Checkpoint: Games for Mental Health

Last month, I was honored and flattered to talk about what I had learned about how some game enthusiasts use video games to cope with stressful life situations. On the heels of that article, LightningEllen asked me over on Patreon what my thoughts were on using video games for physical or mental rehabilitative purposes, specifically for individuals with physical disabilities. We had a great discussion, and that got me thinking about other ways that video games could be used therapeutically.

One technique that therapists recommend to their clients (in certain situations) is something akin to meta-thinking: thinking about what you’re thinking about. Being aware of the thoughts in your head is the first step to being able to face – or, at times, mediate – thoughts that might be “unwelcome” in your mind.

Meta-thinking is both as difficult and not as difficult as it sounds. After all, the thoughts in your head are your thoughts, so of course you know what they are. But to take those thoughts and examine them from an objective distance – as you would the thoughts of another person – takes a little practice. And sometimes, without guidance, a person might not even know where to start.

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A Brief History

Kim over at Later Levels recently wrote a post that talked a bit about how she was having trouble focusing on playing one particular game because of the content of the game and the situation in her life at the time. And I got to thinking about why that might be.

Not too long ago (okay, it was back in March), I started playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. I had a lot of trouble getting into it, which was odd for me. I popped in Horizon: Zero Dawn, and I had trouble getting into that, as well, even though I tried so hard to be excited about it.

sad aloy
Don’t worry, Aloy. I’ll love it when I play it again.

It was very strange, because I objectively liked what the games provided me: I like RPG games/elements in games, I like well-written characters, I like good stories, and the combat systems were interesting and intuitive. Then I picked up Final Fantasy XIII, and found that I was immediately pulled into a game that, at the beginning, is a much more straightforward game in regards to where the characters physically go.

As I said, it was very strange. Objectively, Final Fantasy XIII only gives me some of what I’m looking for (a good story and interesting characters), and some things I don’t particularly care for (turn-based combat, weapon upgrading, and a healthy dose of JRPG angst).

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I’m sorry. I can’t hear you over his tragic past.

And yet I couldn’t get enough.

This, as you might imagine, intrigued me, because I can’t remember a time I’ve stopped playing an RPG in favor of, well, any other game.

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Please note, this isn’t to say that Final Fantasy XIII is a bad game. I’m having wild amounts of fun playing it, even with the bits that aggravate me. The take-away message is that it’s strange for any game to pull me away from a Mass Effect game, especially a game that is considered “linear” – which is about as far from an open-world RPG as you can get.

But why was I pulled away so willingly?

Finding Balance

The concept of equilibrium is what these stories allude to. On a physiological (physical) level, organisms want to reach a state that is, in laymen’s terms, most comfortable. Most organisms want to exist is a sort of Goldilocks-zone, where no one extreme is experiences. In some cases, it is literally a desire to be not too hot, and not too cold, but rather be just right.

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This is something people seek at an emotional and psychological level, too. Picture it like a bar people are asked to jump over in order to “feel good.” Some people have a very high bar, and so need a lot of power to get over the bar and feel good, and some have a very low bar. Now, relabel the bar as “optimal level of stimulation” and you begin to see a picture of extroverts and introverts.

Extroverts tend to require greater levels of emotional or psychological stimulation than introverts, and so seek out social or other stimulating situations in order to reach their bar of optimal stimulation. Introverts need less stimulation, and so when their levels go higher than their “bar,” they need to step back and wait until their level of stimulation goes down, back to the “optimal level.”

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However, this idea doesn’t just apply to the ideas of introvert/extroverts. We are all trying to find equilibrium regarding our mental states, and so learning to look for cues from ourselves to determine what it is we need can be very beneficial for our well-being.

For instance, some people tend to jiggle their leg up and down when seated and talking to someone else. They might fiddle with jewelry, or tap a pen. These types of behaviors are categorized as self-soothing, and are often employed to decrease the amount of stress the person is feeling. To put it another way, they are feeling over-stimulated by their environment and are trying to reach equilibrium again.

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Self-soothing behavior is associated most often with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but the principle is the same. They, too, are feeling overstimulated by their environment and are trying to reach equilibrium again, just like you.

