Gaming to Heal : Using Video Games to Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Loss

In early 2019, several months after my son was murdered, I wrote The Good in Gaming. The article served a dual-purpose. It allowed me to express my personal experience with gaming, helping me through the toughest time of my life, while also highlighting the positive aspects of the gaming community at large. The number of people who have reached out to me due to the article continues to humble me to this day. My story, though, is not unique.

As I touched on previously, gaming helps millions of people worldwide with issues ranging from minor to severe. As a community, I feel we don’t appreciate nor highlight those aspects enough. I want to share stories far and wide of how gaming has brought people together, assisted with tough times, and generally improved quality of life in one way or another. I reached out to the Seasoned Gaming community to ask a simple question: “How has gaming helped you with a tough time in your life?”

The response has been almost overwhelming. I’ve been contacted by tens of people, with stories both short and long, about how gaming has positively impacted their lives. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve worked with many of them to bring you their stories today. Please note, some chose to share their stories publicly, while others chose to remain anonymous. Obviously I have respected those requests.


Anxiety and Depression Relief through Escapism

Escapism is a common theme when you begin to dive into this topic, and it was a common theme among those I spoke to. Escapism is defined as “The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.” The debate whether or not this is a good thing has been raging for decades, but it’s not a new topic. In fact, major studies on the effects of using entertainment for escapism began as early as the 1940s.

There are many studies showing the positive impacts of escapism as they relate to media consumption, barring of course extreme examples. This study, titled Deconstructing Escapism in Multiplayer Gaming, highlights several of them specific to the areas our community engages in.

“….gaming escapism reinforces what I think is good behavior. Effort brings rewards. Cooperation is more effective and fun than playing alone. Be patient. Make intelligent decisions, i.e. do the math.”

Escapism as a form of stress relief is also present in nearly every study, just as it is for activities such as watching TV or listening to music. As noted in the study:

“This discourse states that escapism is needed to de-stress or canalize behavior. People experience things that they want to find relief for. Games provide an excellent means to escape according to this discourse, because they enable players to do anything they want in a safe environment.”

Speaking with Jay (@jay1405NL), he presented yet another example. “Being disabled on both my legs, I remember I was sent to houses for children with special care needs. I could only see my mom in Amsterdam on the weekends. One time she bought me my very first console, the Coleco-Vision. Epic! I will never forget that day ever! Gaming helped me through tough times and it made me forget that I was never really at home most of the time. And now, many years later, that’s what gaming does for me. It makes me feel connected to that little kid who was alone and had nobody. But he did have his video games.”

Tackling anxiety and depression, sometimes severe, rang through loud and clear in those I spoke with as well. This is one of the more well-researched areas of video games, with more studies validating the findings year over year. A study published in February concluded that playing video games correlates to a more positive well-being. To that end, it’s clear that gaming helps people in a variety of ways.

Players who objectively played more in the past two weeks also reported to experience higher well-being. This association aligns well with literature that emphasizes the benefits of video games as a leisure activity that contributes to people’s mental health.

Speaking with SyndicateDawn28 (@syndicatedawn28) it has clearly helped him in his life. “For me gaming helps with my anxiety and depression. I haven’t always had anxiety in my life, but when I got closer to my thirties, anxiety and depression hit me hard. Gaming has always been an escape for me. It has shown me how I can rise above circumstances and my fear. For example, I was playing cyberpunk 2077 today and there was a mission about a suicidal A.I. I didn’t take much meaning from it right away, but towards the end the dialogue really hit me. We should always keep fighting, and suicide can be a choice that we can’t come back from. It’s always better to look for another answer.”

Jamaal (@useenmrcooper) reached out with similar sentiments on how gaming had essentially saved his life. Facing some severe hardships with his family, when first attending college he became borderline suicidal. But that began to change due to gaming. “With a new PS2, gaming really helped with the anxiety and depression that lead to me thinking of suicide. My roommate would play NCAA football with me, and we would go hours, sometimes missing a class, playing bowl games and such.

