Last week here in Canada it was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK this week. And to be completely honest with you all, I am having trouble starting to write this blogpost. This is because I have an anxiety disorder: more specifically a Social Anxiety Disorder. The Canadian Mental Health Association describes Social Anxiety Disorder as:
“[involving an] intense fear of being embarrassed or evaluated negatively by others. As a result, people avoid social situations. This is more than shyness. It can have a big impact on work or school performance and relationships.”
In my life this has affected my work life and my social life. Indeed, not only does having an anxiety problem affect my personal relationships with other people, including relationships with loved ones, it also has a profound effect on my personal relationship with myself: how I see myself, how I think about myself, and more importantly how I think others see and think about me. To be truthful it can be pretty debilitating (I have the doctor’s notes to prove it).
The Mental Health Foundation in the UK gives us a pretty good idea about the psychological impact of anxiety:
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of concentration
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling depressed
- Loss of self-confidence
“It can be hard to break this cycle, but you can learn to feel less worried and to cope with your anxiety so it doesn’t stop you enjoying life.”
I can attest to what the MHF says here: I most often struggle with the first and last points.
What I needed to realize was that I am awesome, and that my lack of self-confidence was internal and generally unfounded. Upon reflection there was no reason to doubt myself, and that through striving to improve myself, for myself, I am able to achieve anything I set my mind to.
I want to break here for a moment to say that I am not a doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist; I’m just a dude with a laptop and a blog, and as such I cannot (nor will I) attempt to recommend any single therapy for dealing with an anxiety disorder. I can only tell you what has worked for me in the past, and what is working for me now (at this very moment as I am writing it is this Spotify Playlist; Bach is pretty great. I can also recommend my favourite composer Beethoven, who coincidently suffered from an intense case of depression; but I digress). If you feel like you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, or any other mental health issues, I urge you to seek out medical advice from a doctor who can recommend therapies; both medicinal and behavioural.
On that note, I have done both. In the beginning of my journey I was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication to use as a milestone between crippling anxiety and seeking a therapist. And I did seek a therapist for something called cognitive-bahavioural therapy.
I am happy to say to you that I can enjoy life! Anxiety is both manageable and treatable and it is absolutely possible to do great things!
So at this point I am sure you’re asking “Adam, this is a blog about games and game design; what does this have to do with that?” Well Dear Reader, I do sometimes talk about other stuff. But this has much to do with games and game design.
Many people seek out video games as a form of coping with anxiety; myself included. I happened to take it a step further and try to channel my anxiety into my game design work and my game design blogging. Often, playing a game for a little while helps distract me from my anxious mind, allows me to calm down by thinking critically about something else, and return to the task at hand refreshed and relaxed. However, video games can easily switch from a healthy coping mechanism to an unhealthy one.
It’s important for us to recognize the difference between using games as a coping mechanism; as a method of working out an internal struggle, and a dependance on games for self assurance, self-esteem, and self-confidence. In one of my first posts here titles What Do Games Do? I say that “Games can provide an escape” and that “A game can provide an opportunity to be somebody else, or be the person you really want to be.” In general, these aren’t unhealthy things to seek out; it seems to me to be part of the reason we have things like books, movies, music, and theatre. They provide a respite from the stresses of work and life and as I mentioned above allows us to step back to somewhere else to unwind and return refreshed. This is the case for pretty much any coping mechanism. But what if you are always trying to ‘escape’?
There may come a point where one finds that games are the only things that make them happy for one reason or another. At that point one might begin to turn away from things like work, play, and social interactions by retreating into virtual worlds where they are in control. Not only can one turn their back on the world and on others they can begin to turn their back on themselves by neglecting their personal health, their personal hygiene, their self care, and their self worth. When this happens a person may only feel any self worth or self esteem inside a game. Games at this point have transitioned from constructive coping to detrimental dependancy. And if you can relate to the above; if you feel like your only happiness comes from a game, and that you have turned away from everything else, I once again urge you to seek out medical advice and therapy to help bring you back to health.
Remember that you are more than what you are in a game: you are a problem solver, you are driven, you are passionate, you are awesome.
I want to ask my fellow game designers to take these type of issues into consideration when we create. I think by including things like natural yet regular pauses in games we can allow our players to step away from our games for a time, but still desire to return later. I feel like it’s our responsibility as designers and developers to create not only compelling content, but healthy methods of play; sort of like our own little Hippocratic Oath:
I hereby swear to create games that are fun and compelling, yet who’s methods of play are both safe and healthy for my players; I swear this for the good of the player and the good of the game.
Anxiety, depression, and mental illness do not discriminate and are often invisible to those close to the people that suffer from them. If you think you or anyone you know are a victim of mental illness please do not be silent. Talk to your DOCTOR and a COUNSELLOR, right now.
If you or anyone you know are thinking about attempting or plan to attempt suicide, call 911 (or your regional emergency line) IMMEDIATELY! Stop reading this and call right now!
If you or a loved one are in crisis right now you can call:
IN ONTARIO, CANADA:
Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868
Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
Or go to https://ontario.cmha.ca/mental-health/services-and-support/crisis-support/ for more.
NOT IN ONTARIO, CANADA:
USA: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
UK: The Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90
I got help, you can too.
I know it is difficult to ask for help because that means admitting that there is something wrong; and the stigma around mental health issues makes that even harder. But I will tell you verily that it can help.
Remember that you are awesome, we are awesome, and we can do it; whatever it is!