How gaming is giving agoraphobic young people a window into the world

Adventure and fighting games are not just a form of escapism. For some people suffering from social anxiety or depression, they're a vital outlet.

by Aideen O'Flaherty
17 August 2021, 12:57pm

Most days, Zoey wanders through vibrant landscapes and engages in intense street fights, not in real life, of course, but in Tekken 7 on PS4. Among the sparks of electricity that fly with every hit, before a triumphant KO fills the screen, the 22-year-old Californian caregiver gets a reprieve from the anxiety disorder that she was diagnosed with in her early teens.

Zoey’s anxiety has caused her to struggle with how she’s perceived by others and she fears catastrophic things happening to her, like dying. But gaming has allowed her to confront her fears in a safe environment, with the hours spent fighting as the Tekken 7 character Alisa Bosconovitch serving as an avenue for her to gain confidence, and get a handle on her anxious thoughts and feelings.

“It sounds silly, but playing a video game was one of my biggest fears at one point in time, just because I knew I’d inevitably fail and die,” she says. “I wouldn’t even play Minecraft with friends. So, to actually start playing Tekken 7, I had to confront my anxiety and learn to cope. At first, I really didn’t want to. I played when I was with my fighting game community friends, but I wouldn’t play at home because dying was too scary – it made me feel like I was going to die in real life. I did this for a very long time.

“At some point after I began receiving therapy, one of my good friends told me that I needed to work on getting distracted, and something clicked. I very quickly gained a new perspective: my feelings were distracting me. My feelings of anxiety and fear over a threat that didn’t exist were getting in the way of me learning, having fun and enjoying myself. This led me to start getting more comfortable with those uncomfortable feelings to the point where they no longer distract me from what I want to be doing. Now, even though I still get those feelings of discomfort when I play games from time to time, I can cope and move past them. I’d say fighting games in general have helped me a lot, not just in giving me relief from my conditions, but helping me understand and then manage them.”

Experiencing mental health difficulties isn’t uncommon among Gen Zers. According to a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association, they are the least likely generation to say their mental health is excellent or very good, but they’re also the generation most likely to seek help and engage in therapy. For many, doing this alongside the release gaming brings has been a lifeline.

Montana, a 22-year-old gamer and Twitch streamer from Minnesota, has experienced agoraphobia and anxiety since she was 13 years old. Her mental health worsened when the pandemic hit, as she had to stay at home as a result of an autoimmune disease that put her at risk if she caught coronavirus.

“I went through a period of time from October to March where I didn't see anyone outside my immediate family,” she says over email. “Now, just leaving the house is debilitating. Going for a walk is debilitating. Since I’m inside so often, gaming is definitely something I have used to cope and socialise. Since I don't really see my friends anymore, I use platforms such as Discord to talk to friends.

“I think the biggest thing that has helped keep me out of a depression while dealing with agoraphobia is gaming and talking to friends online. It is the best thing I can get, next to real life interaction. Recently, I have been trying to ease my way back into things by meeting the friends I have been talking to online for years now, in real life.”

A recent Oxford University study found that gaming can have a positive impact on players’ wellbeing, particularly in relation to feelings of autonomy and relatedness. However, it also found that people whose psychological needs weren’t being met outside of gaming might report negative wellbeing after playing games.

Dr Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist and game designer, says that gaming can offer an important social outlet for people with conditions such as anxiety and agoraphobia, and it can also serve as a motivator for them to better manage their conditions, whether through therapeutic intervention or self-help.

“We don’t necessarily want someone to just stay in their home the whole time. We don’t want them to shut out the outside world,” she explains. “But at the same time, if they have some kind of lifeline to the outside world and they are able to stay connected to it in some way, that can be a very positive experience for them and be helpful in moving them in the direction of wanting to go out and experience the world.

“I always like to put the caveat that games are not a panacea – they’re not going to cure society’s ills, they’re not going to cure someone’s anxiety. But they can be a really, really useful tool in moving [forward], whether it’s clinical treatment with a therapist or if someone’s managing something on their own.”

Seraph, a 24-year-old author and game designer from Seattle who also suffers from agoraphobia, finds that gaming helps her to manage her anxiety. It also gives her the opportunity to be free of the limitations of the agoraphobia and anxiety that pervades a lot of her experiences outside of her home. In particular, the action role-playing game Dark Souls has been key in building her self-confidence. The game centres on a character who collects souls by fighting powerful adversaries, and also by finding abandoned souls from deceased characters within the game’s various worlds.

Dark Souls is about being somebody who’s just an ordinary person, chosen and burdened with glorious purpose, and they have to overcome giants and move mountains,” Seraph says. “Through trial and error, and believing in yourself that you can do it, and finding a community in the game to help you accomplish these things…it made me feel empowered. [I felt] that I could overcome my depression, that I could overcome my anxiety, because if I could move a mountain, I could probably do anything.

“I feel very small in the real world. I feel like I need to hide myself, but when I’m in the game – maybe because it’s something that I’m actually very good at – it makes me feel like I can stand tall and I don’t have to hunch over, hang my head and try to make myself blend into the background.”

While the gamers interviewed for this piece are all engaged in mental health treatment and are seeing positive results, gaming -- alongside those more traditional forms of therapy and treatment -- provides them with an outlet to, at least temporarily, experience some escape from the limitations of their conditions and feel connected to others.

In the absence of being able to physically go somewhere, games can provide a window into the world for people with struggling to really be in it. “I’ve always enjoyed exploring cities in video games,” Zoey, who also has a diagnosis of chronic PTSD, says. “Cities tend to overwhelm me in real life, mainly because I feel like I’m constantly anticipating the next time my existence will be acknowledged. They’re also loud, and sudden noises aren’t too uncommon.

“In video games, though, I don’t really have to worry about someone acknowledging my tiny pathetic human existence or ‘being witnessed’. I don’t have to think about what I’d say to that hypothetical someone. Plus, the cities themselves are usually aesthetically interesting.”

Dr Dunlap adds, “A lot of people who are managing an anxiety issue, especially if it’s a social anxiety, find that it’s much easier to interact with people in digital spaces. Partly because it’s a big internet, and if you do get embarrassed you can always go somewhere else, as opposed to, say, in the lunchroom, where if you make a social faux pas you can’t really escape that.”

There are limitations to the reality of gaming; you can’t touch the grass in a simulated field or fully take in the sights and sounds of a new city through a screen. But when your mind is working against you and those experiences seem beyond your reach, it’s the next best thing. And if it all gets too much? You can always pause or stop the game, even if you don’t have that option when it comes to your thoughts.

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