The 11th installment of the Mental Health Series features Sarah Joel Vaughn, a breaking news writer for Syft. Joel covers a myriad of news from Pokemon to Cyberpunk 2077, along with writing guides for the everyday gamer and covering main esports tournaments.
In this installment, Joel discusses their memories with video games including their love for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, how Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars helped them during a particularly rough period, what they think will help toxicity and more.
The transcript is below. Each of the responses have been edited for clarity and concision.
THEIR HISTORY WITH VIDEO GAMES
Jarrod: Can you talk about your history with video games a little bit?
Joel: Video games have always just been the backdrop of probably every major life event I’ve had. I was born in the mid-90s and grew up in the early aughts; if you wanted to have a personality as a kid, you played video games. Particularly, Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars is one that really sticks out to me.
I’ve never had a great relationship with my parents; I’m very open about that. Around the time I was 17, I remember it was Super Bowl Sunday. My father was like, ‘All right, listen, I want you out of my house. You have to start getting ready to leave the house because I don’t want you here because you just don’t belong in my family and I love you, but I can’t accept you.’
After that, I went into my room and just started playing Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars on my PSP, running around in my car and everything like that. I started thinking, ‘If I’m going to be kicked out of the house anyway, I can just say, f*** it and go.’ I had literally $50 and that’s it. I had a big rolling duffel with a couple PS3 games, I had my PSP, Chinatown Wars, of course, along with Monster Hunter, Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, clothes, some comic books — all the essentials you need for running away from home as a teenager.
I just packed all my s*** up and hopped out the window. I was just walking down the street at 1 a.m. with that rolling backpack until I got to a hotel where I asked the lady at the front desk, ‘Hey, I have $50 and I want to rent a room.’ She’s like, ‘I can’t do that for you, but I can call you a cab.’ So instead, I spent $50 on a cab.
I basically slept at the Public Transportation Center until the first train ran at 5 a.m. I played Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars while it rode back and forth. Eventually, I went to my high school and they were like, ‘We need to call Child Protective Services now.’ Then I stayed at a friend’s house and then went back to my parents.
Jarrod: Thinking back, when was the first time you got exposed to video games?
Joel: As a kid, my dad worked a lot; I don’t know what my mom was doing. We oftentimes ended up staying at my aunt’s house. My first exposure to video games was an Atari 2600, Centipedes and some other game where you’re wandering around a mansion collecting stuff. The first console I had was a GameCube, which was promptly stashed away in my parents closet because a mass shooting took place. Once I was a teenager, I had my own money, so I bought a PSP and a PlayStation 3.
Jarrod: You talk about the GameCube, the PSP and PS3. Was there any particular game that you consider your favorite?
Joel: I feel like I have favorite games for different eras of my life. Like when I was a kid my favorite game — even though I didn’t have it — was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I would go to Barnes and Noble and read the strategy guide for a game that I didn’t have. That’s how badly I wanted to play Zelda.
Eventually, I sold a bunch of my stuff at a yard sale and I finally got it. I remember I couldn’t figure out how to get past the first level and then stopped playing it for a couple years. I picked it up again when I was 10 years old and finished it. After that, I would say the Jak series of games grabbed me — there’s something about the tone shift in that game that is incredibly dumb, but I was the perfect age for that.
It’s a typical kids game: you’re rolling around, punching stuff, collecting items, and there’s funny, quippy DreamWorks-esque cutscenes telling you what to do. It’s a real good time; I loved it as a kid. Then Jak II comes around, and it’s like, ‘He has a goatee. He’s angry, he’s just frustrated with the world and wants to kill Praxis or whatever his first line in that game is.’ As a 12-13 year old, I really identified with this because I, too, used to be cute and innocent and now I’m trying too hard to be edgy.
Skyrim on the PS3 was a very informative experience for me, because I feel like it taught me patience in life, because that game is broken as all hell. I feel like that’s a valuable lesson: for any kid out there, the thing you’re really excited about might not work, might really suck, might actually be not what you were hoping for at all.
Jarrod: Was there anything fun or memorable that stood out to you?
Joel: Wandering the high seas in Wind Waker. I feel like that’s something that really sticks with me even today. It’s what I look for in video games and what I feel is like an almost meditative, very Zen experience, where you’re not really doing anything other than pressing forward.
Video games are a form of art, where essentially, all the other forms of art come together to create an experience, be it the music, graphics, visual presentation, and lighting. It’s just this feeling of the sublime — the idea being there’s a thing in front of you that is so breathtakingly massive and so breathtakingly wide that it almost feels incomprehensible.
I felt that with Wind Waker because it’s literally just an open ocean: you can go in a direction and you’re eventually going to run into something that you’re either going to be able to take as treasure or is going to kill you. This anticipation of just moving through a space and something just eventually happening, I just find immensely satisfying.
HOW VIDEO GAMES AFFECTED THEIR MENTAL HEALTH AND LIFE
Jarrod: Have video games helped you get through a specific time in your life that was less than desirable and if so, was there a specific video game that helped you through that?
Joel: Stardew Valley has really been my go-to cope game for the last six years, I think five or six years. The first time I really picked up Stardew Valley as a coping mechanism was after my parents got divorced, which was a long time coming. I remember it from my teenage years and it finally crescendoed when I was 22, I believe. I was hating what I was trying to do for a career, I was working part time as a barback at this bar/bowling alley for a job that was cartoonishly poorly run.