PSA: remember that the next time you see someone with autism performing a “stereotypical” behavior (e.g., hand flapping, rocking). You do the same types of things, just on a much smaller scale.

Mindfulness

In psychology, there is something called mindfulness, which is (basically) being consciously aware of yourself as you complete tasks, even if it is something you often do without thought. Concentrating on how your feet feel in your shoes as you walk, for instance, could be considered “mindful walking,” and concentrating on how your food tastes and how it feels while you chew it would be “mindful eating.” (In comparison, “non-mindful” walking would be walking down the street while thinking about the meeting you’re going to.)

What I’m proposing is “mindful gaming.”

Entering Cocoon

When I started playing Andromeda, I was finishing a thesis that had taken more bad turns than good, was incredibly stressed about not having a job or any income, was imminently losing my health insurance, was having some lingering health issues, and was sort of – I hate to admit it – really burned out regarding my profession. And, at the end of the day, no one was really able to help me solve any of these problems.

Mass Effect™: Andromeda_20170528233420

All the decisions for my life direction obviously could only be mine, the thesis was a horrific roller coaster that only I was enduring, and only I could look into job opportunities for myself, find health insurance, and deal with the health problems I was having at the time. I mean, hey, that’s life, but it was quite the deluge all at once.

Enter Andromeda, a game full of people who need you and only you, Ryder, to make all the decisions, fix all the problems, and play therapist to all of the squadmates.

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…and then quickly exit Andromeda and enter Cocoon in Final Fantasy XIII, a place that has one (really, really big) problem, and a story that just wants to be told, and companions who maybe whine a bit, but ultimately aren’t helpless to fix their problems.

Oh, thank the Maker.

well-done

And then I realized something.

Everything that was causing so much stress in my real, physical life was mirrored in Mass Effect: Andromeda. At other times, I have the extra emotional energy to invest in a game like that. But this time, I didn’t.

Instead, I wanted an easy-to-understand problem with a fairly straight-forward answer. Godlike beings are trying to destroy the world? Great, I’ll go kick some fal’Cie butt and fix it. Problem solved. Problem solved. That sounds so good. Problem solved.

save the world

I needed the tighter story to help me reach equilibrium again.

Putting the Pieces Together

What does equilibrium, mindfulness, and Final Fantasy XIII have to do with each other? A few things, actually.

When we are “out of whack” (that is, we are emotionally not in equilibrium), we tend to not do so well. We can become very stressed or upset, and that can impact our ability to function during our daily lives. If left unchecked, it can even affect our physical health. As we talked about before, people often use media to mediate their emotions, and video games can – and do – have the same effect as other media types.

But to reach equilibrium, we need to be aware of what’s wrong. And here’s where mindful gaming can come into play. By being aware of how you feel when you’re playing a game, you can gain insight into what might be happening in your head.

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Instead of simply dismissing my negative feelings and slight nausea when I thought about Andromeda, I took note of whether there was something about the actual game that I really, truly disliked. The answer was “no.” What followed was a series of questions:

“Do I like Final Fantasy more than Mass Effect?” (no)
“Do I want to play a different RPG, other than a Mass Effect game?” (no no no no)
“Do I like the story in Final Fantasy more than Mass Effect?” (sort of. Ask more questions like this)
“Do I like how the story is presented to me better, even though I like RPGs?” (yes! winner!)
“Okay. Now let’s figure out why.”

By being mindful of my behavior, I was forced to be more self-aware, mentally “checking in” with myself and realizing that I was a little more stressed than I was willing to outwardly admit or show. From there, I was able to begin to figure out a plan to move forward and regain some of the balance I had lost along the way.

Where to Start

Now, this might seem like some sort of therapist wizardry that I pulled, and I’m willing to acknowledge that some of my schooling definitely helps in instances of me trying to “therapize” myself. But you don’t need to have deep understanding of psychological principles to be mindful or to check in with yourself.

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There are two questions for which I’d recommend being aware of the answers, if you are interested in mindful gaming, that will give you a good start:

Do you tend to have a game that you gravitate toward when you’re upset?

