about gaming, such as:
“Video games are a time wasting past time.”
“Video games can cause violent behavior.”
“Video games result in isolating behavior.”
These myths lead people to believe that gaming has no practical purpose, no meaningful connection to everyday life. However, this was never my experience. The isolation I experienced was the direct result of the way that young women (especially young black women) were socialized, and the male-centric way that video games were marketed. When I was growing up in the early 90s, video games were for boys. But I was the only girl in my family. I was always exposed to video games, but not to other girls who played them.
Gaming has shifted from being a personal pastime of mine to being part of my career. Despite being known as a “geek of all trades,” I am not a pro-gamer. I am a video game connoisseur. I’m a sucker for game mechanics, character development, and story lines. As a grown up who is fairly good at adulting, I can say with certainty that the countless hours of my life that I’ve invested in gaming helped me practice real and meaningful skills that I still use to this day.
Gaming taught me team work. It helped hone my problem solving skills. Games help me develop creativity, learn how to keep cool in high pressure situations, and, most importantly, learn how to bounce back from failure. It gave me my first taste of believing I had the power to be a hero.
That belief was put to the test a couple years ago when I experienced one of the scariest challenges in my life.
There is only one person on the planet who publicly refers to me as her “wifey.” Of the amazing people I’ve had the pleasure to befriend throughout my life, she is one of the closest. So it was really alarming to me when one day, this talented, highly capable and productive woman started to demonstrate behaviors very different from the person I’d come to know so well. Because of some heart-wrenching obstacles that were both medical and emotional, she started to fall into a deep depression, punctuated by severe anxiety. While I’m not a clinical psychologist, I do know how to detect when someone is displaying symptoms of mental illness. Mental health issues can be a tough monster for anyone to fight, and the social stigma around psychiatric disorders can make a person’s struggle even harder.
What my friend was going through wasn’t simple, in fact, the experience led to her being diagnosed with PTSD. I couldn’t just say “Don’t be sad, things will be okay, look at all the great things in your life” because she was incapable of seeing anything beyond her own pain. It became exhausting for her to explain what was wrong and how she was feeling. It made her feel broken and alone to not be able to function as she once had. I could see she started to feel buried by her depression, she was too ashamed to discuss it with others, and finding a way out seemed nearly impossible… until she attempted suicide to release herself from the pain.
Seeing her this way hurt so much. She was in a constant state of despair, and nothing seemed to ease it. When we spent time together, I initially tried to do the things I thought she wanted to do, but that didn’t work very well because it never seemed to distract her from her negative cycle of rumination that only made her depression and anxiety worse. I started to feel quite helpless. Then one day, in an effort to take her mind off things for a while, I shoved a video game controller into her hands and turned on my Playstation. Now keep in mind, my friend is a geek in her own right. But, in her own words, she “ain’t no gamer.” So initially, I didn’t think she’d be interested. But that day, something awesome happened.
Inviting my friend into my world of gaming actually helped her escape her world of pain. Instead of isolating in her feelings, she could be part of a team. She was able to contribute to something that had an attainable goal. And seeing me get excited (and overly competitive) made her a bit happier, mainly because she was always aware of the profound impact her depression had on me.
Little Big Planet was our go-to game. It’s cute, but sometimes pretty challenging. To access many parts of the various levels, teamwork is needed. The triumph of working together to complete a level and collect stickers was amazing. We talked and strategized during gameplay, yelled at the tv screen when we fell to a fiery death on our least favorite board, and actually experienced fun again for the first time in almost a year. It felt important to us. We both escaped our lives to be cute little sack people saving the day and blowing stuff up. Gaming greatly reduced outside distractions, ultimately helping both of us to feel a little less anxious and crumby about life.
Next, I introduced her to 1010, a simple puzzler game that she could play without me, but we could still compete by trying to beat each other’s high score. Despite me being the self-proclaimed gamer, she would gleefully whoop my ass in it every time. I could often hear a hint of that sass she was known for when she asked what my score was, KNOWING I couldn’t beat her.
Then there was Naughty Bear. This is an old school one. The premise is that you are creatively terrorizing adorable teddy bears that bleed glitter. This game is morbid, violent and weird, but also a great way to relieve tension if you are stressed. It was similar to beating a pillow. My friend had a lot of pent up anger that she rarely let out in a healthy way. So this is hands down one her favorite games of all time.
My friend soon became genuinely interested in the games that I played alone, often times staying over at my place just to watch me play games like Deus Ex or Dishonered. Instead of laying on my couch in silence as she had numerous times before, she started to ask me about the paths I took and the choices I’d make as the hero of the game. Maybe my enthusiasm was slightly infectious. Or maybe she just thought it was hilarious to witness Competitive Keisha who only comes to life when I’m playing video games.
Though gaming wasn’t a quick-fix for my friend’s problems, it was incredibly exciting that my favorite pastime could actually be therapeutic. Gaming together created a goal that focused our attention and created a sense of motivation and determination, allowing her to bond with me without feeling pressured to talk about her depression. I believe it also did these things.
- Relieved feelings of isolation
- Created a healthy outlet for emotions
- Reduced outside distractions, therefore temporarily reducing anxiety
- Created a space to feel valuable in a team setting
- Created a deeper bonding experience between friends a differing interest.
In my mind, gaming allowed us to escape reality and it’s challenges and for a little while to be two badasses saving the world. And sometimes, when you are battling feelings of inadequacy, whether real or virtual, knowing that your contributions are needed and valued can make an authentic difference.
Nowadays, my friend is making an awesome recovery from the darkest era of her life. She has become a vocal advocate for people battling mental health issues. She does a popular video series for Afropunk that racks up hundreds of thousands of views. She has music being featured in an upcoming show on Netflix. And the most humbling part of all is she credits me with saving her life. I recently spoke to Boonie Sripom (a video game advocate with a masters in psychology) and asked if it’s possible that there is a positive connection between gaming and mental health. And, surprisingly, there is.
“I agree that gaming can provide people what they need in their darkest moments, especially when you have a friend to walk along your journey, ” Boonie says. “Having social support is important, which is why so many of us might spend hours upon hours online. We’re looking for connection and understanding, and moments of compassion. I think gaming has the capacity to do this. When games are used with intention, purpose, or a goal in mind, these skills developed can definitely be transferred to fighting your monsters and learning new strategies at life. Having or being a compassionate friend for fellow gamers who are struggling can be one of the most fulfilling things. We are a community, we have purpose, and we can offer each other kindness when we feel alone or misunderstood.”
Of course, introducing my friend to gaming was not the only thing I did to help her navigate her depression and anxiety. She really went through some trying times, and I was there throughout the entire 3 year long ordeal. Despite her very public activism for mental health awareness, I can say with certainty that half of her story has never been told. And maybe it never will. But now that we are on the other side of this experience, something pretty cool has happened. We both developed a new appreciation for the therapeutic side of gaming. Since the age of 10, video games have been my favorite way to escape from reality. Now, as an adult, I can tell you firsthand that gaming can help people escape depression.
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