The seventh installment of the Mental Health Series features Jose Nateras, a Los Angeles-based actor and writer who contributes to Syft when he can. An experienced wordsmith, Nateras’ focus on the community aspect of video games, including interviews with presidents of esports companies and those breaking barriers in the space, gives him a unique view on how mental health coincides with video games.
In this installment, Nateras discusses his memories of video games, including playing the NES and original Game Boy with his sister, recognizing video games as a tool to come to terms with his sexuality, stopping the toxicity within the gaming community, and more.
An edited transcript is below. Each of the responses has been edited for clarity and concision.
HIS HISTORY WITH VIDEO GAMES
Jarrod: What’s your history with video games?
Jose: I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid. I’m a military kid — my dad was in the Marine Corps. He had the NES and original Game Boy and, when he was on deployment, me and my sister would get to play the games. He was often on deployment, so we would get to play whatever systems he had.
[Video games] were always part of the house. We had our own home computer as part of his job in the military, so we were able to play computer games from an early age. It was always something I grew up with, almost always something I’ve enjoyed. It was always something that allowed me to connect with my friends.
Freshman year in college, we had a GameCube set up in our room, and everybody would just come in and we would play. I’m still friends with those people I used to play video games with in college.
Jarrod: Was there a particular memory that stands out to you while you played video games, whether it be back in the day or even in college?
Jose: I remember being in college, at the time Rock Band was really big. Me and my roommates would always get together and play Rock Band. Creating music with a bunch of people who aren’t musicians at all was always a fun thing — I still have visceral memories of that. I have some very distinct memories playing Smash Bros with friends at parties and social engagement situations.
I remember playing the first Diablo on PC and then Diablo II came out in like 2000 or so as I was heading into middle school. I was writing fiction at the time for Diablo. I was writing my own version of a potential Diablo III in middle school … I was already exploring the medium from a creative standpoint, inspired by the games and the narratives that I was already playing.
Jarrod: I’m wondering if recalling any of those memories evokes some sort of feeling?
Jose: When I think back on those memories, they’re positive. I don’t really have a lot of negative memories associated with video games, per se. It’s interesting, especially over the course of the pandemic and I’ve written about this a little bit, I started playing virtual chess a lot.
That’s been good, because it’s a little nostalgic — it connects me with memories and feelings of connection. It also gets me really, really frustrated, too, because I’m a very competitive person and I hate losing. But overall, the memories are generally positive.
Jarrod: You mentioned Diablo; Is that your favorite game and/or series?
Jose: It might be safe to say it is. I have played all of the ones that are in the series. I played all those games from an early age. It kind of straddles the horror genre, as well as the fantasy genre. It’s “Dungeons and Dragons”-esque as the gameplay model is very similar. It’s at the intersection of a lot of my interests. You could probably say it’s my favorite game. I had never really thought about it that way. But it’s definitely up there.
HOW VIDEO GAMES AFFECTED HIS MENTAL HEALTH AND LIFE
Jarrod: How did video games affect your mental health and your life as a whole? Is there a time when video games helped you get through a rough patch in your life?
Jose: In undergrad, I developed a bit of a drinking problem. Part of that drinking problem came about because I was dealing with coming to terms with my sexuality. That really developed in college because I didn’t drink before that. I wasn’t in a place to actually come to terms with my sexuality and things along that line.
All of that started to come out, literally and figuratively, in college, as I was figuring things out … I would say it’s very complicated in terms of the way all of those issues interplay, the idea of being a normal guy but also being a gay man, what that means, having to deal with expectations and the fact that, ‘OK, just because I am a gay man, what does that mean? Does that mean that I can’t have straight male friends? Does that mean that I’m inherently different than my straight male peers?’
Video games, at the time, were something that allowed me to find common ground with a lot of my straight male peers and straight male friends. Playing was something I could be interested in and continue to explore. That never really changed, and that’s a bit of a through line. As a military kid, I moved around a lot. Part of making friends and adapting to new environments was finding common ground with new people, and video games were always part of that.
That lifestyle of picking up and moving means starting from scratch repeatedly over and over again. There’s a lack of stability inherent that’s traumatic in a certain way. Dealing with that also affected adaptability skills, but video games are a through line there. In college, video games were a stabilizing force as well.
HOW HIS VIEW ON VIDEO GAMES CHANGED OVER TIME
Jarrod: I was curious: how has your view on video games changed over time?
Jose: I think my perspective has changed in terms of how I use them to relate to other people. It’s a sort of common ground, common denominator I use. I’m a big movie person so I use film as another cultural touchstone. I can find common ground with almost anybody by talking either about video games or movies. I’ve grown to appreciate the games that I like more for me, beyond social capital.
I’ve grown to really appreciate it as its own art form, its own medium. From the mental health standpoint, if you’re really thinking about narratives and how these affect the lives of the people playing them, of the lives of the people consuming them, there’s a lot of power in storytelling. The people creating those games actually taking the time to do the research, to imbue those stories with those perspectives, has value, is beautiful, is progressive and exciting, and good to see.
Jarrod: When you play games now, what does it make you feel?
Jose: I take it less for granted. I can play through Smash Bros.’s story mode now and not just enjoy it and have fun playing it, but can see how they’re telling this larger story. It makes me feel pride, as a storyteller, to be able to enjoy that element of the game.
