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Syft Writers Give Their Take on The Healing Powers of Gaming

For years, the topic of mental health lacked the attention it so desperately needed. It went ignored during times it should have been at the forefront of conversation. More recently, it’s become a prominent talking point and a major focus in society. And in the past year — with significant influence coming from the pandemic — awareness has increased exponentially. 

There is no one correct way of dealing with the struggles of mental health. For some, it’s exercise, and for others it could be the opportunity to just speak out to someone. Another outlet a number of people find peace of mind in is video games. 

Several writers at Syft took time to take a stance on mental health and explain how video games get them through some of their hardest times. Here is what they had to say:

Syft Writers Give Their Take on The Healing Powers of Gaming
Syft Writers Give Their Take on The Healing Powers of Gaming 13

Sarah Ward 

First off, I’d like to start by saying that the mental health issues I work with are primarily anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, so the ways I work to cope won’t necessarily be the best things for other mental health concerns, but they certainly work for me. My most tried and true method of working to improve my mental health comes in the form of activities that allow me to step back from my world of anxiety and OCD to give my mind a bit of a break and work through my mental health issues constructively. I utilize meditation, reading, and exercise, but I have also found that playing video games can be an amazing way to step away from the stress of everyday life and work through something that will both help me let go of some anxiety and allow me to work through my issues constructively. 

One of my favorite games to play when I am looking for some mental relaxation is also one of my favorite games in general, which is World of Warcraft. WoW may not seem like the most relaxing game out there, with all of the fighting that goes on, but since it is an open-world game, you never have to engage in fighting if you don’t want to and there are so many things you can do and places you can explore. WoW works as a stress reducer for me because no matter what mood I am in, there is something within the gameplay that will help me work through whatever I am going through. If I am looking to blow off some steam, I can go pick a fight with an Elite boss, but if I just need to chill out and relax, I can go find a beautiful setting and just run around exploring and enjoying the design of the game. 

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Image courtesy of Blizzard

In addition to all of that, one of the main reasons WoW is my go-to mental health respite is that it is my favorite game, and really, when you’re going through a rough time mentally, there’s nothing better than just relaxing with your favorite game. 

Jay Silver

Mental health is an extremely important topic in today’s society. As someone who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression since a young age, I have often had to take serious care of my mental health and stability through a myriad of measures. With the pandemic ever-raging across the globe, it is often hard to find a way to connect to family and friends. Gaming has done a tremendous job of doing so. I often turn to gaming when I need a break from society, a de-stressor after hours of reporting or just a space to connect with friends and family.

Teamfight Tactics 1
Courtesy of Riot Games

One game that has gotten me through the difficulties of mental health is Teamfight Tactics, Riot Game’s auto chess simulator. It takes the League of Legends universe many know and love and combines it with strategy and silly companions. It also rewards you for taking a step back to breathe and think about your next move.

A reminder that your mental health is important and it is ok to not be ok every once in a while.

Jose Nateras 

It’s no secret that video games can be good for your mental health. Not too long ago, CNN posted an article which shared the findings of a study from Oxford University that “analyzed the effects of playing two popular video games: Nintendo’s ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ and Electronic Arts’ ‘Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville.’” Overall, the scientists found that “Time spent playing the games was associated with players reporting that they felt happier.” Of course, that study only looked at those two games and we all know there are a ton more games out there and even more people with their own mental health journeys. 

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Image courtesy of Chess.com

Personally, I have found playing chess online to be a big part of how I’ve dealt with the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic (which I wrote about a bit here). It has gone a long way in helping me feel connected to loved ones as well as being something I find mentally stimulating and just plain fun. However, I will say, it’s not all positives for me with chess and mental health. I find myself having to be careful to not play too much when I’m feeling stressed out. As a highly competitive person, I have found myself on streaks of blitz or bullet chess—three- or one-minute long games—that have ended up with me playing for hours without realizing. Literally. I lose track of time and have, more than once, looked up to find it was two or three in the morning. I’ve recognized that isn’t necessarily the most healthy habit and have endeavored to keep it under control. 

