Gaming the black dog
January 25, 2013 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Toward the end of 2008 my own sister Christina, who has suffered depression from a young age, experienced a particularly low period. “I began playing Fallout 3 because I needed a distraction. I didn’t think it would help because I was having trouble focusing on anything for very long. I ended up playing it for 14 hours a day for about 3 weeks.” This might be considered unhealthy – some might want to categorise it as “pathological gaming” – but for Christina it was crucial for getting through the day. “It got me out of bed in the morning. Becoming so involved in the storyline and the tasks gave me a reason to keep on going, and it was so far removed from real life that it made me feel better.” -- Over at Rock Paper Shotgun, David Owen takes a look at the link between clinical depression and gaming, if any and if they might help people cope with it.
posted by MartinWisse (36 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Fallout 3 had a storyline? It had Heroes Journey 101.

It's too late at for me to read this, but as a gamer with depression the interplay is complex. When I'm deep in depression gaming makes it worse. There's the idea of the 'lonely game' that Insert Credit coined, and I'm not sure that if I was off my meds I'd be able to handle the endless subway tunnels and blasted landscapes of the Capital Wasteland (New Vegas is a bit more friendly). Playing Beyond Good & Evil helped trigger my last nervous breakdown and if I played adventure games for too long I'd get depressed.

On the other hand, action games are a great form of meditation. They can force me to focus on the MOMENT - if I don't, I'll be killed. Nit to mention the social aspect of Goldeneye and games like that. I've also got through a few slumps by playing games to distract myself until I got better.

Still, I only game one or two days a week now. There's something sinister about them that I feel could exacerbate my depression. But maybe I just need DJ Three Dog to tell me to KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:42 AM on January 25, 2013

Funnily enough, the last time I had a low point/rough patch and was playing Team Fortress 2 excessively until the wee hours, I kept thinking, "Ghah, this is not helping, and I know it's not helping, and I think it's making things worse; I should be playing Fall Out: New Vegas."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:44 AM on January 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Martin, your two links seem to be the same.

posted by ersatz at 7:45 AM on January 25, 2013

Although I'm not a gamer, I can kind of see how games might help those suffering from depression. I had my own experience with depression in 2005 and 2006, a period of sporadic employment and isolation (we had moved from Japan to Canada). At one point nothing was interesting to me, not music, movies, books, television, anything.

What helped me was the immersive world of the books of a certain historical novelist. They got me out of he'd in the morning, and also got me out into the world - they were popular books, and so were quite hard to find at the library, meaning I had to go searching at used book stores. It gave me a foothold.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:51 AM on January 25, 2013

My experiences are quite similar to Charlemagne's in this. Gaming can definitely be a compulsion, and to varying degrees some games are specifically engineered to hook the user through compulsion, in the same way that gambling games can be.

I've definitely found myself in periods where I recognised that I was using gaming -- usually getting obsessed with one particular game -- as a crutch to avoid dealing with my problems. On the other hand, my ability to deal with my problems isn't necessarily a whole lot better when I'm *not* in the grip of some game, and in some cases I've definitely taken comfort, had social experiences, and even learned things and gained motivation that I wouldn't have had without games. So it's a tricky and ambiguous subject, and one that I'm glad is getting some attention.

We've had some very interesting discussion about this subject over at MeFi gaming community MeFight club.
posted by Drexen at 7:55 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Haven't read this yet but yeah, isn't gaming just self-medication? How many times have we read on askme "he won't look for a job, he does nothing but play video games!"?
posted by Melismata at 7:58 AM on January 25, 2013

Google is failing me, but I remember an article or letter written shortly after the original Wolfenstein 3D came out about some guy's uncle who had been a Prisoner of War. Playing the game supposedly helped with the PTSD and depression.

