How do you construct your mental health toolbox? While not a perfect fit for everyone, I’ve found that MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) are a particularly useful monkey wrench when I’m in a jam.
While I won’t deny the onset of helpless boredom that comes with slaying fifteen creatures in a row for a five-part quest or running around gathering herbs over and over and over, I soon learned keeping my attention span barely above water had a way of slowing down my heart rate like a mug of warm tea. While I adore offline RPGs like Pokémon and Okami, online multiplayer games’ very nature as a living, breathing, dynamic entity gives them a certain immersion that can’t be found in an isolated title with a more specific beginning, middle and end. Neither is better or worse — they’re simply different. The uniqueness of MMOs lies in a truly special combination that chips away at panic attacks, bolsters my imagination and keeps me from sinking into frustration and exhaustion.
To have an anxiety disorder is to be in a severe state of panic when the danger has long since passed (if it were there at all). Your immune system withers at the constant draining of your body’s natural resources at every slight provocation and you get used to being too nauseous or too nervous to do daily tasks like shopping or eating out. A minor social faux pas or everyday risk can turn into a debilitating whirlwind of fearful what-ifs that can take up half your day. As such, assembling your mental health toolbox becomes crucial in buffering anxiety’s wear and tear. I’ve taught myself how to breathe, counting each inhale and exhale like my tenuous health’s very own metronome, and learned how to focus my attention on sensory details to stave off disassociation brought on by panic. I even have to trick my own brain into obsessing over minor mundanities rather than the doomsday scenarios that make me want to lie down all day long. This is where MMOs come into play.
Note I didn’t say ‘videogames’ — MMOs have their own particular brand of immersion. Adventure games, for example, are meant to inspire a sense of wonder while platformers delight in organic and textured gameplay. Role-playing games are a draw for those that love large character casts in complex stories and shooters can let out some pent-up frustration. MMOs? Escapism honed to a paper-thin edge. Everything from the aforementioned grind to the personalized stories NPCs (non-player characters) spout at you from all corners of the map to the countless players running to and fro create an environment that’s pure, unfiltered fantasy. An entire world within a world that you can access with a few clicks of your mouse. Sometimes, you really want to feel like you’re just somewhere else. Somewhere better.
Chronic anxiety disorder, as well as its extensive subcategories obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder, affect at least a quarter of the American population at any given time according to ongoing studies conducted by the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Considering the stubbornly prevalent stigma around mental illness it’s more than likely this number is a little higher, too. Even worse is the system of mental healthcare and, while I won’t speak for other countries, America is fairly infamous for its abject refusal to give the mentally ill the resources they need without them going broke. As such, not everybody has steady access to cognitive behavioral therapy, medication or even a part-time job that can give their symptoms a little leeway. Building and stocking your mental toolbox is not a luxury — it’s a necessity to just live your life.
Getting to that somewhere better when you’re broke and sad and strapped for time is a rhetoric anyone mentally ill can relate to with gusto. For me, it means I’m tired. I’m always tired. Sometimes it’s all I can do not to succumb to the nigh-constant sucking of my energy and crawl into bed twice per day. Getting out of said bed can be even harder. Following through with my projects, my passions, can be the hardest damn thing around. When I boot up my PC and open up Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn or World of Warcraft these MMOs act the part of a complex and shiny placebo, inviting in my willingness to put reality on hold and rewarding me emotionally for doing so. Distraction is something I need to ward off grueling panic attacks and a little emotional investment without a lot of work can keep me from napping for two hours. Even taking on the avatars of a badass cat girl dragoon or a shapeshifting magician who garners the respect of nearly every character she comes across works as a salve for the raw blisters society has given me.