I remember my dad’s like, ‘Hey, guess what son? Come to me with Denny’s.’ And it’s like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? I know, I haven’t been at the house for like, two months. But that’s because we’re getting divorced.’ I’m like, ‘Cool, I’m going to go drink now, bye.’ [I] ubered home, stayed in bed and played Stardew Valley and I did that for about a month.
Was that healthy? I have a hard time making that binary between what is and isn’t healthy. It was a thing that I did and I felt better at the end of it.
HOW THEIR VIEW ON VIDEO GAMES CHANGED OVER TIME
Jarrod: Over time, how has your view on video games changed and conversely, when you do play games, how does it make you feel now, especially after everything that you’ve said?
Joel: I feel like at a certain point in my teenage years, I saw video games as a rogue mechanical-like thing. I like Red Dead Redemption because it lets me ride a horse and shoot the bad guys.
I feel like, particularly, as I became more creatively interested in writing stories and taking apart/thinking about narrative, I started to take games a little bit more seriously, as narrative products. Funnily enough, the dumb, edgy Jak II thing was maybe very influential in this. I feel like that kind of took it over. I feel like there’s a couple games that made me realize that video games are arcs, if that makes sense.
One particular game that got me back into indie gaming was Hyper Light Drifter. It’s a top-down, hack-and-slash game where you’re dashing around a dying alien world. One of the lead developers essentially commented on how it’s not directly a narrative about living with a significant heart defect, but about essentially physical disability, while also being about hacking and slashing.
I feel like when I saw that, that was just the coolest thing and I kept sticking with it from there. A lot of indie games brought my interest back in video games when I was more of a young adult.
THOUGHTS ON THE GAMING SPACE’S TOXICITY/SOLUTIONS
Jarrod: Can you share your thoughts on the toxicity in the video game community?
Joel: So this idea of alienation is hyper present in contemporary society, even more during the pandemic, now that we all work through Zoom. It’s this idea where you’re not connected to either the product of your labor in the more-Marxian sense or alienated from the society that you live in at large. I feel like a lot of people who fall into that demographic of being a gamer are essentially alienated from their own existence.
A lot of people latch on to whatever gives them validation, that gives them an identity. For a lot of people, it’s gaming and making video games your entire personality, and that is maybe the worst thing you can do for yourself. I would argue that with any type of consumable products because it endows this idea that ‘this thing is for you and it should be for you’ and if it looks like it’s not for you, you go do a “GamerGate” and start harassing people online or worse.
It’s an idea that’s probably not going to go away, which is really sad and really frustrating.
Jarrod: As gamers, as people in society, and as journalists, what can we do to mitigate that toxicity within the community so that others’ mental health isn’t as degraded?
Joel: Say, as loudly as possible, not to be s***y. I think that’s the only thing that you can do… It’s not a problem we solve in the next couple of years — this is something that we’re going to be talking about 30 years from now, especially considering toxicity isn’t as widely talked about or even accepted [as a problem] in a lot of circles. Get ready because the fight over toxicity in gaming ain’t ending any time soon.
THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF VIDEO GAMES ON MENTAL HEALTH
Jarrod: In your opinion, how can video games help someone’s mental health?
Joel: For a lot of people, video games just give you a daily routine. For me personally, establishing a daily routine is a massive pain. But if I have something that I can segment, where it’s [the] first thing I’m doing in the morning, I’m going to wake up and do one day in Stardew Valley, and then the rest of my stuff throughout the day.
[It’s also] just having something to enjoy. I’ll [play] for a while, feel better, and then I’ll get on to the next thing. Of course, it goes without saying: it has its time and place. As a daily escape, I think video games are really good.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: What can be done to change the stigma of mental health in society?
Joel: In the most simplistic and crass terms, we just need to all say that we’re f***** up. I feel like, oftentimes, this conversation around mental health starts and stops at the individual. We have to actually look at the ways that our society, workplaces, lives are structured by the systems we live in and how that impacts what we feel about depression, anxiety, and so on. There’s only so much positive affirmation, mindfulness, and therapy you can do.
I feel like my big criticism of the current mental health/mindfulness fad is that we think of it in a very individual sense and I think that’s very much on purpose. Because that’s how someone sells you an app — that’s how someone sells you nootropic supplements to boost your serotonin, but it doesn’t help.
Jarrod: So what can help?
Joel: Do the best you can and acknowledge you’re doing the best you can.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF VIDEO GAMES IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: What can be done to change the stigma of video games in society?
Joel: Time. That’s really what it is. The entire idea about video games causing you to be violent is predicated on a very reactionary response to violence existing in the world and the failures of our own systems in place. That would be enough of a challenge to deal with in the first place, but we have this thing called the “media industrial complex.”
Most older folks don’t give a s*** if video games don’t actually cause violence in the real world — they simply don’t. There’s no evidence you can present to them that will change their mind. The only thing you can do is correct people when you can… the conversation will probably be dead in 30 years or so, when we’re old and have new things to complain about, essentially. Before that, it was comic books, before that it was movies, to music.
Joel: Keep your head up, you’re doing the best you can, and don’t be a d***. My three tips for not being a s***y gamer.
You can check out the other entries in the series here.