A lofty claim indeed…that video games can save a life. Especially when parents point to games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty as ways that kids learn violent behavior. I was never into first person shooter games, but instead always loved sport and puzzle types of games. As a child of the 80’s, I grew up on an Atari 2600 console and owned the original handheld Mattel football game. Simple stuff compared to today’s technology and coding.
There are games that I have played over the past few years since smart phones became the norm that have helped me deal with depression and anxiety. I’m not a video game addict (although my wife would probably state her case that I am) but I do play games on my phone most every day. I find that playing games from time to time help me deal with emotional issues in a circumspect way. More so, I find that there are things about video game play that help a mind deal with the stresses that depression and anxiety cause. None of these games existed when I was going through my depression period. I wish they did. As I evaluate each of these six games there is something I pick up as a concept or “truth” that helps me in some way, and I hope they can give you a new perspective too.
1. Candy Crush Saga
I’ve had lots of conversations with friends about this game…from what level are you on to how you passed a certain level. Really, sort of dumb conversations. Sometimes though, you just need a distraction. My first counselor encouraged me to find constructive distractions because in the middle of depression you could literally sit and overthink everything that you are feeling. I felt and re-felt all the anxiety over and over and wondered whether I would every feel normal again. He would say, go for a run, take a nap, watch a movie, build something…but get your mind off of the introspection for a while.
When I feel acutely anxious I almost feel like I can’t accomplish anything. So actually accomplishing small tasks would help me move forward in small ways. I like making checklists and when I am anxious making a checklist of bite sized tasks actually mentally helps me gain some ground. Completing a level on Candy Crush was like accomplishing a little task. It felt like progress. And progress is good.
Anti-Depression Gaming Principle #1: Sometimes simple distraction is necessary.
2. Words With Friends
Playing Words with Friends is exactly like playing Scrabble. And all you have in front of you is seven letters to try and get a good score and keep ahead of your opponent. You don’t even have the option of all the letters (unless you have the blank tile), so you are limited. I find that is a good thing. When I was depressed, and if I ever tried to take a nap I would start thinking of all the things wrong with the world. I would call it “Trying to solve all the world’s problems” as I overthought and couldn’t calm down enough to let my mind rest…even though I was exhausted. Over the years I learned to tell myself that there is no place I need to be, no one I need to talk to, and nothing I need to accomplish in this next hour. I limited my options as to what I needed to think about. And I could calm my heart down, relax and fall asleep. So I love the simplicity of WWF where you can only focus on a few letters at a time. It pushes complexity away and narrows the focus. An anxious mind needs that relief at time.
Anti-Depression Gaming Principle #2: Narrowing your focus gives the mind a break.
3. Word Streak (formerly called Scramble With Friends)
If you have played Boggle, then you would recognize Word Streak. It’s the same concept that you can go any direction to an adjacent letter to make words of any length. When I sit with a counselor (I’m in a second season of counseling now) we are bringing up things from the past and how they are affecting feelings in the present. We tend to keep things somewhat linear in our minds, like Event A caused Consequence X and leaves me with Feeling J. But in order for our heart and head to heal, we have to be willing to rethink the order. Maybe not completely shake up the letters like in Boggle, but willing to reconsider that our linear solutions aren’t working. Word Streak helps me consider that answers may be in any direction and I need to be willing to rethink conclusions. The more willing to look in every direction gives you a better score in the game. In life, reconsidering how past events have affected us in the now and giving yourself freedom to evaluate the consequences and feelings differently will help you resolve stuck spots and grow.
Anti-Depression Gaming Principle #3: Moving beyond linear conclusions helps you grow emotionally and relationally.
4. Angry Birds
The task of this addicting game is simple…destroy the piggies that took the eggs. So you slingshot your birds into the structures with intent of mass destruction. There were times when I would be in a counseling session that I would have this incredibly deep hunger to just punt a small dog because I was so angry about something. I think we all have had that lust to use a hammer to obliterate something like a fax machine or printer…something. In the middle of depression I felt so many things from anger to sadness to loss and exasperation that it would have been nice to destroy something. It would feel good to annihilate something. Actually destroying isn’t all that constructive, and you can get hurt or go to jail. So the more constructive solution is to find something to demolish that doesn’t actually hurt people or things. Angry Birds did just the trick…a chance to blow stuff up with out literally hurting something.
