Game Therapy

As usual during an extended illness one of my chief weapons in staving off the emptiness and despair has been video games. I believe that much more serious consideration needs to be given to the therapeutic role which they can play for depressives.

It is of course highly unlikely that this will happen given the current slavish adherence to the fashionable CBT line, never mind how many people who actually have experience of depression affirm their usefulness. Medicine – or more precisely in this case, Governments with their eye on reinforcing capitalism – knows best.

So I will just try to give a personal account of the role video games play, which is doubly interesting because in some ways it is precisely those features which critics attack which are precisely those which make them of such use. I should start by explaining, no doubt repetitively, the symptoms of my depression. I discount to some extent the really bad days, because then getting out of bed is a major achievement and my priority is staying safe – which is actually best achieved by staying in bed! Far more common however, are days when I am capable of getting out of bed and am not in any danger of self-harming; however I am pretty incapable of talking, whether verbally or through the net, certainly incapable of any social interaction, find leaving the house very difficult and only possible as a solitary short endeavour which leaves me drained (I do try to do this by walking Nanci). I am further incapable of anything which demands any real intellectual or emotional effort: my brain is far too fuzzy for the first, and the second is dangerous. However equally I need something to constantly fill my time as my own thoughts are not somewhere I want to go and it would also be dangerous to do so. I am incapable of anything demanding any physical effort (another absurd suggestion often made by those with no understanding of the nature of the illness).

What activities then are available which meet the various criteria and incapacities laid out in the previous paragraph? For me there are three. The first is reading ; but the problem here is that I am only capable of reading books which impose minimal intellectual demands. So I tend to go for re-reads – books which I know will give me pleasure and not overtax my brain. There is however a limit to the number of times one can re-read The Lord of the Rings or the works of Agatha Christie (also popular with people with MH issues of various kinds after WW1). The second is watching DVDs or television. Here again intellectual or emotional capacity are important so only certain kinds of film/television are possible. The point about both these activities as undertaken when I am ill is that they are entirely passive (this is not at all true when I am well, as I apply whatever intellectual powers I have to both activities). So we come to third category about which I am now writing – playing video games.

How do video games meet my various criteria?

  1. They demand no physical effort (I use a PS3 and a PC not a Wii! no activity games).
  2. They demand no social interaction (I never play on-line).
  3. They demand exactly the right amount of intellectual engagement – enough to completely engage me but not too difficult – nothing I would find impossible, as serious reading or viewing would be.
  4. They are not emotionally engaging – they are a world of make-believe in which nothing needs to be taken seriously.
  5. They are not entirely passive – indeed they are quite active at least as when compared to saying watching televised sport (another thing I do quite a lot of when ill).
  6. They are immersive and large amounts of time can be passed in a safe and harmless manner.
  7. They are disconnected from ‘real life’.

Taken together these considerations make a considerable case for the very real therapeutic value of video games. But I think there is something more, fairly specific to the kinds of video game (mainly RPGs – Role Playing Games) I play. Or two more things. Firstly one adopts another personality – whether a magician in a fantasy world or a gangster in Grand Theft Auto. If one hates one’s own personality – as I do at the time – this in itself is therapeutic. Secondly, the way in which the games are constructed, the ‘levelling systems’ and the accumulation of powers/wealth etc. provide a sense of achievement which provides a boost. I think there is probably a further point about the way in which the very narrative of the games – and all the games I play have narratives – is satisfying and reassuring.

I hope that the foregoing provides an explanation of the reasons why I believe that video games can play a strong therapeutic role for depressives. Even if this is not allowed I can certainly attest that they are safe and harmless (and I speak as someone who has done a lot of harmful things to stave off depression).

Furthermore, as stated above, some features of video games – the lack of emotional engagement, the disconnectedness from real life – are exactly those which their critics decry as vices. Apart from the fact that most of them appear to have never actually played the games, it is clear that they never given consideration to how valuable a tool they can be for whom ‘real life’ has become a torment.

Anyway to the games themselves. First off Final Fantasy XIII. I am a big fan of the Final Fantasy series. It was FFVIII which properly introduced me to console gaming, and I have played VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, X-2 and XII. In terms of the series I am not sure how high XIII can really be said to rank: I think that probably it comes bottom of those I have listed (I am an oddball in rather liking X-2, but that is probably because I like female characters; most FF fans hated it). This is not to say that FFXIII is by any means a bad game. Far from it. I liked the new battle system once I got the hang of it and appreciated the quality of the graphics (XIII is the first PS3 entry in the series). But I found the story a bit too much, as well as being highly confusing, and I thought that the sub-quests were, comparatively, a bit lacking. Also the weapon upgrading system is frankly annoying as it demands an enormous amount of level grinding not to accumulate levels but gold. Still I completed the main story and have gone a fair way through the main, one might say only, monster hunting sidequest and the game provided me with much entertainment. If there were no other Final Fantasies I would rate this much higher: as it is in the final judgement it is a little bit of a disappointment.

Next I played Dragon Age:Origins (DA) from Bioware. The enormous strengths of this game are the narrative construction, which is very strong, and the characters. DA features a large cast of supporting characters with whom your lead character can interact in all sorts of ways including having romances and sleeping with them. The gameplay required to achieve this is complex as there are gifts to be found and complicated dialogue options to be followed or avoided. Indeed this is a game where it is advisable to save before practically every dialogue! The amount of work which must have gone into creating the game mechanics for this is staggering. The game’s weakness for me is the battle system which I found a bit clumsy. However that is never something which specially interests me and if you play on ‘easy’ as I did it presents no problem at all. There is still plenty to do in following the narrative and interacting with the characters. The idea of having 6 alternative introductory narratives is brilliant too. I am certainly going to replay this game although I have not finished my first play through yet.

Not unsurprisingly given that it is a Bioware game the spiritual ancestors of DA are the Baldur’s Gate games, and I switched from console to PC to go back and replay BG1 and BG2. What brilliant games they are. I hope that it will always be possible to play these games as technology moves on. It is very important that games like this are not ‘lost’ (I have found that playing my old Might and Magic games is impossible on XP; I know there are various tricks one can do to make them work but they are beyond a tech ignoramus like me).

Finally I completed GTAIV. I have written before ( about how I disliked the fact that GTAIV did not provide a ‘slow-motion’ cheat, which meant an incompetent like me was forced to use other cheats, notably ‘restore full health amour and weapons’. But playing it further and in a deeper depression I found I cared much less. The narrative drove me on and the sidequests – if not as fulfilling in previous games – always provided a break if required. And there is little better in the therapeutic terms I have discussed before than getting a gun and going off and killing lots of bad men. The story-lines are brilliant and the game is as chockfull of humour and diversion as ever. I finished the main story line (or one of them as you have a choice of two endings) but not all the sidequests. However I have now downloaded (after finally getting my PS3 online which entailed changing ISP – another story, which I won’t be telling here) the add-ons (The Lost and The Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) but haven’t got round to playing them yet.

All in all, despite the various reservations I have expressed, every one of these games gave me many hours of pleasure and therapy. They were as much a help as anything in getting me through this latest bout safe and unharmed. A less short-sighted medical profession might consider that ‘video game therapy’ should be offered alongside CBT! (although I fully realised that for many it would be useless – every condition needs an individual solution).

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