“Can I ask you a strange question?”
Emily and I were in the middle of a therapy session via video call. Instead of the usual common room in my office, I looked into his kitchen, and he was my basement. Outside, New York is experiencing an increasingly anxious lockdown when a global pandemic tore through the streets and environment. So, yes, now seems like a good time for strange questions.
“Should I play video game“He wondered aloud.
Not a strange thing to ask me. I’ve written a lot about game psychology and players – the fact that I don’t try to hide from my patients. Before this session, Emily didn’t play around and never expressed an interest in him, so they were never discussed in our three years of cooperation. But everything is different now. Like many of us, he is mostly cooped up in his house and feels bored and disconnected from others. And, he admitted, he was always curious about the game, but felt too intimidated to start exploring it.
It is true that from the outside, the game world can seem impenetrable, not least because the most common emotions are often associated with video games and the people who play them have felt ashamed. Games are often underestimated in the best of circumstances – more likely to be thrown as objects of corruption and danger. Games, he said, distract us from the real world, and make us antisocial and strange. But should we reconsider these assumptions when the whole world has been turned antisocial and strange by the evil corona virus?
“Maybe it’s time,” Emily said. “Maybe we all live in a house like this that will force us to get through shame.” He paused, then added, “I’m a little excited! What should I play ?!”
* * *
Before this extraordinary and integrated social integration effort forced us into the digital world for almost all of our personal and professional contacts, the value of playing games might be difficult to convey to skeptics. One of the most incomprehensible truths of watching parents, spouses, or playmates is that it doesn’t always look very fun. Why did they do it, we ask, when it seemed to cause so much frustration? What pleasure can they draw from staring, open-mouthed, at the screen?
The answer is simple: the game is potential. Players actively explore and develop parts of themselves which feels more difficult to access in the physical world – for reasons that can range from social anxiety to a global pandemic.
The game offers freedom in a limited system, reducing ambiguity in the midst of real life chaos, while still giving players a sense of control. In times of uncertainty, like this, we often feel stuck in decision making because the possibilities for the future seem too great, and the consequences of our choices are too heavy. Anxiety interferes with our ability to be present at the moment because we are afraid that we will take the “wrong” path, and we become paralyzed. When usually ordinary decisions – such as whether to go or not to a grocery store, or visit relatives – are haunted by the specter of contracting a deadly virus, our ability to think and feel like ourselves is confined by the rigid question of whether or not we live properly. Games, which are not bound due to the weight of the real world, help us experiment with the possible results, giving us the freedom to be and act as we would in “normal” circumstances – that is, less frightening. In the game, you can make decisions that lead to injury or death, and the results can be felt without paralysis – helped by security knowing that no one really suffers. And if a misstep in the game causes emotions that feel overwhelming, the decision can be canceled by starting over from the previous point.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of my patients have cleaned games that have been ignored for the past few weeks. Someone becomes very invested The Sims 4, simulator open daily life. He described it as “a beautiful vacuum of time” and said he had spent hours designing each furniture stick, lamp by lamp, in his Sims virtual home. The obsession with placing an ottoman gives him a sense of comfort and control, and provides a little protection against the fear created by life or death scenarios that unfold outside the window in ways that are too real.
Another patient told me that he had been completely disgusted with The Sims, a game he usually liked and played. “It seems useless,” he said, describing how he looked at his little avatars hovering in their kitchen and bedroom, hugging each other and going to work. “I used to play because managing my Sims’ life was simpler than managing my own life, but suddenly I played less than they did.” He laughed, but filled with anxiety.
Something like The Sims might not be the right emotional outlet for this patient during the current crisis – of his own volition he proposed that he download Red Dead Redemption 2 instead, an action-adventure held in the Wild West. “I need something with a purpose now,” he reasoned. “I think it will help me feel less trapped in general if I feel like going somewhere in a match.”
* * *
At the end of my session with Emily, I gave her game recommendations, I thought she might find it interesting, based on the years I knew her. But above all I emphasize that finding meaning in games is about giving ourselves space to play – that is, to have emotional experiences that are free of the physical consequences of the real world.
Health is balanced, and global events such as the coronavirus pandemic do not surprise nearly everyone. We all have an instinctive urge to rebalance, but the process looks different to each of us. At present, some are playing games that focus on terrible apocalyptic arrangements as a means to process nightmares that seem to occur around them; others turn to virtual Zen parks like The Sims to escape to a world of less complexity and danger.
There is no wrong way to play. The most important thing is that we take the time to reflect on the values inherent in our play – what he can teach us about ourselves and what we need to overcome the current state of our world.
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