So maybe?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:59 AM on January 25, 2013

I think there might be an analogy with dreaming. Might help to work out certain conflicts, or might reinforce problems. Games do sometimes seem to deal in archetypes, though I don't know enough about that to draw out the significance.
posted by Segundus at 8:14 AM on January 25, 2013

Martin, your two links seem to be the same.

Yes, that's deliberate: the first to indicate that what follows is a quote, the second as the proper link to the article.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:18 AM on January 25, 2013

Games sometimes helped with the " I need to have something I accomplished today and leaving the house is too fucking stressful" thing- it wasn't really solving my problem but it did keep them from getting worse cause the alternative was do nothing and feel worse.
posted by The Whelk at 8:24 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd say that me getting over depression was deeply tied with me getting over video games as well. I think the cheap reinforcement in games prevents you from putting them time you need into real life.

Ditching video games also meant more exercise, less pizza delivery and more spending time with real people. Physical activity, a good diet and improving my social life certainly had more lasting impact on my happiness than killing the boss monster or playing one more turn of Civ.

What depressed me was finishing a game and realizing that I hadn't acquired any usable skills or learned anything useful in general. Spending innumerable hours/days/weeks finishing a quest or finding the right colored key never made me feel better when I went to sleep.

How many video games are truly fun and how many just tickle your lizard brain compulsively? Even now, I'll watch some of my friends play, and they don't usually look like they're actually enjoying themselves.

I guess the issue is whether we're talking about acute depressive episodes caused by something like a family tragedy or unemployment or a chronic depression that's harder to treat. Either way, I agree with the above comments calling video gaming a form of self medication at best.
posted by Telf at 8:48 AM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

As someone who studies videogames for a living I still find it baffling why so many people need to find some kind of link between videogames and everything that is wrong with the world today. It is utterly unsurprising that people that are struggling with life today may turn towards videogames as a way of finding control, order, or even simply some structure or distraction in their life. In much the same way as in years past they may have turned towards comic books, cult films, serialised novels in daily papers, science fiction, songs in the round, or what have you.

Particularly galling to me is that what psychological study of games that does exist seems to generally struggle to get past the lazy question of media effects, of which we are seeing yet another pointless go around at the moment.

Yes, gaming can be a crutch. But a crutch is something to help you stand upright.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2013 [29 favorites]

Depression and video games being both so common, it seems likely that some depressed people play in a way that keeps them down and some depressed people play in a way that pulls them up, no?

If game designers can find ways to incorporate therapeutic elements and/or include some recognisable portraits of depression that might help undiagnosed players have a moment of insight, mind you, that's all to the good. Anything we can use against that bastard disease is worth a try.
posted by Kit W at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2013

When I was in the worst of a depression a couple of games definitely helped me get through the day. I've gamed long enough to recognize when I game to avoid something and when it's just as normal recreation.

When I was depressed I was struggling with just doing anything and at least with a game I was doing something rather then just sitting on the couch staring at the tv. For me it also helped with feelings of isolation. I play an MMO and have played with the same group of people for several years and regularly use voice chat. At the time I was finding it really difficult to get out and be around people in the real world. It caused anxiety and I spent a lot of energy with the effort of acting and looking like I wasn't about to lose it. With my game I could easily log on and at least chat and have some social play time with real people without having to worry about what I looked like and feelings of needing to escape back home. I was home and in my safe place already. Looking back it gave me some of the control I needed.

I wouldn't say that gaming was a cure in itself but for me it was definitely something that helped. The minor little boosts of accomplishing something plus some of the laughter that playing and talking with game friends meant a lot at the time.

Gaming was also something that directly motivated me to get the help I needed in the first place. It was one of the catalysts that led to me realizing that things were worse then I though, as much as I could 'think' at the time. It got bad enough that I didn't even feel like gaming which for me was totally not normal.

This also brings up a Ted Talk I just saw with Jane McGonigal She talks a lot about research around psychological benefits of gaming. The whole talk is pretty interesting, especially when she talks about stress reduction. Research has shown that up to 20ish hours a week of playing games has physiological affects in the reduction of stress related symptoms. The whole talk could relate to this topic. Worth a listen if people are interested.

