The fourth installment of the Mental Health Series centers on Isaac “Izzy” Salant. Salant is the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Syft as well as the Head of the Breaking News team, so he spearheads almost everything regarding breaking content on the site.
In this installment, Salant talks about his history with video games, how Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door helped him during a time of numbness, and how society can lessen the stigma on video games and mental health.
An edited transcript is below. Each of the responses has been edited for clarity and concision.
HIS HISTORY WITH VIDEO GAMES
Jarrod: I’m curious to know your video game history.
Izzy: I would play with my friends as a kid. I think on my eighth birthday, my next-door neighbors got me a silver GameCube that I still have. I loved it. I was obsessed with games, especially Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which is still my favorite game of all time. My father, seeing how addicted I was to video games, said, ‘Hey, we’re going to limit you to about an hour a day, maybe a little more on weekends.’
Video games people were completing in three or four days with hours and hours of total playtime would take me months. A 25-hour game would take me 25 days to complete. I don’t blame my dad for that — it allowed me to enjoy video games along with the other aspects of my life.
My dad was really big on not exposing me to a lot of violence, so I never had an Xbox and Call of Duty. When the Wii came out, I got it, though I didn’t get the Wii U and now have a Switch. I’ve always been a Nintendo guy.
Jarrod: Talking about Paper Mario, you said that’s your favorite game. What about it stood out to you?
Izzy: First off, the story. Second, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was the first Paper Mario to have post-game content, so there was replayability. Honestly, it’s just a feel-good game; there’s no part about it I don’t like. I used to replay the game over just to get to a specific point in the game so I could relive it again. I just always had nostalgia for it and always enjoyed the game.
I’m a big RPG fan, and combining that with Mario is fantastic. That’s always a game I can come back to even though I’ve beaten it so many times. It’s just a fun game; I could pop in and just keep playing over and over again.
Jarrod: Is there a particularly memorable time you can recall?
Izzy: When I first beat the game, I was in fifth grade. I couldn’t beat the final boss because, as a kid, I didn’t understand the nuances of making sure you had the correct equipment and items and extra special moves — all I did was max my HP out. I had so much HP and no room to do any attack. After literally 10 different tries, I beat it.
And I screamed. That was one of my most memorable experiences with it. Also, I forgot to mention: the game is hilarious. The writing is so good and Paper Mario games always have fantastic writing.
HOW VIDEO GAMES AFFECTED HIS MENTAL HEALTH AND LIFE
Jarrod: Recalling that memory, what does it bring you? Joy, happiness, nostalgia?
Izzy: When I completed the game, it was recently after my mother had passed away. I remember, for the longest time, feeling numb to a lot of things. I don’t remember much about it because I was 10. But I remember that moment being a point of pure happiness, which is really nice after dealing with the death of a parent.
It really brings back, not only nostalgia, but — I don’t know the exact word for the feeling. It’s like when you shatter glass and finally break through the barrier. It was painful, but then you come out the other side. That wasn’t exactly how I was feeling because it took me a while to fully be OK with everything, but it was one of those glass-shattering moments: I’m not feeling numb, I’m feeling happy, I’m feeling excited, I can feel full emotions again.
Jarrod: How did video games affect your mental health and life as a whole? Was there a time when video games helped you get through a specific time that was less-than-desirable?
Izzy: So I have depression, anxiety and autism, which means my day-to-day [life] can be a struggle. The fact is, even when everything’s going right, there are still plenty of times when I feel horrible.
There are still times when I don’t want to get out of bed. There are times where I’ll look at the assignments I have to do and I’ll put them off for a week because I genuinely don’t have the energy to do it. But I’ll have the energy to play Rocket League for four hours because that’s fun to me.
I feel like there’s not one specific moment in time I can think of, it’s more of a constant thing. I cope with everything through different avenues. One of them is writing — I love to write. One of them is playing video games. I know if I have time, I can sit down in front of a GameCube, Wii, Switch – the only three things I own – and play Zelda, Mario or Pokemon.
It’s always nice to do it. I’ll also realize, if I’m getting frustrated at a game or really angry, I know it indicates something else. Maybe I have to go eat or take a nap. I can genuinely gauge my emotions based on how I’m reacting in video games, which is something that’s hard for me to do just in general.
I credit video games for things like that. I also feel just transported when I play them. It’s the same reason I like to perform, act, do magic, write, and other stuff like that — I get to escape and help someone else escape.
HOW HIS VIEW ON VIDEO GAMES CHANGED OVER TIME
Jarrod: Over time, how’s your view on video games changed? And conversely, when you play games, what does it make you feel?
Izzy: It’s funny, I’ve gotten really good at some video games and become trash at others. I plugged in Sonic Heroes recently, just for fun, and I’d already unlocked all the extra modes and done everything. I popped it back a couple of years after winning and I’m trash — I’m really having to relearn some of that stuff. Conversely, I’m popping a Mario game and I’m still really good at it, learning the controls, doing things like that.
I’d say over time, my view of video games has grown from a fun activity to play with your friends to, ‘Wow, communities like these are places where I can understand other aspects of people.’