While that helped to a degree, he still felt a disconnect. He then points to one night in particular which helped him turn a corner. “One night my dorm had a LAN party where I was introduced to the Xbox 360 and Halo. I wasn’t great but GOD was it fun to play with a group of people, chug beer, and have laughs”. He continued, “I had a friend who then came to me and asked about playing Gears of War together. From the times playing many nights of Gears with him, and then saving to get my own Xbox and Gears, I lost any thoughts of suicide. I figured if I wanted to take any lives it would be the Locust of Gears and the Covenant in Halo. Life changed as I knew it. I was too afraid to involve others in my personal life. But with gaming, I didn’t have to take my frustration out on myself or the real world. I just needed a few matches of King of the Hill and a Gnasher to overcome the pressures that I thought I had to face alone“.


Benefiting from Community

Yet another aspect of gaming is the sense of community it fosters. Whether it’s meeting new friends, sharing a like-minded appreciation for a genre or franchise, or merely just having others to play with, gaming covers it all.

Sometimes it can be as simple as staying connected with friends at a distance. To that end, I’ll add a personal note. I moved due to my career a little over a decade ago. The friends I had been used to seeing most of my life were now out of reach to simply have a drink with or pay a visit. But with the ones who game socially, I’ve stayed in touch and we often talk on a daily or weekly basis. I haven’t seen them in-person in years now, but we are still the best of friends.

Brian (@bvossen888) shared a simple but similar story. “My brother and I live in different provinces and have been using video games to stay in touch for over a decade. It’s become even more important since the pandemic. I have a few other friends I keep in touch with via gaming now too. My friends and I have also started playing some board games over video chat to socialize too.

While I’m writing to specific themes here, there’s often overlap with all of them. When a game provides someone with a sense of community, often that also comes with a sense of belonging, friendship, self-worth, anxiety relief, and more.

I spoke with a woman (who chose to remain anonymous), now in her late 40s and recently divorced, on how gaming has been a “life saver” for her. “After the split with my husband, particularly at my age, I felt lost and empty. While I had played some games in the past, I never spent much time with them. I began doing research on popular titles and decided to give it a go. I now game with a group nearly every night and have met people from all around the world which I never imagined would happen.

Community, as it relates to gaming, is a broad term and means many things, but for some within the gaming community it’s a feeling of “if you know, then you know.” While gaming has grown exponentially in the past few decades, and the once derogatory term “gamer” is thankfully fading into obscurity, there is still a sense of brotherhood. And, in my opinion, it’s important. Coming together for a common cause and helping others in need is a daily occurrence, and it’s something that continues to inspire me and the content I create.

One such cause is Extra Life, a charity organization where players raise money for children’s hospitals through streaming. Founded in 2008, Extra Life has raised over $70 million and continues to grow year over year. Having been associated with the organization for four years now, there’s a strong sense of pride in feeling like you are helping, even if to a small degree.

Dave Kinghorn founded the Extra Life team I play for in 2014, which is supported by the Twitter account Good 4 Gaming. In 2017, the Extra Life team was renamed “Mason’s Little Warriors” in memory a friend’s son, Mason, who was born premature and sadly passed away at the age of two. Since its inception, Mason’s Little Warriors has grown year over year and raised over $200,000 for children’s hospitals. As of this writing, the team is #1 on the Extra Life Team Leaderboard.

As this was a unique case with a big story to tell, I sat down with Mason’s father, Jay Sims (@meefJ), for my latest Industry Perspectives chat so he could share the story of Mason, the journey to Extra Life, and the positive impact gaming has had on him and his family.


Gaming to Enable

Another common theme I’ve encountered with this topic is the ability games have to level the playing field. While sports and physical competition are a big part of our culture, particularly here in the United States, not everyone has the same opportunity to participate. Video Games often bring about equality, allowing many to compete, or simply engage, when they may not be otherwise able.

