Super Anxiety World – How Video Games Have Affected My Anxiety
I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember.
I often hear things like, “I’ve been gamin’ since the NES!” or “I’ve been playing video games since I could pick up a controller!” These statements are made to provide proof or evidence of gaming experience in order to demonstrate legitimacy as part of the community of gamers. I, too, have found myself amidst this community, but I often reflect on what has brought me to find comfort within it. What’s comforting isn’t the acceptance, but rather, being part of a realm where I can openly communicate without being stricken with panic.
I can, however, say that I have indeed been gaming since I can remember. In fact, gaming is a part of one of my earliest childhood memories.
I would have been no older than maybe three or four years of age, and the city we were living was nothing short of a real-life cowtown. There wasn’t anything spectacular or technologically interesting about Chowchilla, CA, but it’s where I remember first ever playing Super Mario Bros.
As I grew older, I found myself becoming more attached to gaming, but never, at least in my mind, addicted. Which was a problem in itself, since my family didn’t have a lot of money, let alone money to spend on video games. And it wasn’t so much of an addiction as it was an escape.
I only played one season of youth baseball. I never gave anything else I try. Sports just didn’t draw my attention like Sunset Riders or Turtles in Time did – those were fun things to do.
During my adolescence I found myself becoming more and more uncomfortable around other people. I didn’t know what an “introvert” was, nor did I have any idea of what anxiety was outside of hearing the word “anxious” casually tossed around on television. I was comfortable around people that I knew within my family circle, but I often found it difficult to make friends. I was shy.
I liked being funny and telling jokes, but around someone I didn’t know? Hell. No. I mostly kept to myself. And, if one of my friends in my small group wasn’t at school for a day, that day was spent finding a way to occupy myself, by myself. Being alone without my support crew was more calming than dealing with the buzzing feelings in my chest caused by human interaction.
As I grew older I began to realize that this nervousness, this overwhelming saturation of fear, wasn’t normal. I would often question: Was I normal?
The more I began to involve myself in video games, I slowly came to realize there were others out there like me. Video games were our common ground, and led us to conversations.
I recall one particular case in 1999, when the Sega Dreamcast was on the verge of launching. A friend from school was constantly updating me on the videos he saw on the internet – I wasn’t able to view most of them due to my family’s 56k dial-up connection, but it was still something to talk about: the potential of 128-bit gaming and the potential of Sonic Adventure.
The one place that I realized I felt comfortable, where I found solace, was in front of a TV screen playing games.
I didn’t have to succumb to restless nights of worry in order to beat the next level in Super Mario RPG, or wonder how crippled with panic I would become giving a presentation in class. I could just enjoy the adventure and challenge on my gaming console.
It was simple: I put in the game, and traveled to a different world where the real-world would not bother me. It was a place where I felt secure, where I wasn’t bothered by my rapid heartbeat or my endless worry. The anxiety subsided while I was on my digital travels.
I write this now, after battling with anxiety for a more than half my life. While I am in no way a mental health professional, I would like to offer my own personal experience so that others out there can recognize the symptoms, and hopefully, seek out help. And while some of us have known for a while that video games are in fact a way to involve themselves with human interaction, particularly in online chats/discussions, maybe others will realize that this is the way in which we like to communicate and express ourselves.
I just wanna rock with you.
One of the best ways for me to communicate verbally is during a match of Rocket League. I find is that, when my mind is occupied by making decisions in game, I’m more free to have conversations with other individuals in my party.
I have been playing Rocket League since it first released on PC. Since then, I have purchased the game on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Yes, it’s a little excessive. No, it’s not without warrant.
You might wonder why someone would purchase the game on each console/platform. For me, the answer is simple: this is the way in which I like to communicate best.
One of the problems with anxiety is the desperate, almost suffocating, need to express yourself. Oftentimes, when the moment comes for human interaction, there is so much emphasis on what is going to be said during the conversation – planning, reimagining old conversations, role-playing – that you just might decide to avoid the interaction altogether.