When I play video games, I used to get a lot angrier. Now, because I’m an adult, I’ve learned to control certain things. I still always get a sense of nostalgia; I still always have fun. I still very much enjoy playing Super Mario Odyssey, Pokemon Sword, and Breath of the Wild. I just enjoy it.
THOUGHTS ON THE GAMING SPACE’S TOXICITY/SOLUTIONS
Jarrod: I want to get your thoughts on the toxicity of the video game community and how we, as journalists, writers, and people in society, can mitigate that toxicity so other people’s mental health isn’t as degraded.
Izzy: People, no matter what you do, are not going to be happy. You could lead someone to water and they’re going to claim they weren’t thirsty. You could literally solve world hunger and there’s going to be one person like, ‘Now no one’s gonna have to work for food.’ No one’s going to be super happy when you come to things like toxicity … If you’re mad about certain things and it’s very clearly affecting you, it’s so much easier to just not go online and tweet your stupid, bigoted rants.
That’s what I would say to people in a toxic community. I hate to put people into a bubble, but a lot of the gaming community are teenagers, and no matter how adult you think you are, when you’re developing as a teenager, you’re going to have some views that aren’t great. You don’t have a good worldview, you don’t understand certain aspects, you don’t fully get selflessness, you don’t understand what’s going on in the world.
You’re going to hear something on the internet and immediately attach yourself to it because you’re still trying to find your identity, not realizing the implications it’s going to have. It’s up to us to educate ourselves and realize what has been happening in order to make that real change.
At the end of the day, we’re all people. If you don’t recognize that you’re going to lead yourself to this toxic environment, you’re going to say horrible things you may not even mean, and we don’t want that.
As journalists, we call it out when we see it. Someone says something super racist on stream, we don’t just ignore it — we say, ‘Hey, this is really bad.’ Everyone needs to know about it and that person can either apologize for what they’ve done and take the steps to make sure they don’t do it again or they can continue to be a bigoted human being, in which case, we’ll continue to call them out.
We hope they’ll be ostracized in the gaming community.
THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF VIDEO GAMES ON MENTAL HEALTH
Jarrod: In your opinion, how can video games help someone’s mental health?
Izzy: I think it not only allows a person to be transported to a world through escapism, it also allows them to also live out some desires. If you’re a socially awkward person and you play a video game where you communicate all the time, you get to be that person. You get to live out that desire and, as ridiculous as it sounds, if you continuously see people interacting, even virtually, you’re going to learn how to interact a little bit more.
It allows people to communicate online with friends. We’re still stuck in this pandemic. I’m on Discord all the time for Syft, with friends and everything. I can pop in Among Us and talk to all my friends; it provides a sense of community. There are people out there who have closer friends online than they do in person. That’s not indicative of their social skills — it’s indicative of the communities they’re a part of. Those are two ways video games can truly help mental health.
The third thing it does is foster representation. You have LGBTQIA+ members as protagonists of video games. You’re watching this and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is normalized, I can feel comfortable to exist in these spaces.’
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: What can we do to change mental health’s social stigma?
Izzy: I’ve answered this question so much because I continuously fight to end stigmatization. I’ve narrowed it down to a couple of major things. First is exposure and education: show people it exists and don’t hide how it’s present; Next, educate people that one out of 10 people has depression and it’s not this random thing. So, education and exposure go hand-in-hand.
Another major thing is resources which fund places which provide education. We also need training, not of police officers, but of social workers and other professionals who can handle situations that don’t need police force. We don’t need to arrest someone and throw them in an insane asylum if we can prevent anything from happening to begin with.
We can talk to those struggling and give them the help they need. By having those things in place and having more education/exposure, you then lead to the fourth thing: by ending stigmatization, you have more people being upfront about it.
If I see that depression isn’t a quick-fix, [that] it’s a genuine problem I need help with, I’m going to feel more inclined to go seek out that help. It’s on us to end that stigmatization. So be sure to promote education, exposure, availability, and checking our own biases.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF VIDEO GAMES IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: I’m curious, what can be done to change the stigma of video games in society?
Izzy: I wrote an article for Syft about violence in video games. The fact is, violent video games do not cause violent tendencies — they can cause more aggression, but that’s the case with anything competitive: you’re going to feel heightened emotions.
There’s no direct cause between violent video games and violent actions – the American Psychological Association has released that statement … I feel like a lot of people are still believing some of the old science or old thought processes behind it, because that’s currently what happens today in a lot of our society. That’s how you get stigmatisation.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people through interviews, talking to experts and people in the industry. The one thing they always tell me is that esports and gaming is an industry where anyone can thrive as long as you put the work in. You don’t have to be a gamer to be in the industry; you can do content creation, journalism, you can shoot video, you can edit, you can do finance, etc.
It’s starting to grow into a much larger industry where businesses can make billions of dollars in ad revenue now. I think constant exposure is going to help get rid of the stigmatization.
Izzy: How do you feel when playing video games? You’re in the hot seat now.
Jarrod: I feel good playing video games because I know the games I’ve played throughout my life have helped me get to this point where I’ve met all these great people.
Izzy: That’s a shared sentiment. If you don’t enjoy video games, then why are you playing? That’s what video games were created to do.
You can check out the other entries in the series here.