The additional fulfillment that comes out of making a character and having them accomplish heroic feats that are out of grasp in real life is something to be commended. You can do triple back-flips while defeating a massive tree elemental! You can spend your money willy-nilly and be assured you can get more in due time (probably the most abstract of the fantasies). Socializing online can be easier than chatting face-to-face, saving those with social anxiety a few steps or five. But, MMOs are not quite separated from ‘real life’, either. They straddle that middle ground, simulating real-world consequences for real-world people running around a decidedly unreal world. The game is scripted, down to its last binary code, and yet ‘random’ events and humorous encounters with other players or NPCs continue to delight you as you’re making your way down a digital dusty road. Even fighting and interaction, the main functions of most MMOs, can still take a backseat to relaxing alternatives like crafting rare items, playing card games and fishing. It’s all a delicate balance and MMOs become absolutely addicting as a result.
The first time I played Final Fantasy XIV was during the trial version, in which you’re allowed two free weeks of gameplay with certain features barred off until you buy the full package. There are specific areas of the world you’re not allowed to visit, a handful of actions in the game locked away and communicating is kept to a bare minimum (likely to discourage spam accounts and trolls). The communication factor had proven fascinating to me at the time, as I found myself unable to say what was on my mind (without alerting other users) when a friendly player went up and asked me about a quest. Over the next hour or so we proceeded to fight monsters and deliver items to NPCs together, with my only responses to their banter being emotes of the smiling, dramatic weeping and head nodding type. It was a funny scenario just shy of Journey or The Endless Forest, making me reflect on simple interaction and how it can lift me up even when I’m cultivating my own special brand of alone time. Being able to fill up a mental pocketbook of little moments like these is something I find myself treasuring more and more as I play. I find it fits into my toolbox quite comfortably.
Like any fantasy, it has to be carefully maintained in order to retain its effectiveness. A tip in either direction can break immersion and make you lose interest entirely or, worse, turn into an unhealthy habit. I’ve had my fair share of rude commentary aimed my way, such as a dungeon group being decidedly unhelpful in favor of shooting the shit with their friends or a player that got great pleasure out of berating every little thing I did. Every once in a while I have to slap myself on the wrist to keep from playing for seven hours straight. I also make it a conscious decision not to reveal that I’m a woman, because I know that’s an instant deal-breaker for other people’s fantasy. All of the above and more I monitor and keep at bay to keep my digital medication. Even this metaphorical tip-toeing helped me learn more about my limits and what I truly appreciated. While joining up with a guild was one of the last things I wanted to do in FFXIV, it ended up providing me with fun conversations and more relaxed dungeon-crawling than I would’ve gotten playing solo. Hooking up with a friendly group or just using a few polite emotes in casual interactions can establish unexpected friendships or temporary camaraderie on the field.
So I keep my identity(s) to myself and call out bad behavior with discretion. I monitor my interactions with care, but not too much care. I avoid certain topics that I would normally engage in with a fervor on Twitter or the like. I let, for once, my faintest whims and deepest emotional needs dictate what I want to get out of my experience. Like any good mental health tool, it’s for you and you alone. The blaring chorus of stigma and social pressure is reduced to static in favor of what you need, and only what you need, to take care of yourself. Even saying this aloud can be your first step to recovery. Need to decimate a horde of zombies with your troll warlock to get through the day? Summon your demon companion and breathe easier, friend.
Massive multiplayer online games keep me awake when I’d rather sleep. They help, believe it or not, with productivity. Sometimes they just make me smile. It’s a multifaceted tool, one that works through defeating demigods and dancing in bars with other goofy cat people. If you have chronic anxiety or a similar mental illness as well as a little money to spare (or not, as many are free-to-play), then why don’t you try adding an MMO to your mental health toolbox? There are plenty of good ones to choose from, from the accessible, free-to-play fantasies of Guild Wars 2 and Blade and Soul or industry mainstays A Realm Reborn and World of Warcraft. Give Star Trek: Online or Eve a shot if you prefer sci-fi to fantasy. Play solo, recruit a friend or apply for a guild filled with new players. Spend your time betting on giant chicken races or gather companions to take down an ancient dragon guardian.
Medication can come from the most surprising of places.