The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits,ready on all occasions… we learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs,
the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources.
—Benjamin Franklin, “The Morals of Chess”
A few weeks ago, I announced a collaborative project I was undertaking with Dylan from Playing With Thoughts, and asked for your help as we ventured into trying to discover if – and how – video games have been used for coping with difficult situations.
This post is the first of two parts, the second of which will be posted tomorrow over on Dylan’s site (which will be linked here once it goes live tomorrow, and will also be reblogged).
Today, we’ll be talking a bit about coping, media, and video games, as well as touching on some take-away lessons about how someone might continue to use video games healthfully to cope with difficult times in their lives. Tomorrow, Dylan will be compiling some of the stories we’ve heard and talk a little about the social impact and connection people have with video games, based on what you, loyal readers, have told us.
A Brief Sidetrack
First and foremost, I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who took the time to answer the questions I posed when this idea launched. I wasn’t expecting anyone to respond, but I received a number of emails, each with an incredibly touching and personal story.
I’ve contacted most of you already, but I wanted to publicly (and anonymously) acknowledge you all for your candid responses. It was really quite humbling to know that you – people from all over – trusted me with, well, you. The most personal parts of your hearts. A number of you mentioned you had never spoken about your particular story with other people, and to that I say I am honored and I deeply appreciate your trust.
But more inspiring was the sheer strength of will I saw in each response. Many of you credited your respective game or games for getting you through your difficult time, but those same “many” often didn’t see the legwork they did for themselves, either. Video games may have pointed the way out to you, but you had the fortitude, insight, and determination to follow that path. Even though I might be going to talk about how amazing video games are in a few moments, that does not discount at all the incredible inner strength each of you so offhandedly wrote about in your stories.
Again, thank you for sharing.
What is Coping?
Coping refers to an means of dealing with difficult situations, problems, or responsibilities. Like most behaviors, coping can be either adaptive or maladaptive, meaning that the behaviors are either socially acceptable and goal-oriented, or distinctly unhelpful, even making the situation worse (e.g., denial, avoidance, etc.).*
Two factors are of paramount importance when talking about coping. An approach can be either problem-focused or emotion-focused. When focusing on the problem, the person is often most concerned with changing the situation that is causing distress. This can be either through an adaptive mean, either short-term like taking a walk, or long-term, like getting out of a bad relationship, or (technically) a maladaptive mean, like avoiding the situation or screaming at someone.
Problem-focused tends to be the one seen as the more important of the two, but concentrating on the emotional aspects of the situation shouldn’t be ignored. An emotion-focused approach places emphasis on reducing the negative feelings that arise from the situation.
Of course, some activities do both, like going for a run, if that’s something you enjoy. The person is removed from the situation, performs an activity that will make them feel better, and gives them time to problem solve a more permanent solution.But finding something that helps us cope with our negative situations, while improving our mood, would be ideal, to say the least.*
Another important aspect of coping is our ability to learn, retain, and utilize new information appropriately. Of course, the information we remember best is the information (memories) that are linked to emotions. Stories evoke emotions. So, it follows that skills and insights gleaned from stories “stick with” us, even though there is currently no literature that that explains how or which elements of the stories key into our emotions. But it’s clear that the emotional experiences had while playing games is real and important.
So that’s where you guys come in, and we’ll be talking about some of that in a few minutes.
What is the Function of Play?
Before we jump into the meat of how video games have been used in real life to help people cope with difficult life situations, we should first talk briefly about the function of play in our everyday lives. While this is a topic that has a lot of information available, developmental psychologists like Piaget and Vygotsky focused on how play is necessary for healthy social and emotional development. Within the context of play, we learn social rules and have opportunities to practice interactions. Likewise, we learn social conduct expectations, and can experience in a (fairly) safe environment the dynamics of a social group.
Play can be seen as a place to experiment with behaviors and ways of thinking in a safe environment, insofar as they can be modified with little trouble and/or changed without lingering negative social repercussions/emotional consequences.
Along these lines, engaging in play helps people work out problems before actually having to solve the problem. Think of it like a “soft launch” of a solution. We are able to try or observe different ways of working through a problem, change things if we don’t like how it turned out, and try again without messing up something when it really counts.
And, of course, playing and engaging in enjoyable activities naturally improves negative feelings. All of these are important when talking about coping.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Now, most of the time, we don’t talk about “coping skills” for everyday occurrences that might just be slightly annoying. While we do “cope” with unpleasant events every day, usually the term “coping skills” comes out only when the event is particularly emotionally traumatic.* If an event is particularly traumatic, the person may find that they aren’t able to use their usual coping tools, or they may use them in a way that isn’t helpful for that particular situation.
Think of it like everyone being given a toolbox at birth. As we grow, we are given tools to deal with our lives, but sometimes we come across a problem, check our box, and find that none of the tools we pull out work*. It’s at this time that new tools are sometimes needed, and these might be found through personal study, talking with others, or going to therapy.