This plagued me throughout my college years, to the point where I often feared to open the door to a full classroom. Count me absent, professor. It may sound silly to some, but the overwhelming feeling of all eyes watching you enter the room was terrifying to me, and not finding a seat anywhere, even worse – especially if I didn’t know anyone in that room.
In Rocket League, I have made new friends and reunited with old ones – all to play a game where you drive rocket cars into a giant soccer ball. There is a competitiveness to each and every match, and working together is a must. It isn’t exactly doing rocket science, but it still provides an arena to interact with other people. That digital buffer has made possible the interaction that I longed for.
During matches my mind isn’t fixated on my current life status, or how long it’s going to take me to leave the house the next day. Instead, I communicate life updates to my old friends, laugh, even talk politics, all the while stickin’ it to the opposing team and enjoying our time spent online.
It can be argued that these may be symptoms of avoidance (insert avoidance link). But, were these competitive online interactions indeed a distraction from my daily routines?
There have been many studies regarding video games and addiction.
Usually, when the two are paired together, the studies tend to have a negative connotation, associating video game addiction to seclusion from others or distraction from important life matters. However, there seems to be an underlying theme when sifting through study upon study: no one can simply draw a line in the sand on whether or not anxiety and video games addiction are linked to one another. Or, one exists because of the other.
Beyond testing for differential relationships between addiction and engagement, few studies have identified variables which might contextualize reported relationships between video game addiction and poorer mental health in terms of increased symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. A potential mediator could be coping. Coping refers to ‘constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’ (Lazarus and Folkman 1984, p. 141).
I would argue that in some cases, particularly in cases where personal and mental health are disregarded, individuals with addictive traits can become consumed by this escape.
I may be event painting myself in the same portrait of denial. However, being that I do go to the gym four days a week, I’m almost convinced that it does not, in fact, contribute to the deterioration of physical health. Now, social relationships? Ah, yes, welcome back anxiety/avoidance/coping.
Some researchers argue that the key differentiating feature of video game addiction is that it causes negative consequences (Griffiths 2008). Poorer mental health in terms of higher prevalence of symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety has been repeatedly associated with measures of video game addiction in studies across countries.–Video Game Addiction, Engagement and Symptoms of Stress, Depression and Anxiety: The Mediating Role of Coping
In a number of qualitative studies video game addiction has been associated with a lack of coping skills, or described, by both researchers and gamers, as an escape-based coping strategy (Allison et al. 2006; Beranuy et al. 2013; Wan and Chiou 2006; Wood and Griffiths 2007). Several studies have also reported associations between video game addiction and a desire to escape (Gentile et al. 2011; Tejeiro et al. 2012; Yee 2006). Earlier studies have indicated that the use of avoidance coping strategies (withdrawal or wishful thinking) are associated with increased problematic internet use in Chinese college students (Li et al. 2009) and American undergraduate students (Hetzel-Riggin and Pritchard 2011).
I guess in some cases, avoidance coping is indicative of poor mental health, particularly in cases where heavy addictive gaming behavior is present. However, the idea that the escape video games offer and the communication that is involved with these interactions can be beneficial is something that hasn’t been explored.
There are those who, like me, choose online interactions and other vehicles for communication, longing for common ground, something familiar that they can share with friends and have a conversation over.
I would agree that there is a certain level of avoidance coping that is prevalent in gaming culture, and I say this with self-awareness of my own habits and behavior.
Exploring the open world of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, can take on many meanings. It can be a simple medium of entertainment. It can also become a place to do what’s not be possible IRL. It can become a way to avoid circumstances, like dealing with a disgruntled spouse (guilty) in favor of simply explore some mountains for a while.
I guess what I’m saying through all of this is that, in certain circumstances, and almost definitely in extreme cases, the over-indulgence of video games can be damaging. Anything really in excess can become damaging.
I would also argue that in some cases, like mine, the distraction of video games can help, and facilitate communication. I wouldn’t have met some truly important people I now have in my life without video games. We wouldn’t have embarked on journeys to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, had nights full of laughs, or simply enjoyed each other’s company through hours of playing video games.
Online conversations led to real-life interactions, shrinking the presence of anxiety, turning it into something manageable.