Anti-Depression Gaming Principle #4: There’s a time when destroying stuff just feels great, but finding a constructive place is essential.
5. Hill Climb Racing
The 2-dimensional car game Hill Climb Racing has probably 30 vehicles and 25 courses to keep you engaged for hours. You try to gain coins in order to max out your vehicles so you can go the farthest on the courses in order to gain as many coins as you can. Some of the courses can really send you flying (or falling) for considerable length. One course, the moon, with it’s simulation of lighter atmosphere will have your vehicle hanging in air for 15 or 20 seconds. It’s unnerving! How many of you have dreams where you are falling or flying and awaiting the crash landing? When I was depressed I felt like I was falling constantly and there was never going to be a safety net to catch me. At times I thought there would be a safety net and it somehow wasn’t there and I continued to fall. How unnerving!
It used to be unnerving to fall even in video games, but Hill Climb Racing helped me to get used to falling. Getting used to it helped me not fear the falling as much. I’ve been through depression and anxiety enough to know that there usually is an end. Anxious days or weeks happen, but I’ve regained footing and bounced back. Depression last longer, years even, and you wonder where the bottom ever will appear. In those dark periods, one big help to me was my belief in a loving Father God who still holds me when I feel like I am falling. He is with me. Even when I feel out of control, I can rest that He is in control. I can be little more patient in the middle of falling when I know that He is with me and will catch me. Hill Climb Racing helped me become aware of the patience necessary in falling with confidence.
Anti-Depression Gaming Principle #5: When falling, slow down and remember there is a bottom and a Father who catches us.
6. Farm Heroes Saga
Farm Heroes is another “line up 3 and eliminate” game that is all too addicting. There is always some sort of problem to solve or task to accomplish in a limited amount of moves. On plenty of the levels I thought there is no way to solve the problem in the amount of moves they allow. This is where games “get you” and you start thinking I will buy the bonus stuff to help me complete the level. It’s a choice, either try 100 times to beat the level and waste 3 hours or spend a buck to get some bonus moves and save 3 hours of life. And you start to realize that 3 hours of life is worth much more than the dollar it takes to complete the level. You choose spend. And it is the right decision.
Counseling is expensive. Seeing a psych in order to start the meds that can level off your emotions and help you live more balanced is expensive. I can’t believe how much I have spent on counselors, psychiatrists, and medicines over the last 15 years. Every dollar spent has been worth it in biochemical balance and emotional help. Sometimes the expense is absolutely worth it. I was suicidal when I started to see a counselor. He helped me back away from the ledge. I was suicidal again when I went to a psych. The meds eventually allowed me to get to a place where my emotions weren’t running my decision making process but I could reason again with a balanced perspective. Worth every cent! Funny how a video game revived that sort of realization.
Anti-Depression Gaming Principle #6: There’s a time spending money is worth it, especially seeking professional help.
OK, so now you can see that I have played video games a decent enough amount to have made conclusions of usefulness. Beyond that, sometimes I just need a few minutes to relax and think about something completely different than my circumstances. Games are a mental break for me.
One thing I notice about people who are great at video games, is that their mind gets so used to the environment that it is able to slow down everything to sense a feeling of normalcy. So something that look hectic to me just feels normal to them. There is a danger to video games when that is a person’s most comfortable “normal” environment. But the ability to slow down real life, examine all the emotions and stimulus going on and be able to evaluate clearly is a principle I have learned from gaming. It is extremely useful. It’s hard to do if left completely to our own resources. That is why I have often felt Father God’s help to be essential in helping me examine and evaluate. He gives perspective and help. He even gives the Holy Spirit as a Counselor to give insight and encouragement to us when we need it.
So maybe video games don’t save my life, but they have given me some principles which help me deal with depression and anxiety. They have given me a mental break, a constructive place to break things, and reminder of trying to evaluate life more non-linearly. So before you dismiss all games as a useless waste of time, consider that they actually have a few merits to help a wounded soul. Maybe you could spend a few minutes every once in a while playing with your kids, or just by yourself. And maybe my wife now won’t tell me to stop playing games all the time.