THOUGHTS ON THE GAMING SPACE’S TOXICITY/SOLUTIONS
Jarrod: I wanted to get your thoughts on the toxicity of the video game community and how we, as journalists, as gamers, as people in society, can help mitigate the toxicity so that others’ mental health isn’t as degraded.
Jose: In terms of making it better, I think it takes a lot of willingness to be open to other perspectives … to grow and flourish and expand your experience beyond what you know. I think that’s what gaming can do. You see it when you start to have different people telling the stories behind these games, with more nuance and culture and textures — they’re more interesting and more complicated … the refusal to hear other perspectives continues to make it toxic [and] prevents it from being a healthier space.
Jarrod: I get what you mean. Toxic masculinity is one of the things that helps perpetuate the toxicity in the video game space.
Jose: We have to be able to break open our old-school ideas of what it means to be a man and embrace the idea that being a man is being human and being human consists of all of these different things. That’s a holistic mental health approach that people ultimately need. I think that’s the big takeaway that we can see, not only in gamer culture, but around the band.
Masculinity isn’t bad; nasty, toxic masculinity is bad. The way to get through that is to break open masculinity and … by asking questions. It’s by critically engaging. If we start to do that with our video games, I think we can start to do that with ourselves.
THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF VIDEO GAMES ON MENTAL HEALTH
Jarrod: I’ve heard a lot about how video games could be negatively affecting kids. It’s gotten to the point where even the W.H.O. has classified “video game addiction” as an actual disorder. In your opinion, how can video games help someone’s mental health?
Jose: That’s a really interesting point. I had a friend in college who, when he was in high school, had to deal with video game addiction. I don’t know if he went into treatment necessarily for addiction. But he was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t play that video game [World of Warcraft] anymore.’ It is interesting to see how the ideas of moderation and these other things are a delicate balance.
To answer your question, there are proven studies where soldiers dealing with PTSD can use video games to help process things. It’s really interesting to note that video games function in a very specific way — a way of exploring narrative and story outcomes. There are dozens of studies about the impact of narratives on mental health from kids reading more books, becoming more empathetic to the ability to recognize that the stakes aren’t actually as high as they might seem. That can help you process similar situations in real life.
There are a lot of different ways in which video games can actually actively equip people with the tools they need to process real-world situations, real-world scenarios. I think that’s objectively true; there are ways in which video games actively help people from a mental perspective.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: With regards to mental health in society, there’s always been stigma. If you’re dealing with something, you’re seen as “crazy,” a “lunatic,” things of that nature. What can be done to change the stigma of mental health in society?
Jose: I think generationally, things have changed a lot and are continuing to change. You see it on things like TikTok. You have young people being a lot more open about their mental health issues. A lot of younger people are very quick on social media [to say] ‘I’m depressed, I’m dealing with depression. I’ve got anxiety.’ That’s good; that’s a huge part of breaking out of that.
When I was in Chicago, I was working with this group called “Erasing the Distance.” The mission was to overcome the stigma around talking about mental health issues. We would interview people who have gone through mental health issues including trauma or substance abuse or maybe it was a close friend or relative who went through those things. Then we take those interviews and turn them into monologues and stories that would then be performed by actors. We’ll go to schools and conventions to share these stories.
I think part of it is starting to change because social media has allowed people to share those stories. Virtual spaces, overall, have allowed people to open up more to a wider group of people than they would have previously. Nowadays, everybody has all of their business up online: they have blogs, YouTube channels, they’re willing to share it. Since it’s not one-on-one, person-to-person, it’s a little bit less intimate, which allows you to be open on a broader spectrum.
The internet and technology has changed that hugely and has allowed other people to feel like they’re not alone. That’s allowed other people to feel seen. They share their narratives, their stories and experiences too. Then it just spirals from there, which I think is good, ultimately.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF VIDEO GAMES IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: Conversely, what about video games?
Jose: With regards to video games, I think it’s interesting to see how video games narratively approach mental health. Seeing how games deal with that sort of stuff, like what would a Call of Duty game look like? If, after you play through the fight, you have to go through a PTSD, psychiatric-like experience; that game would look drastically different. I think that’s really interesting because that is something those games don’t approach — you play through the soldier experience without dealing with the actual soldier experience of coming home, assuming you survive which is a sad reality, and then having to go to the V.A. and talk to the therapist to deal with PTSD.
All you see is the “bang, bang, death, explosion” part. From an escapist perspective, I can understand why that might not be what certain gamers want to play. I get that. There is an idea of virtual reality and video gaming being an escapist tool, something to let off steam and process things. I think there is space for entertainment for entertainment’s sake. But even entertainment for entertainment’s sake reflects and shows us part of what we’re dealing with. I think we just need to engage with that a little bit more critically.
Jarrod: That’s ultimately how everything changes: conversations and talking with people and understanding where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to say, accepting that and being open.
Jose: And actually listening and not being reactive. I think it’s about teaching and helping people hear things without feeling personally attacked by them, allowing them to be criticized. Call out culture not as ‘you’re a bad person,’ but ‘this is something that we should talk about,’ and then actually talking about it, which is an important distinction.
You can check out the other entries in the series here.