I joined the gaming scene a little later than most but I’ve found a lot of interesting points in relation to anxiety. There have been studies in the past to indicate that gaming desensitizes children and honestly, I can see why people think it does. There are games designed for children, such as Animal Crossing, that are perfect. However, there are the more violent ones aimed at adults which end up in the possession of children. These violent games (think Call Of Duty, Assassins Creed, etc.) are about inflicting harm on others. That’s the whole point of the game. Now you may be thinking, “what has this got to do with anxiety?” but I’m getting to that.
When I first loaded Destiny into the PlayStation 4, I was so excited, then I noticed my anxiety rising. Why? It’s just a game after all. I struggled to move forward in the game and even though I was playing with friends, I found it incredibly stressful. Even the cut scenes! I had a similar experience with Assassins Creed and Overwatch (which is actually for children, 12+). Now, over time, that anxiety subsided mostly, but the other day, I started playing Shadow of War and found that I was anxious again. I couldn’t believe I felt this way again, especially after years of gaming. So why do I feel anxious playing and how has it helped?
Anxiety when gaming
What I finally understood was why my anxiety was triggered. Games are immersive experiences. There is a story, you are playing a character but your actions influence the outcome. It also tends to be you against numerous enemies. So there is actually a threat there. It’s a fictional one but it’s there. Your brain can’t differentiate between real events and imagined ones so when you are playing a game as a character and there is the possibility of you dying, naturally anxiety rises in a bid to protect you. The more you play a game, the less anxious you will feel as your brain realises there is no threat. This is why I can see how games desensitize you. For children though, you want them to understand real danger and not trivialise it through works of fiction.
The cut scenes would bring anxiety as it is a period of time when waiting, and once that period of time is over, you know something stressful will happen. It’s not knowing when you will have to take action and then doubting your reaction abilities.
Games like Shadow of War and Assassin’s Creed are not a good idea at all for those with anxiety and I’ll explain why. There is a lot of hiding and sneaking around. Getting caught can mean failure. It might not sound that terrifying but imagine trying to play a game where you have to stay hidden but take down enemies, gather intel, and not draw attention to yourself. Your anxiety is high anyway, but the moment there is any kind of disturbance, your anxiety rises. Remember anxiety is a fight or flight response but that doesn’t work in these kinds of games. You can’t just fight them as you’ll fail but you can’t stay hidden and do nothing as you won’t progress. Not my idea of fun…
How Do Games Help Anxiety
On a more positive note, I did find that the shooter-type games did help. You firstly learn not to overthink, especially in fast-paced games like Overwatch. A game like that lasts ten or fifteen minutes per match so it’s over pretty quickly. If you take too long to make a decision, you will be taken down. When that happens a number of times, you stop worrying so much and start enjoying the game.
Games like Animal Crossing or Ring Fit (both of which you notice are Nintendo games) are relaxing in their own right. Animal Crossing allows you to create your own stress-free world and make friends. It’s an escape from reality and therefore an escape from anxiety. Ring Fit has enemies you need to defeat but through physical activity which is perfect for relieving anxiety symptoms. Plus, being fitter helps reduce anxiety in general.
The main way it helped me was actually learning to manage the anxiety symptoms. I started enjoying the games (especially multiplayer) and wanted to keep progressing. You gain the skills you need and that applies in life. You may feel anxious about not being able to do something, but you have to do it in order to gain the skill. As the book says “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. Being able to manage those symptoms in a place where I was safe and could quit the game at any point with no real-life consequences meant that I could apply those techniques in real life.
If you’re not a gamer and want to try games out, I’d opt for Nintendo. There are so many nice games that are designed for children so there is no real violence. There are the more role-player fighter-type games such as Skyrim, but that’s your choice to try out. If you want to try shooter games then I’d recommend: Destiny, Far Cry, Overwatch, Borderlands, and Ghost Recon. These are games I’ve enjoyed and that I found myself overcoming anxiety with.