Play The Pain Away

I very, very fleetingly considered opening this piece with “video games saved my life,” but stopped short, given said statement is a horribly reductive exaggeration. Video games did, however, act as a vital catalyst in returning a semblance of normality to my nulled existence following a catastrophic bout of illness – rekindling sparks of enjoyment in my dormant, disinterested mind, refreshing the parts other non-interactive media couldn’t reach.

A little background: I was diagnosed as bipolar I in 1999 during a turbulent inpatient stay at an adolescent mental health unit, and have been dogged by sporadic fluctuations in mood and ability to function since - namely three major depressive episodes and two instances of full-blown mania, escalating into psychosis, with a wave of relative emotional normality bobbing in between. After a distressing psychotic breakdown–the bizarre-acting, clothes-shedding, convinced-I-was-a-deity kind–and subsequent stint sectioned at a scary-as-shit inner city ward early 2010, I spent several months residing back in my Tyneside hometown, in convalescence at my mam’s house.

The crippling, slow-release depression that invariably takes hold following such a mental upheaval was in full effect, despite initial attempts to return to work and stay living in London following my discharge - days and nights blurred, seemingly endless, punctuated by clockwork doses of medication and regular visits by a home treatment team. So utterly stripped of serotonin as to feel emotionally comatose, my face perpetually buried in an sofa-cushion enclave, I whiled away waking hours seeking seclusion in memory, willfully disconnected from the reality of my curtailed life, desperately attempting to project myself into imaginary alternate timelines free from anguish - futilely denying the permanent (and then-unbearable) repercussions of psychosis-provoked self-harm and associated all-consuming regret. A typically spirited young man reduced to dozing, whimpering and blotting out the world out as a full-time occupation.

This cycle of sedation and outright rejection of immediate circumstances continued for an interminable period as spring turned to summer, lengthening days doing little to perk my flattened mood. Eventually, something clicked, the pilot light lit and I began to reengage – jaunts from my self-imposed sofa-cell other than to eat or void, stabs at conversation above murmurs or repetitive, disordered diatribes. Daytime TV quiz shows segued from dismissed background noise into discernible formats, yet I still possessed neither the patience nor brain chemical prerequisites to enjoy anything stimulating, to appreciate any form of culture.

Sometime around this point, video games trickled back into my life, initially as absent minded methods of distraction – tackling the complex narratives of literature and film, or experiencing the euphoria of music were still out of bounds to my unfocused, irritable mind – mechanical hacking away at simplistic games, meanwhile, was an attainable task.

I restarted playing on a small-scale - stumbling upon a charming, simplistic game called Airport Mania (aptly titled, perhaps, considering the mental state which would consequently prompt its acquisition), which caught my eye cropping up advertised in a sidebar. Hurtling through the demo at a rate of knots prompted purchase of the full version, which I completed in one sitting. The game casts you as an air traffic controller, tasked with queuing up incoming planes to land on specific runways, refueling, repairing, and taking off on schedule. Gradually more complexities are added, tighter time constraints introduced, a greater variation of planes to juggle circle overhead and so forth. The sheer act of clicking icons, engaging with an interface, dealing with tasks thrown at me unrelentingly, and undertaking a sliver of responsibility for decisions was immensely therapeutic: the sensation of control over anything, no matter how trivial, had been temporarily absent in my life. I squeezed every drop of play out of the damn thing.

Oddly, Airport Mania’s cartoon whimsy and lack of elaborate challenge was directly at odds with the plot-driven adventures I tend to favour when well - perhaps the simple, clean artwork, upbeat jingles and overtly retro aesthetic triggered some kind of regression to bygone pleasures, offering a comfortable, carefree cocoon, harking back to before the upheaval of adolescence transitioned into adulthood, before the spectre of mental illness became a permanent fixture, before the black dog nipped at my heels with every step.

I soon progressed onto other, more complex titles - digging out dusty original copies of Theme Hospital and Command and Conquer: Red Alert - games which would run on my mam’s aging Pentium 4 comfortably (at this point I was consoleless, my Xbox 360 languishing roughly 300 miles away alongside most of my possessions in an unoccupied North London bedroom). Theme Hospital had re-reared its head during recuperation from previous breakdowns - in the same way people embrace well-loved, formative albums in times of heartache or woe, I replay the games that shaped my teens, finding alleviation in familiarity. Sneaky .wad rips of Doom, Doom II and Final Doom followed suit, levels blasted through a source port on autopilot, the trigger of every monster closet recalled, perfect circle-strafing with WASD and mouse muscle memory – slowly, I relearning how to accept sensory pleasures from simple (hellspawn-slaying) achievements.

