How Video Games Might Have Saved My Life

With today’s news about the suicide of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, I thought now might be a good time to reshare a very personal piece I wrote a while back on my now-defunct personal blog.

Its link to Bennington is tenuous at best, I’ll freely admit, given that it’s an article about video games, but there’s an important core message in here that is relevant.

There are times in our life when we feel like we’re suffering, like things just can’t and won’t get any better. During those times, it can be tempting to contemplate taking drastic steps, up to and including ending your own life.

But, and you’ve probably heard these words a lot today already: don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to people and ask for help if you need it. And if there’s something that helps you cope, make use of it. Taking this advice is why I’m still here today.

This piece was originally written in April 2016, so some references may be a little dated! Oh, and here’s the source for the header image.

Kirari 2
Games and visual novels have the power to encourage and inspire, and the importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

When I first thought about writing this piece, I was angry. I got suddenly very angry about something I’ve been angry about before, and had been doing my best to not be as bothered by: the ongoing “culture war” that has all but destroyed rational, reasonable discussion of popular media — particularly gaming — through public social channels such as Twitter, as well as all but destroying any credibility, inclusiveness and, in many cases, entertainment value the mainstream video games press had.

It wasn’t really a specific event that made me feel angry; it was more a buildup of tension that just needed to be released. Controversies over the Baldur’s Gate expansion, the press and “social justice” types outright lying about why people didn’t like it, needless outrage over Tracer’s butt in Blizzard’s Overwatch, the ever-present undercurrent of the morally superior looking down on people who are into video games and branding them misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, cis white heterosexual male scum… all of it was getting on top of me, even though a lot of it didn’t even directly concern me and the games I’m into. But the controversies still resonated with me, since I’ve also seen very similar nonsense aimed at the games I am into.

The reason titles like Valkyrie Drive attract such ardent defenders when they come under attack is due to their strong, often relatable characters.

When I get angry about something, after the fact I often like to take a moment to reflect on exactly why I got so angry — why is that thing in particular so important to me that it had such a powerful emotional effect on me? Video games are dumb timewasters, aren’t they? Why should I care so much what some people I’d never want to hang out with at parties (not that I generally want to hang out with anyone at parties save for people who want to join me in another room and play computer games all night) think of the things I enjoy? Why do I feel compelled to continually defend my hobby and this medium from people who desire nothing more than to tear it down and remake it in the way they think it should be — because make no mistake, the loudest critics like this aren’t after true “diversity” or “inclusion” since they, in many cases, simply cannot accept the existence of material they deem “problematic”, nor can they understand that some people enjoy said “problematic” material and don’t want to be called sex pests/paedophiles/misogynists/assholes simply for the things they happen to be into. Why?

Well, “video games are important to me” is the simple answer. And I could leave it at that. But I’m not going to: I’m going to explain exactly why video games are important to me.

Screenshot 2014-05-14 20.49.34
Katawa Shoujo was probably the first game that really “spoke” to me, and it came during exactly the right time in my life.

Growing up, I was a bit of an outcast. I was shy, I lacked confidence, I didn’t know how to talk to people. (Since I originally wrote this, I have learned that a lot of my social issues in particular can be explained as a result of Asperger’s, a condition I’ve only been diagnosed with relatively recently.)

I remember on my first day at secondary school I turned to Matthew, one of my few friends from primary school and, with genuine fear in my eyes, whispered to him that I “couldn’t remember how to make friends”, which was putting me at something of a conversational impasse with Murray, the boy I had been sat next to in our tutor room. (Murray turned out to be a massive bullying twat, whom I finally punched in the face just as the headmaster was walking around the corner one memorable lunchtime; I escaped truly serious punishment on the grounds that he most certainly had had it coming for a very long time indeed.)

Growing up, I wasn’t into sports. I was into stuff that other people weren’t into. I played the piano. I played computer games. I wrote stories. (All of these are things I still do.) These were things that I learned I enjoyed at a very young age, so I have clung onto them with all my might for my whole life — and I’ve always known when someone would turn out to be a true friend, because they’d be into at least one of those things, and preferably more than one of them. Indeed, when I did eventually successfully remember how to make friends at secondary school, the group of friends I surrounded myself with were all a little like me to varying degrees — I was by far the most awkward and nerdy of them, but we all had our shared interest in video games which we felt like other people didn’t really get the appeal of.

Finding people who understand your interests is important; Nocturnal Illusion was recommended to me by a friend.

When the time came for me to go to university, I was terrified at the prospect of having to deal with new people and even live with them. Fortunately, I found myself living with a flat full of thoroughly decent people who tended to be remarkably understanding of my quirks. There were still occasions when what I now recognise as social anxiety would get the better of me, and I’d want nothing more than to lock myself away and escape into the wonderful worlds and stories gaming let me explore and be a part of.