Speaking with a gentleman named Joseph, he relayed to me the mental anguish and disappointment after being handicapped in a car accident. As someone who grew up competing in football and basketball, he described how he felt when first learning he would never walk again as “utter devastation.” Working through that took time, of course, but he relayed how video games have “…quite literally saved my mental state.” He explained, “After the accident, my world was turned upside down. In the blink of an eye the life I had known was no longer, without any fault of my own.” He continued, “…after a long period of time, video games became a bigger part of my life as well as a social outlet for me with friends. I eventually began competing in online tournaments for Madden and Call of Duty, and since that time, they have been a daily part of my life. I’m not sure I would be here today, at least not in the same way, without them.

I recently met a new friend on Twitter named Paul Martin who goes by the handle CerebralPaul, a play on his cerebral palsy. Due to the condition, he found some multiplayer games to be challenging. Through the Xbox Ambassador program, Paul found an accepting, welcoming community. “I do love multiplayer gaming more than I used to. It allows me to step outside myself and right now, especially with COVID, it’s my social outlet.” He continued, “I owe a lot of that to the Ambassador program.” Paul got to know a lot of Ambassadors by watching their streams and playing games with them. He came to appreciate how non-judgmental they were, and that led to further engagement within the community.

Matthew Guest (@MattTheGamer) reached out with a unique, yet touching, story in this vein too. While working at Best Buy in 2011, he noticed a family helping an elderly gentleman figure out a Kinect game on the Xbox 360. After some discussion and assistance, the family ended up buying a Kinect bundle. While checking out, the youngest daughter pulled Matt aside to inform him that the gentleman had Parkinson’s disease and Kinect games were a unique way for him to try and remain active, which doctors said would help. “So, withholding tears from my eyes, I looked back one more time as the man was still playing with the demo unit while we were processing her order, and the smile on that man’s face to this day I’ll never forget. He was like a kid again, and this was actually something that was going to help him get through this awful disease.” He continued, “I have kept this moment in my head, and it reminds me of two things. First, don’t judge a book by its cover. And, second, video games have the power to actually change lives for the better. It’s not just some silly hobby. It can help us through the worst of times.

One of the stories closest to me, and many I know within the community, is that of Kevin Alexander (@iDizzy81), who recently passed due to a COVID diagnosis after battling cancer. Kevin’s battle was long and arduous, yet despite the massive challenges he faced (and overcame), he remained positive. In part, this was due to his brethren in the community and the ability to game even when in the hospital and unable to be active. As a huge proponent of his Ark community, he maintained that connection during his darkest days as it always brought him light. He wrote about his experience in an article titled Gaming with Cancer.

Kevin always spoke positively about what gaming did for him

There are endless examples of gaming having a positive impact on people’s lives. While I’ve shared several examples above, there are many more stories to tell.

Therefore, this article will mark the beginning of a concerted effort by the team at Seasoned Gaming to highlight content in this vein under the banner of “The Good in Gaming.” We are creating a dedicated tab on our site, and we will spend time not only in creating content ourselves, but in placing a spotlight on other outlets, creators, and channels who do as well. It’s important to us, and we feel it’s important for the industry as well.

If you’d like to share your story or collaborate on any efforts in this regard, please reach out to me on Twitter (@Porshapwr) or email me directly at abowden@seasonedgaming.com.

If you’d like to join our team for Extra Life, please reach out to Good 4 Gaming!

By Ainsley Bowden (Porshapwr)

Founder of SeasonedGaming.com, avid game collector and enthusiast since the Atari 2600 era. You can find me online or on Twitter as Porshapwr as well. Thanks for checking out Seasoned Gaming!

One Comment

  • Pschirki Pieralla -

    What a great article! Could’t read it without goosebumps, Ains. mainly because gaming helped me staying sane way back in the nineties, when my first wife died, and some years ago, when my son, 31, committed suicide out of the blue. I can’t understand people that have only a derogatory smile for games or gamers in general, because gaming today is really something special bringing even gamers of enemy countries together.

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