I would hazard a guess that we all have a “comfort game” in our lives; one that we reach for when we just want to have fun and feel good. If you all of a sudden notice that you’re reaching for that game, you can check in with yourself and see how you’re doing. Maybe you’re just playing a game you like, or maybe your brain is seeking the equilibrium that the game can provide.

If that’s the case, then you can begin to try and figure out what it is about the game in that moment that is most soothing for you. From there, you can maybe begin to discover what is causing the stress/change in your emotional homeostatis (balanced equilibrium).

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Are you playing a game in a genre you like, but find it a chore?

Well, you could be burned out on the genre or the game could be bad, sure, but it could also be that there are elements in the game that are too “close” to negative events/feelings happening in your physical life that you don’t want to deal with in a game, too.

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For the uninitiated, these two questions would be a good way to start mindfully gaming in order to practice raising self-awareness about your emotional/psychological state.

Restart: Thinking About Thinking

I’m proposing that we be aware of when and how we play games. Sure, most of the time things are dandy. But video games could provide some people with a way of mentally checking in with themselves, since the media we chose has the potential to mirror back the things we need or want in that moment.

Image result for self awareness

At the beginning of this article, I talked a bit about meta-thinking, or the process of thinking about how you are thinking. I mentioned it was hard to do, but is one step that is very important for mental health, particularly when a person is reacting to a situation (either an internal one or external one). Video games can help bridge this gap. By being aware of our habits, and keying in to deviations in our behaviors, we can begin to unlock bits of the “state” of our thinking.

And, perhaps, through that, begin to know ourselves a little better.

What do you think? Can games be used as a way to “know thyself” a little better? Do you have a go-to game for when you’re stressed? Have you ever had to put a game down and come back when you were in a “better mood” for it? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

PS – I’m happy to report that as soon as things started looking a little more rosy in my personal life, I was able to jump back in to Mass Effect: Andromeda, and happily played through the second half of the game. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and am compiling my thoughts on it, so be on the lookout for that!


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33 thoughts on “Checkpoint: Games for Mental Health

  1. Really great post, I’m definitely gonna start incorporating some mindfulness into my gaming sessions!

    My go to game when I’m feeling down or stressed is usually Animal Crossing, it’s just always been a real comfort to me ^_^

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I was just going to comment about how Animal Crossing is my own go-to game for coping, too! Since I’ve started mindful gaming I’ve found a new appreciation for the simple, predictable niceness of the in-game environment. I’ve written about it a bit, but after becoming more aware of what I was getting from the game, I’ve started to manage my own moods more precisely, overall. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s understandable it would be on your list of mindful games it really is just lovely 🙂

        I just read your post on how to “use” video games and movies and it was very insightful! It’s amazing how much not just video games, but media in general can be used as a therapeutic tool and allow us to reflect on what we need

        Liked by 2 people

  2. really good read!

    I definitely feel lately there are times where a certain game just isn’t vibing with me, even though as you said, I like the series, genre, game play etc. I actually felt this way a few sessions with Andromeda over the summer. I would start up the game, talk to someone and for some reason just didn’t want anything to do with that world. I can’t say why, but this article convinced me to do some mindful gaming next time I feel this way.

    As for a go to game when I’m upset or just feeling down. Right now that’s Splatoon 2. It’s mindless, childish fun and has that good old Nintendo charm that just always cheers me up.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! And thanks for sharing your experiences. Sounds like that would be something to examine. It’s possible to be “burned out” on a genre, but it never hurts to check it with yourself a little, too.

      That sounds like a great game to go to when you’re upset: something simple, fast, fun, and easy 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Very interesting piece (and I read it jiggling my leg around, so make of that what you will 😉)

    Elsewhere, I have noticed that what I’m “in the mood to play” often has a lot to do with what’s going on in my life generally. If I’m feeling particularly bored or uninspired by general day-to-day stuff IRL, I’ll gravitate more towards vast, open-world games, but if I’ve got a lot of ongoing, long-term stuff on the go, I’ll lean more toward linear games with a definite sense of progression from A to B. Likewise, when I’m dealing with stuff that I’ve got little direct control over (or impact upon), I’ll use Games with clearly defined goals (and a sense of agency) to mitigate the lack of it in Reality land.