I continued my love of video games throughout my adult life. They always served as something comforting to me: after a challenging day at university, games were there to help me relax. After a difficult day working in teaching, games were there to help me vent my stress. After a day of chaotic retail, games were there to help me chill out and forget about the previous eight hours. And after a day where everything felt like it had gone wrong, games were there to save me.

A friend’s wife refers to Nier series as “sad game”, but the melancholy of Taro Yoko’s classics can actually prove to be rather cathartic.

I’ve been through a few difficult periods over the last seven years in particular. The most notable of these was in 2010, when my first wife and I parted ways and I was left unemployed, with no money and facing the prospect of having to move back home — something which I found mortifyingly embarrassing for a man of my age who had actual qualifications (and a failed/abandoned career based on those qualifications).

As time passed, I sank deeper and deeper into a very dark depression indeed. There were days when I was completely unable to function normally. I had a long period where I didn’t — couldn’t — get up until about 5 in the afternoon, which would always make me feel terrible when I’d stagger, unkempt, to the shop across the road from my flat and the guy with the smelly armpits behind the counter would ask “how my day had been”.

Everything felt like it had gone wrong; I felt like I had completely failed at life. I felt like I had made all the wrong choices, and that there was no way out of the situation in which I found myself. And so my thoughts turned, as do those of many people in a similar situation, I’m sure, to whether or not this world really needed me in it any more.

Even incredibly sad games like Kana Little Sister can help you to process negative emotions during times of turmoil.

Once that initial floodgate bursts and you start wondering such things, all manner of unwelcome thoughts start coming to the fore. Would it hurt? What’s it like to die? If I did die, who would find me? Would anyone find me? Should I tell someone I’m feeling this way? Should I tell someone I’m going to kill myself? If I do, do I actually want them to stop me?

More often than not, these strings of thoughts would cause my brain to get into a bit of a feedback loop and I’d end up eventually just passing out from exhaustion, often after having had a spectacularly undignified cry and/or rage about the whole thing. But so long as the situation remained, the thoughts wouldn’t go away entirely. I’d picture different ways of how I might do it, and what would happen once the deed had been done and someone found me — or what would happen if no-one found me.

To cut a long story short, I pushed through all that — more on how in a moment — and, for a while, things started to look up, and I started to think that I might have finally gotten myself into a situation where I could be happy and content, looking forward to the future rather than dreading it.

Atelier Rorona Plus: one of the last games I reviewed at USgamer.

That didn’t happen. The unceremonious loss of my job at USgamer for vague (and, frankly, probably spurious) reasons, followed by the horrendous way in which my subsequent employer energy company SSE (or, more specifically, my immediate managers) treated me while I worked for them — yes, I am naming and shaming here, because it fucked me right up, and I am still bitter about it to such a degree that I often have flashbacks to my particularly horrible last day — caused me to once more sink into an awful pit of depression, and it wasn’t any easier this time around, either.

Those thoughts of not being sure if I wanted to be part of this world any more started to come back. Familiar images of me holding a gun to my head came around; questions over what would happen if I followed through on these thoughts started to rise up once more.

And yet, even though I wouldn’t describe myself as being out of the worst of it even now, I never once harmed myself, let alone made an attempt on my own life. Even in my darkest moments, I was always pulled back from the edge of that particular precipice.

Megadimension Neptunia VII_20160504144907
The Neptunia series holds such personal importance to me because it was a gleefully colourful, silly escape from the darkness of reality, just when I needed that.

Why? Two reasons, the first of which is the one I imagine most people in a similar situation quote: awareness of the few people in the world who do care about you, and what it would do to them if you were to do something as drastic as killing yourself.

The second is video games.

I’m not joking. A big part of why I am still on this planet is because of video games. And it’s hard to explain exactly why, because there are a myriad of reasons I feel this way, but it is absolutely true, as ridiculous as it might sound.

Games have always been important to me. But over the last few years in particular — since about 2010 or so — I feel like I’ve really found the niche of games that interest and excite me, along with a group of publishers and developers who consistently and regularly put out things that keep me enthralled for hours on end. These games engage my emotions and draw me in with their stories and characterisation; these games make me feel like I can be someone that I’m not; these games put me in a situation where, while there might be problems and strife, there’s always a way to deal with it, however challenging.

Ar Tonelico Finnel
The Ar Tonelico series were among the games I “stockpiled” when I had the opportunity; while it took me some time to get to them, they ended up as some of my all-time favourites.