Loss of family members or close friends, physical illness, bullying, mental illness, or losing a job might all be highly emotional situations during which a person might need to pull out something that is a coping skill.*
A Personal Touch
The stories sent to me, while very different in detail, had many commonalities, the most striking one being that each person who submitted a story felt a loss of control over their lives. Losing autonomy is one of the most disheartening (to say the least) and, at times, demeaning things a person can go through.
Whether this was caused by feeling victim to long-repressed emotions, or pressured by an underlying mental illness, or whether this loss was precipitated by an unforeseen medical problem, an abusive relationship, or the loss of a close family member, each story demonstrated that one of the reasons people turned to video games was to regain some sense of control.
One person talked about playing Tetris in order to have something concrete to focus on, despite the hectic emotional landscape she was trying to navigate in real life, commenting that no matter what else happened, “Just keep stacking the blocks.”
Another found the freedom of action-adventure games liberating after getting out of an abusive relationship, and found kindred spirits in characters who had their own complex – and at times unhealthy – relationships. Still others gravitated to characters who made them feel strong after developing medical conditions, or who made them feel understood in ways that people in the physical world didn’t.
Everyone used games as a way to step out of their world and into a world that they knew would be orderly, follow its own rules, and “make sense” in all the ways they needed their lives to make sense at their time. People were trying to regain a sense of order or control; people were trying to regain their sense of autonomy. And, to judge from the stories I read, these wonderful people succeeded in doing just that.
Video Games and Coping
But why? Why video games? Well, one of the top reasons a person uses media is for mood regulation, but there is more to this gaming story. After all, games are quite literally programmed to be motivating and engaging, and to satisfy our brains’ needs.
Our brains like orderliness, and video games have rules that they follow. Our brains like feedback and rewards, and video games provide immediate and concrete feedback for our actions, from satisfying pings when we pick up coins to full-blown victory music when we slay an enemy.
Our brains also like to perform at their optimal efficiency, and games provide a balance of challenging tasks/frustration levels for our personal performance level with rates of success, which keeps players wanting to continue. It feels good to play games, because they give us exactly what our brains like.
Games also let us explore different ways of behaving or going about solving problems. We can try on different personalities, skill sets, actions, behaviors, and, if we don’t like it, we can try something else. We can be three different people in the span of an hour, and not face any negative social repercussions.
This is, of course, in direct comparison to the physical world, which is – to the surprise of nobody – not perfectly designed for our enjoyment. Some tasks are not stimulating enough, others are too challenging. Often, we might not get the recognition or rewards that we want or deserve. Life breaks the rules that we assume it has, and rarely consistently functions the way we think it should.
Instead of feeling like we are simply along for the “ride,” games give us a concrete way to cope with an arousing event. Think of things people tell you to do when you are angry: count to ten, walk away, take a deep breath. These are concrete things to do to reduce anger by leaving the situation, or letting time pass. Video games can help pass the time and remove yourself from the situation, too. But what about having a concrete and safe way to express that anger? Video games have that, too.
Games give us the opportunity to re-evaluate a situation, and to practice that re-evaluation in a safe environment. These skills learned and practiced in the virtual world are integral parts of emotion regulation strategies and coping in the physical world. Many of the respondents reported take-away messages from their times with games, from finding their own inner strength, to gaining insight into their personalities, to gleaning perspective on events. Others were able to re-establish orderliness to a mind that seemed to be buzzing with overwhelming thoughts and emotions. All talked about how video games gave them back a little piece of themselves that had gone missing.
Games are undoubtedly immersive. They maintain our attention, and give our brain exactly what it wants. These elements can be used to help modify how we approach our real, physical worlds, and change them for the better. There is a certain satisfaction in having an effect on the environment, and feelings of efficacy are extremely important for coping. So, in closing, I leave you with a few inspiring statements from the wonderful people who sent me their stories.
“I began studying the level design of [game title]. I realized why I and other people found it fun and intriguing, and now I am studying to become a game designer. Nothing would make me happier than being able to make others who suffer from depression or abuse feel better and maybe even learn about themselves.”
“ [I gained a lot of insight into myself and the world, and I’ve learned to better handle some of the scarier aspects of the future]. I’m truly not sure where I would be today without that game’s influence. It’s almost like the main character punched the defeated mess I was in the face, and then dragged my self-loathing ass over to life’s Continue screen.”
“[Games were] a safe outlet I had control over during a difficult period of my life as a young adult.”
“Creating an alter-ego, a hero [was most beneficial]. A strong, selfless someone, who always did the right thing, while caring for others. A kind of naive idealist, looking back. But it helped.
“…I started working out and eating healthier with the goal of becoming stronger like [the hero]. The healthier lifestyle had the unexpected benefit of stopping my panic attacks and controlling my depressed feelings. I no longer felt weak or helpless, and for the first time in my life I was proud of the strong [person] looking back at me in the mirror.”
“Learning to love myself and moving on from the abuse I suffered is so important. [This game], with both its gameplay and story being about freedom of being, helped me realize this. It changed my life forever. Without it, I probably wouldn’t even be here.”
Thank you again to those wonderful people who trusted me with their stories. You’ve more than proven in my mind that video games can profoundly change someone’s life for the better.
What about you? Do you think video games inherently are good for coping? Do you have an example of your own? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon,
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