I can however see that gaming could be used in a way that makes things worse. An escape that keeps a person from dealing with whatever needs to be dealt with. I don't see this as any worse or better then something else a person might use for escape. Things done to an extreme, no matter what they are can lead to negative consequence in a health and life style.
posted by Jalliah at 9:37 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you are losing your real life battles daily, it's nice to feel like you've won something. Anything.
posted by ohohcyte at 9:39 AM on January 25, 2013 [14 favorites]

“It got me out of bed in the morning."

I know that in my own case this part is very true. My depression takes some nasty swings, and it was MMOs that had me doing anything during those days. Actually, it was my pet rabbits, who would have suffered if i hadn't gotten up and taken care of them, but beyond them, i had nothing to help me focus. The low points where it got really bad, were i wouldn't leave the house more than once a week (go to bank to deposit check and get groceries), if i wasn't playing them i would literally dwell on the negative thoughts and do nothing.

Playing the online games helped me feel like i had at least some contact with other people, who in the real world would end up making it worse. Also, while i know the successes i have in games aren't "real", they did help me feel like i wasn't completely worthless, as my brain was telling me i was. This was especially important after my best friend shot herself, and the thoughts of "If i couldn't help her, how can i help myself?" were especially strong and beating down on me.

Before anyone mentions it, i have tried almost all anti-depressants, and so far none have really helped, and some the doctors thought i was allergic to (they made me constantly feel dissociative, not a good thing, so they put it on my chart to avoid those types). So the times i was feeling especially low, and at times very suicidal, focusing on the grind of mmos actually helped me not think those thoughts. When i was thinking of suicide (for the record, i've actually attempted it many times in my life, and ended up in the hospital several times, so it's a real possibility i need to avoid) several times an hour, for over a week, having something to distract me, self medicated or not, i view it as a good thing.
posted by usagizero at 9:49 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I played Skyrim from Christmas 2012 until after Easter. But that was because I'm shit at it.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:08 AM on January 25, 2013

But a crutch is something to help you stand upright.

Or it's something to avoid having to put any weight on that leg you injured years ago, that might still be able to heal.
posted by crayz at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2013

Fallout 3 had a storyline? It had Heroes Journey 101.

Fallout 3 had a hell of a storyline. It just wasn't the story of the Lone Wanderer from Vault 101. It was the story of a world that was like ours and not like ours and how it came to be the world The Wanderer inhabits.

There are places where they spell things out for you, though maybe not in the most obvious places. When I found the bit about the back-story for the mole rats and Moira's repellent, it was more satisfying for me than winning any skirmish with the Enclave. But, better still, was the more subtle bits of the story that weren't exactly spelled out for you. Scattered through tin shacks, drainage chambers, personal preservation shelters and power substations -fragments of a tapestry woven from guns and garbage, bones and blood stains. In so many other games these spaces would have been filled in by a random loot generator. Here, they were obviously put in place by someone who was telling a story in a very convoluted poetic style.

The story of The Wanderer was like a side of au gratin - it wasn't bad, but it wasn't the entree.

Of course, while typing this, I realized that my love affair with Fallout 3 happened about the same time I realized that my once dream job had turned into an apparatus for grinding my soul to a fine gray powder. Maybe there's just something about a sense of being overwhelmed by life that makes scrabbling around the irradiated remains of a morally ambiguous world, taking out super mutants with a sniper rifle and listening to "Let's go Sunning" on Galaxy News Radio the perfect balm.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:28 AM on January 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

Games are both accessory to and relief from depression for me. On the one hand, games reassure me that I still possess some basic functional competences -- I might suck at real life, but dammit, I will kick your ass around any course you choose to play in Tiger Woods 13. On the other hand, games, especially Bethesda RPGs, are my time-sink of choice. I can lose myself in Skyrim or Fallout for days at a time, and the rapid accretion of skills and loot is deeply satisfying when I feel like an NPC in my own life. Having a several-hundred-hour avoidance mechanism at hand isn't the best way to get out of the basement.

