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Depression and the Video Game

by Alice Rendell on 07/06/12 07:41:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


If you stop your average stranger in the street and ask them to describe a typical video game player, the answer is likely to include some unfortunate associations. The word ‘lonely’ would probably come up a lot and the phrases “doesn’t get out much” and “not very social” are likely to make an appearance or two.

Unfortunate though it is I am not necessarily here to dispute this fact. Of course we all know the dangers of stereotyping groups of people and I am not for one minute saying all gamers are awkward social nobodies. In fact nowadays with the rise of social and mobile games, the gaming arm has been extended to more and more unlikely types of players, and the gaming community in large is as diverse as it ever has been.

However, I must wonder as to where these types of generalizations come from. Are gamers really a sad lonely bunch? Or are we looking at this the wrong way. Is it that games provide sad and lonely people with something that the “real” world cannot?

According to Science Daily in 2011 depression affected more than 121 million people worldwide. Although the condition itself varies widely from person to person, there are of course some common factors.

Isolation and loneliness are key and usually progresses into a feeling of social disconnection from the world. Self loathing, as well as a numbing sense of underachievement is also typical, and when you team that with exhaustion and a complete lack of motivation it makes for a sorry state of being.

As a lifelong sufferer of depression myself, I can safely vouch for the fact that my most hardcore gaming phases of round the clock, routine gaming was intrinsically linked with these same types of feelings. On a good day I would perhaps only be affected by one or two of these symptoms. On a bad day I would be hit with the full force of all of them.

Games have helped and do help me through this and there was a game to counter every one of the symptoms I have described. At these moments I am the stereotypical gamer who needs to play games, not for escapism, but for healing and I am certain I am not, the only one. But what exactly is it that games do that help people who are feeling these types of negative emotions?

Anti-social, social gaming

Firstly, the problem of social isolation and loneliness. Being depressed does not necessarily mean you want to disconnect yourself from the world, it is more the fact that socialising is difficult when you are in a constant state of inward scrutiny. Why would someone else want to spend time with you when you don’t even want to spend time with yourself?

What a Massive Multiplayer Online game such as a World of Warcraft can offer is social situations on your terms. The social aspect of WOW is not demanding or even completely necessary to play and enjoy the game, but it is there to pick up and put down when you feel the need. This gives you back your control which, when suffering from depression, is something you often feel like you have lost.

This is important in making people with depression feel like they are still connected to the world, even if they are not currently participating in it in full force. MMOs and social games allow people who suffer from depression to dip their toes in the social pool without having to dive in head first, which is an incredibly necessary thing for keeping the really devastating feelings of loneliness at bay.

These kinds of online games provide sufferers of depression with accessible and manageable social interactions at a time when the alternative could be complete social isolation, and gradually help them to re-establish their social position in the world.

You got an underachievement

Feeling like you are an underachiever is something which I am sure affects most of us at one point or another, but when you suffer from depression this feeling doesn’t just affect you, it grabs and shakes you until the feeling is embedded in your every thought. Games however are all about achieving goals which are not only noticed, but comparably rewarded. If we take a social game like City Ville for example the main goal is to build a large, thriving city.

This is a ridiculously huge task in the real world and even on a gaming level it is no small feat, but what the game does is break down the bigger, overwhelming goal with small bitesize tasks. Some of the first missions of the game involve placing some small decorations on your city, or laying down a road going from one house to another.

These types of mini-tasks are not just accessible but extremely achievable with little or no exertion and before you know it you are achieving things just at a moment when you thought you couldn’t achieve anything. The tasks themselves are always greatly rewarded and never go unnoticed, which cannot but help induce a positive thought process which leads you to think “Well if I can achieve this, then maybe I can achieve other things as well”.

This is a gratifying experience to not only to be able to accomplish something, but also to believe that your hard work is appreciated. How often can we say in life that ALL our efforts at work or home are acknowledged completely by our colleagues, friends and families? But in a game, everything you do is acknowledged with some form of feedback or admiration.

The attractiveness of this for someone with depression is clear. At a time when it is hard to conjure the energy to achieve even the most mundane of tasks, to be able to experience completion and progression is more than a comfort, it is reinforcement of character, which reminds the individual that they really can achieve things, which hopefully translates into their real world activities.

Why me?

It has become almost a joke  to see how many games dedicate their story to that of saving the world or of being the special “chosen one” destined to become a great soldier/wizard/hero/plumber. I don’t believe this is necessarily due to a lack of creative thinking in game development but more to the power behind the feeling attributed with the scenario.

Everybody wants to feel special, but games make this a reality. To be entrusted with such an important task as saving the world, must mean you are important. Ok, it’s not real, but does that matter? When you are playing you are encouraged to believe it, the constance in which a player is told “You are my only hope” or “You are the chosen one, the only one to save us” is done with such regularity that after a while you can’t help but believe it. The fact that you then go on to accomplish this special and difficult task only reinforces the feeling.

It doesn’t matter that this is virtual importance, it evokes the feeling long enough for it to have an impact and if somone who is depressed starts to feel like they are important, even artificially, it will chase away enough of the inward negativity to insert a bit of hope. You can save the world, then you can become a part of it.

Depression isn’t a widely understood disease, not by doctors, not even by the people who are suffering from it. It is also a painful reality that the condition cannot be cured. What games can help us to do is to provide some insight into understanding better this disease. By knowing what games can provide for depression sufferers at a time in their life when they need something the outside world isn’t giving them, we can better understand the condition itself.

Games have been able to do this completely naturally and they are obviously providing something that was lacking for many people. But imagine if we went further with this and provided gaming experiences which not only help counter symptoms of depression, but actually gave depression sufferers the exact skills needed to rehabilitate themselves back into the world in way that helps them to beat the problem.

Games can subconsciously help provide players with transferable skills that can be applied to real world situations, such as how to overcome large obstacles one step at a time, or how to appreciate your achievements.

It is time for us to stop believing that games cause depression, or gamers are sad and lonely people, but instead believe that games are a unique provider of support and stability to many people in difficult emotional situations and can even help improve lives.

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