    Obviously, there’s still the usual stuff too – getting lost in a good story (regardless of whether it’s presented in a linear or open-world setting), even just shooting shit up for funsies – but one of the things I actually love about having a mahoosive To-Play pile is exactly that it gives me options that are beneficial in terms of using Games to provide certain things that can genuinely help me out IRL, depending on what I need at any given time.

    That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m damn well sticking with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s okay, no judgment here! *jiggles leg while typing*

      Thanks for talking about your experiencing. That’s great that you’re already using video games to help you find your equilibrium again; finding a game that’s so different from what’s going on in life will certainly do the trick!

      And finally! A benefit to a backlog! But you’re right. With so many games to pick from, it does open up an expansive list of types of mental stimulation to try.

      It’s a good excuse to stick to!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a really good read. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one whose gaming choices are heavily influenced by my mental state, and also explains why it is I prefer some games over others during the darker days.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oh wow, this came at the right moment: I’ve been having some struggles at work with coworkers, focus and my emotional and mental states and, after seeing my family doctor and a counselor, I decided to look into mindfulness to help out and I thought, “How can I incorporate this into gaming?” And then this shows up. Jeez talk about serendipity…

    I’ll definitely give these two questions some serious thought next time I’m gaming. For me, it seems like my go-to games right now revolve around nostalgia, either playing old-school Final Fantasy VII, retro-inspired games like Sonic Mania or remakes like Crash Bandicoot.

    This was well-written and inspiring. Excellent job and thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I’m so glad this article fell into your lap at the right time 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear so much has been going on. Mindfulness is definitely something that can help a lot with stress, and mindfully partaking in a hobby like video games is a great way to do that!

      I think many people have nostalgic games as go-to games. A reminder of simpler, easier, or happier times, maybe? Who can say. That would be a question to answer for yourself, though!!

      Thank *you* for commenting! Hope to see you again soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a great post Athena. I love the concept of “mindful gaming”, as well as comfort gaming!

    A thought – you mentioned you were going through some personal things, health issues, and trying to play Andromeda just wasn’t working for you.

    I think you’re on to something here with the comfort gaming thing – if you look at “modern” games, they can be overwhelming. Too many hours required in order to get going, too many missions, side quests, people to keep happy, too much strategy and planning and thinking.

    And there’s no “point”. There are no “easy wins”. It’s just grinding up and up and up. You can’t get your arms around it. So if you’re struggling in real life, the last thing you want to do is turn the console on and struggle with an epic video game.

    So I’m not surprised that when you needed a break you turned to a different type of game.

    A comfort game, a simpler game, gives you a goal – a level to clear, or a bad guy to beat, and the tools to take care of it all there and then.

    Anyway, I’m going to read your Low Batteries post!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much, Nick! You’re right that there seem to be few “simple” games right now. Everything is so dire, so huge, and so story-driven that it’s hard to escape from those same stressful situations that come up in life sometimes. That another thing to be mindful of – playing a variety of games to make sure you’ll also balancing out your “leisure” time, in case your physical life lacks that.

      Sounds good! Hope you like it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the shout-out, o Goddess of Wisdom! I really enjoyed our Patreon chat. And wow… I’ve been “meta-thinking” for as long as I can remember! I’m not crazy since it’s actually a thing with a name!!

    You, and the rest of the internet, can easily guess how much I relate to this article (Hint – my username is LightningEllen) so I’ll just say for the record: There are not enough words or emojis to describe how awesome this is, and I really like your mindful gaming concept! 💗⚡

    I’m also glad you are doing better now and that my shero’s first game provided you with some equilibrium. On top of all that life stuff you were dealing with, I can only imagine how stressful it is being a therapist… who counsels the counselor, eh? Keep up the fantastic work, my friend. I admire and fully support everything you’re doing 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re not crazy! Meta-thinking is most definitely a real thing that people do, and it can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how it’s used. When used to be mindful (and therefore non-judgmental), it can be a powerful tool to help people. I’m glad you like the idea of mindful gaming!

