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How Using Video Games As Escapism Helped (And Damaged) My Mental Health

I, along with many others, have suffered from depression and anxiety. And as a gamer, my relationship with video games has both positively and negatively impacted my struggles with my mental health.

Perhaps the biggest way that video games have helped me cope is by offering a form of escapism. It doesn’t have to be an high-fantasy  title — or even a game that focuses heavily on narrative. Even a simple puzzle game that doesn’t depict a world in any traditional sense of the word can offer a much-needed break from the stresses of everyday life. By fully investing ourselves in a video game, it becomes all we think about — at least, for a short amount of time.

For me, the type of games I first felt could help me escape were high-fantasy RPGs. It makes sense; RPGs by their very nature require you to invest in their worlds and believe in their fantastical narrative. It’s kind of the point: you are taking up a new role that requires some form of investment and suspension of disbelief in order to make it a truly enjoyable experience. It was Final Fantasy for me. Those games made me invest in each and every one of their worlds and I was hooked from a young age. In my early years, I played Final Fantasy VII, IX and X almost religiously to take away the worries of school. Taking on the challenge of toppling evil organisations and gods that would have us dead was much less stressful.

When I first started to suffer from depression as a young adult, these games also gave me a place I was able to relax in. Final Fantasy provided a world where Robert Gammon’s real-world problems didn’t exist; only the challenges of the characters within these new worlds did. Playing also allowed me an external outlet to understand certain issues — narratives, especially in RPGs, often explore themes that we can relate to in real life, therefore giving me a safe platform to explore my problems with no consequences of making anything worse in the real world.

The opportunity to escape reality that video games provide can be a much-needed respite, and in turn, this break from the world can give us the energy we need to face our demons. However, like all good tools, it must be used appropriately. Escapism is all very well when it takes us away from our problems for a short while — but it can become all-consuming, making us unable to face our real life when we most need to. This was my problem. I often let gaming be the answer to my issues instead of tackling them appropriately.

Even the very hardest of video games always has a solution to the problems it places in front of you. Even when bad things happen, and even when the solution might not seem like a solution, there’s still always some form of progression — either the plot moves forward, or you get to try again. This isn’t always true of real life. It’s easy to substitute a video game’s solvable problems for the real problems that we must face in our everyday life. At least, this happened to me.

I remember desperately wanting to be in the world of Spira from Final Fantasy X, as only there did I feel that I had meaning. The game gave me clearly set goals that I could achieve; everything was mapped out for me and I knew exactly what I needed to do at any given moment. I couldn’t say the same for real life.

I was becoming dependent on on a fictional world, which caused me to neglect the complicated personal issues that were currently going on in my life as well as my depression. The escapism that videos games offered to me had itself become a problem; it exacerbated my issues thanks to me ignoring things that ought not to be ignored. Accepting that the life I needed to focus on wasn’t part of a fantastical video game world was upsetting — but it was a realisation I needed to make.

Sure, games are fun, and part of their purpose is to offer an escape from the real world. The opportunity to exist in a new world that has no consequence on our day-to-day lives is a great tool for us to be able to relax without the worrying that our actions may  impact on our real life. Video games provide a safe playground to enjoy ourselves, learn new personal skills and rid us of our overactive minds. However, these worlds only tools when we use them correctly. Becoming too dependent on these tools can lead to us neglecting important problems, in turn making them worse. We must make sure when we escape to a new worlds that we keep a foot in the real world.