What I have trouble doing is applying game skills to real life. In Minecraft, I'm hyper-organized. Everything is labeled and sorted and placed for maximum efficiency. In real life my desk is a mound of papers two feet high that glares at me disapprovingly every time I walk past it.

Some gaming leaves me with intimations of a better self: more competent, more organized, more bold and curious. It's carrying that over into real life that I find difficult.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:47 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have wondered several times whether gaming could be a helpful component to the treatment of addiction, even formally. The accumulation of clean time is a primary component of many approaches to addiction treatment, and gaming can sure make some of that time pass more quickly than most other activities. I get that that underlying issues still need to be addressed.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:30 PM on January 25, 2013

Facebook games and other similar timewaster stuff were my main solace and distraction after my sexual assault/rape in 2009, and the overwhelming all-the-family-at-once wedding a couple of weeks later. It was also what I turned to when I was dealing with stress and overwhelm from international move + end of relationship + culture shock + grad school stress. After a point I feel like I don't need them anymore and stop playing, but in between they really helped me find some space to not worry about my problems for a little while.
posted by divabat at 1:00 PM on January 25, 2013

ohohcytes wrote in one sentence what I spent three paragraphs writing. Bravo!
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 1:16 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

A major source of depression is a sense of powerlessness. Powerlessness is a thing; sometimes you really don't have much control of the forces around you.

A major simulation of games is a sense of successfully becoming more powerful. Becoming more powerful is a thing; the decisions you make can have an impact on the (or 'a') world around you.
posted by effugas at 3:20 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Jane McGonnigal's book about this (I see her TED talk is mentioned upthread) is very good, too. The premise is that "Reality is Broken" because in real life we can spend a lot of time doing the same things over and over with no sense that we are meeting challenges, developing skills, and using our skills to overcome our challenges. She actually recommends turning necessary but unpleasant tasks, like cleaning, into games to make them more enjoyable. And she recommends social gaming.

Her book caught on with bschool types and "gamification" can be applied in unsavory ways, for instance as yet another way to motivate employees without paying them more.

But personally the idea that games are designed to make people happy, and that they do this by presenting challenges and rewarding progress with more and greater challenges... That they are fulfilling a real need for meaningful productive challenging work that has observable effects, I found this really helpful actually. Once you get rid of the idea that games are an unproductive waste of time - and if you don't let them mess up your sleep schedule or diet/exercise routine - the argument that they are Bad For You loses a lot of steam.
posted by subdee at 4:34 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

What depressed me was finishing a game and realizing that I hadn't acquired any usable skills or learned anything useful in general. Spending innumerable hours/days/weeks finishing a quest or finding the right colored key never made me feel better when I went to sleep.

Play Dark Souls. It's so tough it forces you to engage with it, and every bit of progress gives you a real sense of accomplishment because you've had to use all your skill and cunning to make it.
After beating Dark Souls I play all games on Hard for that same rush.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:58 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is funny, that while I have played many games and have a lot (thank you Steam sales) that I mean to play, I find that I mostly turn to puzzles which require concentration but little original thought. What they offer is something that consistently, predictably, occupies my mind.
posted by alexei at 11:53 PM on January 25, 2013

I'd say that me getting over depression was deeply tied with me getting over video games as well. I think the cheap reinforcement in games prevents you from putting them time you need into real life.

While this is no doubt true for yourself, your post does make you come across as a recovering alcoholic lecturing others about the evils of even just one drop of alcohol and how it will inevitably lead to the d.ts, the disintegration of your marriage and becoming homeless.