Soon, I was borrowing my brother’s 360, pouring hours into Left 4 Dead 2 - still deeply unsociable and borderline agoraphobic, the voice communication with strangers provided a modicum of contact with the outside world – the typically pre-pubescent pipsqueak squeals of teammates offering odd respite from a sourpuss internal monologue. The game’s lack of subtlety, encouraging an unremittingly singular mindset hell-bent on scything through undead via pre-destined pathways was a perfect parallel to my recovery situation. Any slowing down, slacking off, resting on laurels would result in certain tragedy. I was damaged, emotionally destitute, dragging myself out of the deepest depression I’d ever dealt with, and Valve’s acutely-channeled slash n’ shooter suited the mood to a tee. Dismissive of even the merest hint of narrative offered, I was consumed by the urge to survive: run, shoot, heal, propelling my way through scores of demons while keeping my own demons at bay.

In the meantime, I picked up other casual games, particularly as I weaned myself off (with the blessing of a psychiatrist) the cocktail of sedating drugs I had been prescribed, and slowly returned to my regular ‘well’ routine of staying up until the wee small hours - gaming capabilities of smartphones being both a blessing and a curse to the chronic insomniac. I clocked up hours on Peggle, Plants vs. Zombies and Drop7, achieving some staggering scores on the latter which I curse myself for neglecting to screencap. As I began to reduce tablet dosages, my other activities broadened, albeit slowly. My social media blathering (as anyone who follows me on Twitter probably knows) is typically fairly prolific – at this point it had all but dried up, as illness and isolation crossed the real-life/online boundary. Trickles of interaction resumed during my staggered return to living in London, as bouts of Call of Duty: Black Ops (not a game I have any real enthusiasm for) gave my still socially fragile self an ideal excuse to chat with North East-based friends – a surrogate Skype, with added killstreaks. The none-more solo experience of Alan Wake challenged a little more: a gateway back into other media, mixing the hair-trigger mass-slaughter with brooding, dialogue-heavy sections pushing its comparatively nuanced plot onwards.

Just before starting back at work in early 2011, I delved deep into Fallout: New Vegas – again, its rich fantasy world helped alleviate everything that comes with living frugally in a ludicrously expensive city on employment support allowance after one’s statutory sick pay has expired – the crushing boredom, compounding sense of uselessness, consideration of every expenditure down to mere bus trips. I fantasised about the comparatively varied (if irradiated) diet my character enjoyed – envious of Salisbury Steaks and Instamash washed down with gallons of Sunset Sarsaparilla, as I tucked into no-brand noodles yet again. As someone who tends to benefit from structured days and routine, dealing with an overabundance of free time to fill during my gradual recovery was tricky – I became under-occupied, boredom set in, and regular sleep-slots slipped entirely, but the XP-gathering ritual in New Vegas provided, temporarily, substitute labour - a way to put the hours in, and however flimsy, some semblance of purpose. Relishing the drip-feed of praise, I buzzed off the accompanying *ching* signifier upon completing quests, eagerly anticipating the triumphant heralding of leveling up. Though I was, by now, devouring books, films, and whole seasons of streamed TV, none gave me the same sense of immediate reward. Strange, perhaps, that an apparently leisurely pastime should be seen in the same context as work, as a replacement, but parallels between grinding in RPGs and hacking away in monotonous jobs are obvious.  By this point, my console was consuming more hours of an average day than it ever had before, and probably ever will again – the slightly disconnected, daily knuckling down in the Mojave Wasteland to rack up points had become akin to a ‘shift’, readying me for return to gainful employment.

Even now, video games are still often demonized as a culprit of bad health – mind rotters, sedentary lifestyle promoters, interactive vampires literally leeching Vitamin D from children, and it’s a tricky point to dispute; from personal experience, they CAN cause harm, if their consumption is left unchecked–inadvisable marathon sojourns through Dead Rising’s mall several years ago left me with occasionally flaring RSI–but I’ve found they can be hugely beneficial to mental wellbeing in moderation too. Video games can be entertaining, affecting, inspiring, immersive, competitive, but they’re also fantastic purely as distractive tools – pacifiers for the sticky slew of bullshit slung our way, day after day; trivial escapism to counteract the myriad mundanities of adulthood. And for me, a stopgap, a vital recuperation aid, an all-consuming realm to temporarily slope off to and lose myself in. A life paused, lived vicariously through a series of avatars until I got back on my feet.