Once again it’s time to open up my Guest Writer mailbag, and look at what’s lurking inside. I know I have a few pieces waiting, so don’t think I’ve forgotten you if you’ve sent something in. Anyway, today’s piece comes from rht992 and is an incredible personal tale. I can only thank him for being so open and honest about his experiences.
I’m going to start with a bold statement. I am the Daily Mail’s wet dream. No, no I’m not a strange concoction of juicy celebrity gossip and casual racism. I’m just some guy who’s noticed how much video games have affected, helped and ruined parts of his life.
You hear it all the time in the news. Stories about how video games are addictive, how they inspire people to do evil things, how they separate you from the ordinary world. The computer game industry has been fighting this image for years now while we, the gamers, get over defensive when the subject comes up.
If you take the time to read coverage that claims computer games make you a bad guy, you’ll notice it’s probably an article that was designed to grab attention. Nothing more. Read one that was written by someone who knows what they are talking about and the chances are they’ll say computer games do effect your mood and the way you think, whilst you play them, but there is no real danger unless the player has some sort of existing mental illness.
We're all familiar with headlines like this, and often dismiss them without a thought.
I myself was becoming one of the very people I mocked.
I was diagnosed with depression, among other bits and bobs, at the start of last summer and have been finding ways to deal with it ever since. When I was diagnosed I was relieved for knowing why I felt the way I did. I had a reason for everything and I could find a way to “get better”. I talked to doctors, went out more, met new people, found a course in a recording studio and started to become livelier. But it still wasn’t enough. I still didn’t feel part of something.
So I started looking for the chance to escape from everyday life. It doesn’t really matter where I am but when I’m with people my age excessive drinking and drugs are never too far away. There were and still are times when I need a pick up. Just that little boost to feel happy. For a student living in Glasgow with a job working in night clubs, this is all too easy to do and get caught up in.
After a while, I knew this wasn’t going to make me happy. I felt sick and lonely. I started thinking of people who lived the same way I did as being disgraceful. I stopped thinking of most of them as friends. We would drink and take what we could afford and pay for it the next day. For a few brief hours a night I was happy but the rest was made up with hangovers and regret.
This wasn’t the way to live or be happy.
Sure, some people enjoy that but I started to see it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t just go on these benders expecting for something to make me feel good. Slowly I stopped going out unless it was for work or college. I became reclusive and started spending more days just lazing around the flat. During those days I would stay in my room playing games, watching films, playing my guitar and reading.
With depression, everyday life is a strange thing. You can be surrounded by all the friends you want and still not feel any connection or happiness being with them. Long term projects are left alone and there is no motivation to carry out what you are doing. But you have to keep going and try to find something that can get you through the days.
For me writing music gave me the outlet of emotion I needed while films taught me, gave reflection and made me laugh, questioning politics satisfied the cynic and books made me think. TV shows like Mad Men and The Walking Dead were a chance to see other people who contemplated their place in society, people who dealt with death, searched for something more. A whole world of Fictional characters that I could relate to were there when I needed them.
More than ever, I was playing computer games. Before all this I’d have played anything. I’d have blown stuff up in a battlefield, raced around a jungle somewhere and pretended I was getting fit by waving my hands at the TV and jogging on the spot while some badly animated guy gave me compliments and a 4-out-of-5 star rating.
The puzzle solving of titles like Portal started to consume attention, but didn't hold it for long.
Here, I found a completely new world where I really could be anyone. I got so caught up in this game. I found that I started to care more about what happened in it than anything else. Everyone I met in this game had a story; they had real needs and feelings, a small life in a simple place. Dreamily I slipped into this game, stopped thinking of my problems and let my imagination run wild.
The sense of satisfaction, the joy of helping someone, of changing things for the better, hearing people say thank you and being glad to see you. I felt like I meant more to these little pixels running around on screen than the people who cooked in the same kitchen as me. I wanted to help them and make sure they were safe. I was so caught up in this fantasy world that I completely forgot something: these weren’t real people.