As I became more and more conscious of how I felt about these games, I started “stockpiling” — picking up games and visual novels that I had no real intention of playing immediately, but which I wanted to add to my collection while they were still reasonably readily available. I also started re-acquiring games that I had previously owned that had made me feel the same way. And, one by one, I’d work my way through them, constantly finding new and enjoyable experiences to discover — even where, in many cases, said experiences weren’t received particularly well by critics.

And here’s how games saved me: the knowledge that in every DVD and Blu-Ray case on my bookshelf there is a new experience to be had; a new world to explore; new characters to fall in love with — that’s the one thing that, every time, pulls me back from the brink of doing something drastic, however dark the situation in which I find myself might be, and however persistent those horrible thoughts in my head might be. I have literally had the thought “I can’t die until I’ve played all the Neptunia games”. I have literally had the thought “I’m not going anywhere until I’ve played all the Ateliers”. And so on and so on; so much do I value these experiences — and the ability to talk and enthuse about them with those people I know who do respect my interests, even if they don’t share them — that I can’t bring myself to even hurt myself, let alone make an attempt on my own life.

One of the reasons the Senran Kagura series is so popular is that the cast is now so vast that everyone can find someone to relate to on one level or another.

You may think this is a dumb reason to keep living. You may think that this is unhealthy. You may think that there are more deep-seated problems here (and you’d be right). But trust me when I say: when even a tiny part of your brain starts considering whether or not you’re really needed in this plane of existence any more, the part of you that is still concerned with self-preservation will cling on to any thing — however dumb it might seem — that will help you survive.

For me, that thing is video games, and to my reckoning they’ve saved me from three particularly bad periods in my life: the nervous breakdown that convinced me once and for all that no, classroom teaching was not the career for me; my first wife and I parting ways; and my more recent employment woes.

Hopefully it is now clear to you, dear reader, how important video games are to me. And, bearing in mind how important they are to me, can you perhaps understand how frustrating and upsetting it is to me when a needless, pointless cultural war comes stomping all over them — with the games that resonate with me the most inevitably being the ones that come under the heaviest fire from some of the most obnoxious people on the Internet?

Had the Minaduki catgirls been around a few years ago, I feel they’d have played a big part in my own recovery too.

Video games — as they are today, regardless of how “problematic” or whatever other bullshit adjectives you want to apply to them — saved my life. So you damn well better believe I will fight back with all my might against anyone who wants to change them and the culture surrounding them for the worse.

Video games saved my life. Thank you, video games — and everyone who makes them.

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8 thoughts on “How Video Games Might Have Saved My Life”

  1. Thank you for writing this article, as I had no idea there were others somewhat like me and in similar situations. Just yesterday I was on the verge of having a panic attack due to how stressed i’ve been and how much I’ve been making myself feel like shit. I have social anxiety but am also desperately searching for a job to start paying some bills catching up to me. Unfortunately, I can’t even get the courage to call the employers back to set up an interview. For a long time video games seemed to be the thing keeping me sane, and allowing me to push through to the next day. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the funds to play any new video games lately but am hoping that could change soon. Its really weird and embarrasing having video games be my SOLE motivation in life, but it is. Thank you for writing this article, it seems to have given me just a TINY bit more courage, and the feeling that im not alone helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear it helped, even if only a little. I know firsthand how much jobhunting with social anxiety sucks, so I wish you the very best of luck in your search… and while it can be a scary prospect to do so, I also recommend trying to get on the books of some recruitment agencies, as that proved to be a massive help for me — I’m gainfully employed in a job I actually like as of the April just gone, a year after I originally wrote this post.

      Draw what comfort you can from games. It is important to have somewhere you can escape to, that you feel comfortable in. And they’re a great topic to strike up conversations with people about, particularly online!

      As I say, wishing you all the best and sending encouraging thoughts your way. Situations like this suck, but they don’t last forever, and as the old cliché goes, you’ll probably come out the other end a stronger person.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for sharing this on Irina’s post. I’m so happy that video games where there for you, I will never think that there is a small reason for one to chose life. A bit of hope or happiness in the darkness is sometimes all it takes and you really showed that with your writing. Thanks again for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for reading, and for your kind comment. Yes, for sure; whatever you can draw comfort from, particularly in difficult times, has value. This is one of many reasons I have such passion for the things I love — they’ve genuinely helped me as well as entertained me.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts myself but your emotions came through in this post and I too dislike the direction media discussion has gone in. I remember the Tracer’s butt “controversy” pretty well.

    Like you said in the image caption, it’s important to find people who understand your interests. And there always seems to be some great gaming experience around the corner! I’m in uni now and it’s difficult, but I’m glad to see that gaming can still surprise me (especially Gravity Rush).

    Keep doing you.

    Liked by 1 person

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