It may be true for him, but not for the vast majority of drinkers, nor even for those like him recovering from alcohol abuse...
posted by MartinWisse at 2:11 AM on January 26, 2013

I remember reading how Tetris may prevent PTSD and then during some really bad periods - right after family death, in hospital or waiting for cops - forcing myself to play games because they made time vanish and left me relatively relaxed and focused instead of balled-up in misery. Bejewelled, Civilization on the iPad and random timer-driven jigsaw puzzles - so much cheaper than therapy and safer than alcohol.

When you play a well-designed game, especially ones that have either an immersive storyline or very fast gratifying play, you get into a state of flow. You're not thinking about how terrible life is, you're thinking "quick quick grab that one, then that one" and your whole body gets to relax. It's not as passive as watching TV can be too, so you don't feel so groggy.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:54 AM on January 26, 2013

So after a bit of reflection, the article's set up interested me more than than its deliberations...

From TFA:

It’s not only games that risk the accusation of paraphrasing mental health issues for ease of narrative. Whenever any commercial entertainment media portrays insanity it leaves itself open to scrutiny. The reason for singling out gaming is that it’s the medium with unrivalled access to, and relies on much of its revenue from, young people, where mental health figures are going through the roof. Most prevalent of these is depression.

Perhaps this kind of "depression" in youth is a natural consequence of rising social anomie, erosion of perceived opportunity and dismantling of countervailing mechanisms of social integration in uncertain times. "It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you"....where's the line between a generational first-order pathology of depression and a rational second-order generational fatalism? Is the answer to the second to censor culture that rises from or explores those dynamics--whether or not it does so self-consciously?

Or is that just a diversionary attempt to constrict the view of this pathology to the individual level in order to avoid recognizing the increasingly dissonant (if not dystopian) realities that might make a generational Weltschmerz rational? (And the same might be said of an attenuated response to graphic violence in generations of kids who have grown up with a post 9-11 mentality, or in violent metropolises, especially when that violence is framed in normatively accepted police/military or vigilante/organized crime narratives.)

To double back via an ultraviolent media example: I just watched Dredd 2012 last say that it uses comic-book or video-game hyperbole to explore (or perhaps in some uncritical viewers' eyes, extol) psychopathic/sociopathic psychology misses most of the point; the aberrant personalities it caricatures (on both sides of the law) are are product of the socioeconomic and cultural pathologies of the mega-city.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:49 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Play Dark Souls. It's so tough it forces you to engage with it, and every bit of progress gives you a real sense of accomplishment because you've had to use all your skill and cunning to make it.

I would really like this experience, except I can't seem to beat the first boss on normal. For all of the praise of Dark Souls, I'd like to say it's camera management really sucks. A lot. Like, Resident Evil bad. I can't dodge what I can't see, and the camera almost always wants to wander off in some totally irrelevant direction to explore seams in the textures.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:52 AM on January 29, 2013

The Undead Asylum boss or the boss in the first town? Either way the strategy is the same: get to the ledge above it and jump down to use your plunge attack.

If you get frustrated or stuck, take a break and do something else. Go for a walk or do some deep breathing. Come back calmer and more patient, then take the boss on.

This also applies to life.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:11 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a panic attack last night while clearing out a cave in Fallout: New Vegas. I'm not sure why: I was 90 hours in, nothing short of a Deathclaw can hurt me, I'd already killed all the enemies, and I was comfortably at home. But I still got one.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:20 PM on January 30, 2013

Great, the stupid snake-headed dogs in Fallout New Vegas killed my floating ball robot companion and now I've got the survivor's guilt.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:57 PM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great, the stupid snake-headed dogs in Fallout New Vegas killed my floating ball robot companion and now I've got the survivor's guilt.

Join the club... you, Boone, Rose of Sharon Cassidy, at least one person in the NCR camp... they've all got some heavy shit.

'Course, you can just reload.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:30 PM on January 30, 2013

Or join the dark side and unleash the console sorcery. In my view, the console is part of the basic interface of any gamebryo-engine title.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:01 PM on January 30, 2013

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