      And thank you. Goodness, who counsels the counselor, indeed? It’s a topic that comes up at conferences all the time, so apparently the answer is “not too many people.” It’s up to each of us to take control of our mental well-being, and mindfulness is a good place to start.

      Aw, thanks! I appreciate the support! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “You’re not crazy!” I always wanted to hear someone say that… *sniffs* 🙂 My meta-thinking was my worst enemy for a long time, but I’m on the same side as me, most of the time, now, haha.

        Exactly! If you aren’t willing to accept help, no one can ever help you.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I first became aware of mindfulness a few years back during a horrible bout of anxiety – it’s amazing how a little focus can really help you appreciate the little things we take for granted – the feel of your bed, a hot shower, your health (gods willing), your partner’s smile… and of course, the things we enjoy doing in general like gaming!

    I have found recently (which is largely the inspiration for my cheeky #Adulting post the other week) that I have been struggling to get through my gaming backlog – that even when I had time to game I struggled with getting into it and often did something else. Eventually, I realized the very existence of the backlog was causing that discomfort – it was taking the joy of out gaming and turning it into a chore – like all my other adult responsibilities. What ultimately came out of that, for my own well-being, is to stop buying games I don’t have time to play and work through the ones I have at my own pace. As an adult, I’ll never have the time to play all the games I want to play, but I really want to enjoy the ones I do.

    So even if you use games as an escape, be present! Like Athena says, you can learn a lot about yourself through how things make you feel if you’re willing to listen carefully to your emotions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment! I’m glad you’ve started some mindfulness practices of your own, even if it took something rough to get you there.

      I think examining a backlog could be a great time for some “mindful gaming,” as you mentioned. Not only does it supply a wide array of games, but it could also provide a wide array of unnecessary stress.

      And thank you for the wonderful summary at the end! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow. This excellent, and yes, I 100% agree. Sometimes I’m in a mood where certain games hit a little too close, and I need something else to concentrate on. I love Final Fantasy and FFVII in general, but Squeenix loves certain “loss” and “lost” paradigms, and there are days where I just do not want. If something is bothering you in real life, you don’t want to see if reflected in the media you use to unwind from reality. Back when o was a caseworker (and granted at this time I couldn’t even write that’s how stressed pot I was), I most certainly would’ve put aside anything involving abused children, because that job was beyond stressful beyond just the bounds of the job itself. I think your psych is very sound 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I can see how Final Fantasy and IRL abused children might not be the best combination… That sounds like both a very tough yet very rewarding job, though (at least, rewarding when things worked out for the child).

      And thanks; I like to pretend I know what I’m talking about! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It wasn’t really bad for that! Though I *did* have a lot of trouble right after 9/11 because certain scenes are violent/have explosions and there’s also the terrorist angle in FFVII. I think it was over a year before I could play that again.

        I could definitely be rewarding. It was just so emotionally taxing, plus on top of that I was switched to a manager who pretty much made me cry every day. It was pretty awful.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. This is very fascinating. And I think to some extent, I can see this playing in my own habits as well. I’ve had plenty of times where I have noticed that how much I enjoy a game was completely dependent on my mood, and some where I would switch to a specific type of game when I felt myself going through a certain type of experience, but I’ve never really broken it down and analyzed it like this. I think I want to give it a try the next time I find myself going through that cycle.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a wonderful post! This is such a great collection of really important and useful ideas about how we can use games to increase our emotional intelligence.

    This is the exact topic I’ve been trying to tackle with my own writing! You wrote about it beautifully here. I’m still learning how to approach it, but I’m getting there. 🙂

    I think the perspective that games can be tools for teaching us how to mindfully manage our own moods and tools for practicing important mental/emotional skills like resilience, gratitude, patience, curiosity etc. could help everyone get more out of gaming and help developers create games with our emotional and mental health in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s a really interesting topic, isn’t it? It’s something that has been banging around in my head for a while, so it was interesting to really try and tease apart all the ideas. I’d be interested to see your own take on it!

      I certainly hope that more people will start mindfully gaming, in order to fully capitalize on all the great things games can offer us!

      Liked by 1 person

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