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The Problem with Using Video Games as a Cure-All for Mental Health Issues

Gareth Dutton

Games are great escapes, but they're not medicine. At best, they're like using ibuprofen to treat a head injury.

The author's daughters. Photograph courtesy of the author

It'll be fine, this can't be any harder than "Dark Souls," I thought to myself, glibly, as I prepared to deliver my own daughter in the bathroom of our house. It was a half-assed attempt at diffusing the situation in my own mind. We were supposed to jump in the car and get to the hospital for the baby to be delivered there—y'know, by professionals, who had done it at least once before. But things had moved too quickly.

I stared in wide-eyed terror as a living, breathing human appeared in front of me, where there previously wasn't one. A new person had just come into existence, and now I had to catch her. I remember saying, "She's here! She's here!" in a wobbly voice, to the emergency operator. My phone was wedged between my cheek and my shoulder, as if I was making a salad or folding laundry while waiting on hold to customer services. I swung my head to the left to fling the phone away, and held my new daughter in my arms, who was incredibly shouty about being alive. Delivering a goddamn baby. What a night. I stared at the same bathroom tile for 30 minutes afterward, brain completely in shock. I have a faint memory of the paramedic offering a "congratulations" before taking the baby off me to get her checked out. About four minutes later, I replied, "Uh huh."

It wasn't until we got her to hospital that they spotted something wasn't right. They rushed her off to the intensive care unit for further inspection, where her oxygen levels dropped suddenly. I paced around the hospital room, trying to take full breaths and process the information. My heart was missing beats; it felt like a boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my body, and it was taking all I had to stop it from squeezing me tighter. We were taken out of the room when things got worse. They asked us if we had a name for her, and if we wanted to take a picture before we left. I took a picture of her with my phone, as the unspoken hung thick and heavy in the air.

We sat in an adjacent room, holding onto each other like we were trying desperately not to fall off something. As they wheeled her past us in the transport incubator, covered up by a towel, a woman said to me, "We don't know what's going to happen now." At least, that's how I remember it, but to this day I can't honestly say whether she actually said that, or whether I imagined it.

I went home to try to sleep for the first time in 50 hours. I got a message from my wife telling me they'd found a problem with her heart. I punched the kitchen cabinets and looked out the window. It was raining harder than it had that entire year.

I lay on my back in the dark in a hotel in Southampton, 72 hours awake now. I lay there wondering whether my daughter would be alive in the morning.

I'm sitting here now, typing this, looking at mom and baby hanging out on the sofa, baby sucking her thumb and looking at me, all big-eyed and cooing. She came home this week, three months old. She's incredible, and to watch her develop the same way my first daughter did fills me up to the brim with joy and love. People tell you that you're over babies by the time the second one comes around, but, if anything, she's more precious to me than the first. Somehow we got through all this mentally in one piece. I attribute my success to the support of family and friends, our beautiful NHS, and gin. I also played some video games during this period.

This is where I'm supposed to extol the magical healing properties of video games: "How Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 Got Me Over My Aversion to Toblerone"; "How Bishi Bashi Special Made Me Think Death Wasn't a Thing." But everything that's happened has put my relationship with video games in a weird position.

Instead of counting my breaths and working out what shade of mauve my aura is, I had "jab, jab, pile-driver; jab, jab, pile-driver."

I don't think I should stop playing video games, but I feel like, as consumers, as writers, we take them too seriously. In our frantic attempts to legitimize the hobby to everyone else, we push it too far. There are countless pieces on how video games make more money than every other industry ever, and how if you laid all the $20 bills used to purchase Call of Duty end to end, they'd stretch to Saturn and back. Any game with even a whiff of artistic integrity gets held up as a poster boy for video games as art. We freak out over 2D platformers making rudimentary attempts at portraying a theme beyond "shoot this lad's mouth off." Why are we so desperate to prove ourselves to "non-gamers"?

Most of these trends are largely harmless, but I worry about writing that positions games as a panacea for mental and emotional issues. When writing about games as an ally against the forces of mental illness, we need to be more careful. An example of this done well is a 2013 piece by Dan Douglas called "Playing The Pain Away" for Midnight Resistance, which won a Games Media Award in 2013. You can see that Dan is very careful not to position video games as the entire solution to his recovery, and highlights where they can be counter-effective. He does indicate where and how they are useful, however, and I have a story of my own to contribute.

Zangief in 'Street Fighter V'

A few weeks following my daughter's birth, I was at home, and I decided to retreat to the garden in an attempt to feel better. It was a beautiful day, so I made a cup of tea and sat in the sun. After a few moments, as I gave myself time to sit and think, I suddenly and rapidly began to feel awful, as if I was falling at speed, despite being sat very still, and I thought I might black out entirely. Luckily, you could argue, I'd had a couple of anxiety experiences like this in the past, so I could identify what was happening.

I made my way back inside, fired up Street Fighter V, and felt better very quickly after jumping into training mode and playing around with some combos. The feeling soon passed, and I felt in control again. The meditative and distractive quality of training drills gave me enough time to steady my mind. Instead of counting my breaths and working out what shade of mauve my aura is, I had "jab, jab, piledriver; jab, jab, piledriver." I could control Zangief's hulking, muscly avatar and make him do what I wanted, and that illusion of control tricks the mind, albeit temporarily.

Then again, podcasts also helped me: We spent a couple of weeks in Ronald McDonald House, a charity providing free accommodation, situated near hospitals, to parents with ill babies and children. During that time, I discovered and plowed through dozens of episodes of Bill Burr's podcast. Bill is a stand-up comedian, and in his podcast, he sits at home and talks to himself for an hour in an entertaining fashion. It was incredibly useful to me at the time, as it was an inner monologue that replaced my own in those moments where I had time to think.

I think we waste too much time and energy on trying to convince people we're doing the right thing with our time by playing hundreds of hours of video games. We need to just relax and enjoy them for what they are—entertainment, art, fun. Sometimes they're thrill rides, which is when they're entertainment. Sometimes the mechanics of video games are used as a vessel to explore themes, politics, emotions, which is when they're more like art. Sometimes they're both. But they're not medicine. At best, they're like using ibuprofen to treat a head injury. It's great that video games offer escapism, but there's a difference between escaping and getting lost.

The author has chosen to donate his fee for this article to Ronald McDonald House Charities. More information on the organization can be found on their website.

Follow Gareth Dutton on Twitter.