In other ways, I have found the feelings of community I’ve experienced playing games like Among Us with a group of friends has really helped to lift me out of darker moods when I’ve felt particularly isolated. Even revisiting games I have enjoyed in the past, such as having a second playthrough of Super Smash Bros. on story mode, has been an uplifting blast of nostalgia that’s helped me deal with stress and served as a valuable distraction from the often overwhelming nature of current affairs.  

Rachel Mailhot 

Mental health means a lot of different things. For me, it’s managing anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. Fear, in particular, is interesting, as most people think of it as the classic Fight or Flight response. But there’s also Freeze. Indecision, decision paralysis, the ‘deer in headlights’ response. Starting something new is a risk, and large open worlds can leave you lost for directions. As such, I find myself cycling through my comfort games as of late, games with clear goals and directions, even if the path taken there is variable. The two biggest there are Stardew Valley, and, surprisingly, modded Minecraft.

‘Now Rachel,’ you say, ‘You just said open-world games can be a problem!’ And they can be! But progression, progression and goals are a beautiful thing. Creating the world from nothing, checking things off your checklist so you can get to the next item on the list, that’s what I like. Gradual improvement and progression, done right, lets you retake control one step at a time, which is exactly what I need when I feel paralyzed by the world around me. Grounding yourself in something familiar, learning something new, solving problems at your own pace, are all things that help unfreeze you and make a decision, even if it’s a small one. 

SkyFactory4 1
Image courtesy of CurseForge and the Minecraft Mod community

Different things work for different people, so if you’re having a rough time, don’t be afraid to try something unusual. If you tend to fight, then fight! Maybe load up Doom and kill a bunch of demons. If flight is more your style, more meditative games may be your pace, such as Animal Crossing. And freeze? I feel you. Trying something new is the last thing you want to do, but it can be worth it, even if it’s a small change to revive an old favorite, either through mods, updates, or sequels. 

Jarrod Castillo

Forza Horizon 4 1
My go-to car in Forza Horizon 4. Screenshot courtesy of Turn 10 Studios.

Starting off, I am a huge supporter of addressing mental health issues. As someone who deals with mental illness on a daily basis, it is important to address mental health properly, especially in video games. Developers need to do a better job accurately portraying characters with mental illness instead of just labeling them as “crazy” or “demented” since many players with mental illnesses use video games to feel better. 

But I digress.

Whenever I feel down, I play Forza Horizon 4. There is something soothing about driving in a fictionalized version of the U.K. in my BMW M3, speeding past other players and NPC drivers. As someone who absolutely loves driving in real life, being able to do so in Forza Horizon 4 and immersing myself in that world without worrying about causing thousands of dollars in damages is the perfect definition of escapism. I love it and it helps me stabilize my mental health. 

Joel Vaughn

When we talk about mental health and video games, it’s often in the context of daily maintenance. I had a hard day at work, and it’s time to play some Counter-Strike. I want to take a break from homework, so I’m going to do a quick FTL run. But the times I think video games aided my mental health the most were when I gave up on being productive, became a shut-in, and had to process things. Sometimes the gears just stop churning. Sometimes your parents get divorced, your grandfather dies, you hate your job, or you’re just stuck inside during a global pandemic and you need something that makes sitting by yourself in the quiet of your room more bearable. For me, that something has always been Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley1 1
Image courtesy of ConcernedApe

My love for Stardew started back in the Spring of 2016. I was working a busboy job that I hated, waiting to hear back from colleges I applied to, and my parents just signed divorce papers. I remember not wanting anything to do with anyone. I didn’t have any friends at work, I started talking to fewer people at college, and all I did when I got home was lie in bed and play Stardew Valley. The same thing happened in November of 2020 when we buried my grandfather. After coming back from a socially distanced funeral to my lonely little room in Long Beach, I did the same thing: downloaded Stardew Valley off of Steam and started a new, easier life in Pelican Town. 