Like those I used to hang out with, I started to realise something wasn’t right. The joy I was finding in computer games wasn’t real. I wasn’t connected to these characters in a way a real person could ever make me feel.
I’d been fooled. Jumping from one lie to another. I cared about these people because they were designed to make me feel this way. Someone in some office halfway around the world designed this person to make me feel happy, to make me feel sorry for them, to make me feel angry.
These characters were just creations designed to take me deeper into the experience. My need for a purpose had taken over and games were giving all I needed. All of these wonderfully crafted, imaginary worlds had become such a part of my life that real people and the real world didn’t matter so much.
In games I could change things. There was always a victory in sight, an ending. Real life doesn’t have these set of objectives laid out in front of you. For someone desensitised to reality, the virtual realm provides all you really need. In real life when you are lacking a direction or motive having all this handed to you on a plate is a godsend. Wake up in the morning, switch off and enjoy this second existence.
One in four of us will suffer from some sort of mental illness in the UK each year with mixed anxiety and depression being the most common, according to the Mental Health Foundation. With such a high number of people having some sort of problem, there is plenty of help out there.
However, there isn’t much information on mental illness and escapism into virtual reality and no major bodies with information on the long term effects of symptoms. In fact, some websites encourage you to watch more TV and play computer games in order to distract yourself. It’s good advice. It works.
It works until you get too far involved and start to rely on it just as you would with a drug. Game addiction was something I hated hearing people talk about because it seemed to be a cheap way to bash games but here I was spending hours a day trapped away on a PS3. I was becoming the subject of a cheap Daily Mail headline. Another teenage boy who got hooked on an evil medium.
It’s hard to describe, but when I got to this point it’s not that the lines between reality and fiction blurred. I can tell the difference between games and real life, no problem. I know how to act and behave in both. It’s just that the one which really mattered, stopped mattering. In trying to escape real life, I’d gone further than I thought and actually broken any sort of connection with it.
While this slow build up was happening over months on end, I hadn’t noticed it until I spent time away from technology over the Christmas holidays and New Year. I was in the highlands of Scotland, they don’t have electricity or typewriters yet.
Away from the temptations and reliance on games and escapism there was a sudden realization of the person I was surely becoming. One of those strange freaky types who you hear about in the news. It hit me that I’d gone too far and started to become dependent upon something which ultimately disconnected me from the real world, from the things that mattered and the things I really should care about.
There is a very real danger with computer games. Well, not computer games but the joy that can be achieved through them. The sense of a goal, a purpose and meaning that you get from them makes up for the lack of direction in real life. The simple pleasure and satisfaction of seeing things through the eyes of a fictional character that fits into his or her world is incredible.
Interactive storytelling has advanced so much in recent years that it’s now easy to see how much some people are scared of what will happen in the future. It’s easy to see how scared people are that their kids will get sucked into virtual worlds because they can.
With better graphics, 3D and motion controllers soon we will become a part of the game. For someone like me, who felt like they needed this escape, I can see a problem occurring where more and more of us will become desensitised from reality and engulfed in the digital era. People will still blame technology and say it’s ruining us but the truth of it is that there is nothing wrong with advances in technology.
It’s people that are the problem. We are too quick to blame something other than ourselves. We don’t like to admit our own fault. It’s not the developer’s fault some of us become obsessive and dependant on games. It’s ours because a part of us needs to get away.
Next time a story appears in the news about someone who’s a “computer game addict” or someone who committed a crime “inspired” by computer games they aren’t evil or mad or a freak. Calling them these things will only make them feel even less like a part of our society and only add to the problem. Mental illness isn’t something to shy away from or be ashamed of. It’s just a part of a person who needs help and unfortunately there are those of us who don’t get enough and there are those of us who go to extreme measures or get tricked into thinking they are receiving it.