At any given point in my childhood, my strongest desire was probably to play video games.
Any time I wasn’t playing, I’d think about the next time I could play.
Growing up, my parents enforced strict time limits, but for periods of my life that were less tightly monitored by my parents, I’d spend hours at a time staring at my screen.
One semester in high school, some of my friends got into DotA (Defense of the Ancients) and would regularly stay up until 2 am playing 10-person games. Fun times, but not good for my grades.
Another semester, I got into World of Warcraft with my roommate.
The girl I would date for the rest of high school almost gave up on me because of how frequently I’d choose to play games instead of spend time with her.
I had a bad semester in college when I was playing Call of Duty nonstop; I’d get back from class and play for hours. I'm not sure if many people noticed, but this was one of my lowest points in school.
I felt dissociated from everything around me and Call of Duty was a world that was consistent and dependable.
These periods of heavy game play never felt good. Upon inspection, they actually looked like depression.
I lost interest in things, my capacity to empathize diminished, I stopped caring for myself and my overall mood suffered.
But, I’d get better at video games.
I suppose I was always addicted to video games, I just never acknowledged it.
I recently learned of a woman who researches video games and its impact on our health and behavior.
Her name is Jane McGonigal, and she’s most well known for her TED Talk entitled, "Gaming can make a better world."
Naturally, I was intrigued.
At a pivotal moment in her career, she suffered a concussion and started experiencing severe depression.
Suicidal thoughts followed her everywhere and she decided she either had to do something to defeat these thoughts or she would eventually kill herself.
This decision led her to develop a computer game that might have helped her get better. She called it SuperBetter.
SuperBetter let players create a character that would battle bad guys with the help of their friends. It worked for her and it worked for many others, too.
Here was evidence that the right games played by the right people at the right time can lead to positive outcomes.
Yet, the average gamer will probably tell you his or her relationship with games is, on the whole, negative for his or her life.
Carnegie Mellon University reports the average young person in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. That’s 10,000 hours that could have been spent on mastering something else.
McGonigal’s conclusion was video games are bad if you are using them to run away from something, but they are good if you use them in concert with a broader positive life goal, like combating depression or de-stressing after work.
This may seem obvious, but it had not occurred to me. I had a bit of a breakthrough.
Before, I thought playing video games caused my problems (the depression-like symptoms). Maybe that wasn’t right. Maybe I was feeling depressed to begin with and I was using video games as an escape. Because I didn’t address my problems head-on, the problems continued to accumulate.
I’m not really sure how playing video games without some kind of escape in mind looks, but the one rule I will try to implement as of today is no solo play.
I’ll play occasionally with the company of my friends for the prosocial behavior, but I won't play as much on my own.
My relationship with video games is a good lesson in dealing with the difference between experiencing reality and escaping from it.
When things are hard, we want something else to consume our attention so we don’t have to think.
We might sink into work or get overly attached to a new relationship. Maybe we get obsessed with a hobby or go to too many music festivals. I can relate to most of these scenarios at points throughout my life.
The biggest problem in this approach is that avoiding reality rarely leads to the best outcome. As we ignore reality, it gets more and more difficult to manage.
Either we will have a bigger mess on our hands sometime down the line, or we will miss our opportunity to impact the results.
Given the choice, I’d rather face the hardship immediately. I’d wish for the awareness to identify when there’s a problem and the strength to resist hiding from it (easier said than done).
The awareness to identify problems requires dependable tools to monitor and diagnose our state of mind.
Unfortunately, the tools we use to monitor our computer performance or marketing effectiveness are more dependable than the tools we use to monitor our wellbeing.
We don’t have apps and dashboards that flag issues and suggest ways to fix them. Instead, we only have our subjective experience and our observations of how we feel.
Habits like meditation and journaling are useful in this respect because they establish a reference point — a baseline.
You become more sensitive to changes in your experience and thus, more effective at identifying issues. When you can more readily identify issues, you can more readily begin to resolve them.
Video games have the opposite effect on me. I lose track of time and disconnect from reality. The awareness that something is wrong (usually experienced as feeling “off” or observing some kind of nagging feelings) is dulled. I stop caring as much about everything around me.
As much as I love playing games, that’s not a trade I’m willing to make.
This is just my personal relationship with video games. There are many who have a great relationship with gaming.
Every individual has certain activities that enhance his or her experience of life and others that enable them to evade the realities of said experience.
Writing in the mornings, reading a great book, really connecting with people and meditating are all activities that have enriched my life experience.
Video games, dull social scenarios and superficial attachments all make me feel a little dead inside.
Choosing an enriching life should be a no brainer, but for most of my life, it wasn’t obvious that playing video games meant avoiding life.
I had to take a step back to see that.
So what’s your version of my video games? Are there any things in your life that help you avoid reality when you’d be better off facing it?
Tony Sheng writes at tonysheng.com. He's working full-time on a startup focused on making companies more open and inclusive, but likes to share his lifestyle experiments in his free time.
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