I didn’t have to think about anything other than clearing the trees and pixely green overgrowth from my newly-inherited farmland. I had crops to harvest, townspeople to meet, errands to run, and mines to dungeon crawl, but if you run away from something long enough it’ll eventually catch up to you. Around the end of the in-game year after the Feast of the Winter Star, it always starts to set in just how lonely I made myself. I miss seeing friends who I don’t have to consult a wiki to buy gifts for, I miss running errands that aren’t to renovate an imaginary community center in a video game town, I miss having a life outside of Stardew Valley. Is this mentally healthy? I don’t know, but it certainly is a way to cope, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for. 

Dylan Hildebrandt

Those who struggle with mental health can oftentimes experience a feeling of hopelessness. With first-hand experience, I can attest to that reality, and I know others endure it as well. It’s tough, there’s no way around it. Sometimes the hardest thing about it is finding a way to express your feelings. Simply finding a way to diminish the level of anxiety and self-deprivation of enjoyment from things you typically enjoy can feel like an unreachable goal. But in video games, I can find a way to alleviate those feelings. 

Gaming is an unsung hero when it comes to picking yourself up. Video games offer the chance to complete goals. Succeed in challenges. Flex your brain with puzzles. Use your imagination. These are all accomplishments which give us a sense of achievement. For me, partnering up with Ratchet & Clank gives me the opportunity to do all the aforementioned things.

Ratchet & Clank is an intergalactic action-adventure filled with vibrant colors, extensive exploration, friendship, comedic relief and light-hearted fun while exterminating baddies along the way. Seriously, using the Sheepinator — arguably one of the most hilarious weapons in all of gaming that turns enemies into sheep — always brings me joy. The cartoonish and jovial nature of the game provides a pick-me-up when I’m certainly in need of one. For that, I thank Insomniac Games and my favorite Lombax/robot team for a journey that never ceases to pull a smile out of me. 

Ratchet and Clank 1
Image courtesy of Insomniac Games

Kirsten Carey

Like all my peers contributing to this article, mental health is an issue I hold deeply close to the heart. I personally have a fun cocktail of depression, OCD, and PTSD. When I first started experiencing these symptoms, my go-to coping mechanism was actually music (if this were a different website, I’d wax poetic about Demon Days by Gorillaz here.) 

But as Adulting got more complicated, I began to take solace in a long-lost love from my childhood: video games. (And yes, I feel ashamed about admitting the existence of these Dark Ages.)

I jumped right in where I’d left off: the GameCube and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I’d never actually beaten Wind Waker as a kid, but as I was coping with post-graduate uncertainty, I found tremendous comfort in it. That led to a DS and the remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The day after finishing Majora’s Mask, I bought a Switch and Breath of the Wild.

Zelda Breath of Wild 1
Image courtesy of Nintendo

I bought Breath of the Wild amid the scariest bout with depression I’ve ever had. When you’re in the deepest depths of anxiety or depression, you sometimes just need a distraction. And turning on my fancy new Switch and losing myself in this gorgeous, immersive, giant, surprise-laden world did wonders for me. 

Erik Ruof

Whenever a person gets any type of bodily injury or illness, they make sure to seek help right away. If they get the flu, they’ll take medicine, eat hot soup, and rest. If they break a bone, they’ll head straight to the emergency room. In these sorts of cases, people will want to do their best to recover. The same isn’t always said for mental health. Your thoughts shape your reality. When your thoughts spiral into negativity, it can cause many levels of suffering. The pleasure chemicals in your brain become blocked and suddenly the world loses its colors. I’ve sunken down pretty low in my years, and every time I did, I felt alone. It took me a long time to actually seek help, but once I did, I realized I was never alone.

Mental health is a serious issue because it is so difficult to identify. I felt alone until I realized that countless others feel the same way. It took me some time to figure that out because they were so good at hiding it, just like me. People really do want to help each other out. There’s no need to hold the heavy burden all by yourself. I remember during my senior year of high school, all I wanted to do was escape from a depressive episode I was having at the time. I retreated to Darren Aronofsky movies and Smashing Pumpkins records to spill some of the cluttered mess from my head. During my escapist frenzy, I came across a video game that had just been released that year: The Last of Us.

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Courtesy of Naughty Dog

You’re probably thinking, “What kind of sadistic person does this to himself?” It’s a heart-breaking and depressing game for the four people not familiar with it. But it didn’t heighten my depressive episode. In fact, it was a euphoric experience. I had a bittersweet connection to Ellie and Joel and felt that I was sharing a burden with them. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but it lifted my spirits to journey with them and help them to survive a zombie apocalypse. Once I had beaten the game, I felt like it was the first thing that I had accomplished in a while. For a change of pace from my everyday life, I was able to take on someone else’s life and their struggles not only with survival but with purpose. It was a great way of coping with my problems at that time along with the sad movies and melancholic alt-rock records. 

We live in a fast world. Once we get caught up in the rat race, it’s easy to forget how important it is to take care of ourselves and everyone else. Don’t be afraid to seek help. We all have to look out for each other.

Izzy Salant

I’m trying to find words for the introduction here. All my fellow writers have given wonderful analysis on how mental health needs to be discussed, should be more prominent in conversations, and their own struggles, fights, and victories with mental illness. I’m no different. As an autistic man with depression and anxiety, there are plenty of days when I look at the world and wonder how I’ll see it. Even life inside isn’t always full of routine, and the uncertainty of the end of this pandemic is just another instance of consistent uncertainty in life, which is something that makes it all the more interesting, while also immeasurably stressful.

These are the feelings that make me grateful for means of escape, such as writing, acting, magic, and, of course, video games. Immersing myself in a new world without worrying about the current one I live in, even for a short period of time, provides this sense of relief and happiness. This is especially true when revisiting games I have completed time and time again, ones that I know will bring me joy and continued satisfaction, even if it’s the hundredth playthrough. For me, that game is Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.

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Courtesy of Nintendo

I have beaten this game more times than I can count, and will consistently start new files just to play it over again. This has been the case since I first purchased the game as a child, and the nostalgia factor, combined with excellent storytelling and wonderful RPG gameplay, will always continuously bring me comfort. The sad truth is I can’t find my copy, so at the moment I relive those feelings through streamers and other gameplay videos, and even then it brings a smile to my face. While picking up most any of the Nintendo and third-party titles I own will always bring me into a world I can escape into, this game will forever be etched in my heart.

Jeffrey Jenkins

First off, mental health is a serious, serious issue. If one’s frame of mind is in a less-than-ideal space, then it can absolutely eat away at their very being. This is true for seemingly mild cases of stress, anxiety, all the way up to major depression, and in many ways, it can truly be described as mental warfare. That is why it is pivotal to 1. Recognize the signs of diminished psychological and emotional well-being, and 2. Find reliable sources of solace/comfort. Most gamers naturally already have at least one go-to to help ease the mind—video games.

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Source: Square Enix

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are two titles that have stuck with me through my childhood and into adulthood, as quick go-tos whenever I need a “pick me up:” NBA 2K and Kingdom Hearts (most notably KH II, & Chain of Memories). 2K is a given, even if it means just shooting shots to practice on a player’s release for 10-15 minutes—it sounds mundane and uneventful, but at times that’s all I need. Anything upwards of 15-20 minutes usually consists of playing a quick match against the cpu (while listening to music at times for the extra relief.) And then there’s Kingdom Hearts… To this day, I’m still enthralled with this amazing series. Its blissful soundtrack is the only go-to I’ll ever need. The gameplay is awesome, too.

Admittedly, I don’t turn to games now as often as I used to for pick-me-ups, specifically. But when I do, it’s usually via titles of my childhood (that I still keep on deck.)  In closing, I think it’s vital for everyone to find the means to relieve stress, and stabilize the emotions that work best for them, whether it’s gaming, or whatever else. After all, mental health is just as important as physical health; if one is lacking, then it can compromise the other.  

It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. It’s human nature. But the state of your mental health should never go unattended. Always know there are outlets and resources you can take advantage of if you’re in need. Video games, exercise, reading, music, or even just a conversation can be the key to offering happiness. 

And if you should need it, feel free to reach out to the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. Sometimes a release can be found in the conversation with another. Remember: you can do this. 

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