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The Healing Power of Video Games

Or: How Diablo 3 helped me fight some of my personal demons.

Recently, I came out of “review retirement” to give a glowing report of the PlayStation 4 version of Diablo 3. In that review I talked about how the game really pulled me in this second time around and wouldn’t let go. It’s a fantastic console port and I have no qualms about double dipping on it. If anything, I got more enjoyment out of Diablo 3 on PS4 than I did on the PC, but a lot of that had to do with it being the right game at the right time. While the review platform wasn’t the appropriate place for it, I need to explain just why the act of obliterating hordes of demonic foes for a hundred hours was so cathartic for me. In light of the recent gaming culture landscape I think it’s important to remember how great video games can be, and in rare circumstances even healing.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but the months just before the Ultimate Evil Edition of Diablo 3 launched were rough for me. I was supposed to be the “man of honor” (read: head bridesmaid) for a friend of mine. There are many problems with this, but the less said about the matter, the better. To make a very long story relatively short, we didn’t know each other well enough for her to ask me to carry out such an important undertaking. The cracks in our friendship appeared right away and only got worse as time progressed. I had no business trying to coordinate anything around a wedding or a bridal shower (I’ve never even planned a birthday party before), and things went bad. Real bad. I had to pull out of the entire endeavor, and we no longer speak. This had the added unfortunate consequence that she is part of the Pathfinder game group I was part of—a place that I dare not show my face at again.

As this was going on, my girlfriend was watching her best friend dying of cancer in a woefully ill-equipped hospital. It was a horrific time for my girlfriend, and for me as well. The one-two punch of her living 6 hours away (close enough to reach but far enough that visits were prohibited by time and money) and my inability to know how to comfort her nearly destroyed our relationship. I’ve never lost anyone close to me, and I truly believe that any words from someone who doesn’t have a similar experience end up ringing hollow.

Heavy stuff. I began to retreat inside myself as I tend to do when the going gets tough. I needed a distraction, and it was right about this time that I made an impulsive purchase of Diablo 3 for PS4.

I had already spent a great deal of time with the PC version, thanks to bingeing on the game in the closed beta, open beta, original release, and “post Loot 2.0” era. However, things felt different this time around. As I hacked and slashed my way from level 1-70 with my crusader, Cecil, I began to notice that the frustration, anger, and depression I was harboring was so far in the background that it was almost imperceptible. The hunt for legendary loot (and PS4 trophies) gave my scattered mind something to focus on; a goal that I could actually achieve.

I don’t want to make it sound like I was running away from my problems. The fallout with my friend was over. She got married while I was working through Diablo 3 and I can only assume that it was a great wedding. I will never know, but I feel that it went better without me in attendance. I would talk to my girlfriend as often as I could, but in a long distance relationship you can only do so much, and she also needed time to grieve and reconnect with her children after looking after her friend in the hospital for months. No, Diablo 3 became my respite from my overly active brain. My mind can go to some really dark places when confronted with emotional stress, and Diablo gave me another place to pour my energy into.  

As I spent more and more of my free time grinding levels and loot on Diablo, I began thinking about how powerful video games can be when it comes to working through personal issues. This isn’t the first time I’ve used games as a coping mechanism, and I know others who have done so, as well. Former Nerds Without Pants cohost Rob Ottone wrote about how Mass Effect helped him work through his father’s fight with cancer. Games such as Tetris and specialized VR programs have been shown to help people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, games can bring families closer together, even after the worst happens.

There are plenty who would make the point that “escaping reality” isn’t really a healthy way to deal with your issues. I’ve never really understood that, especially when so many people recommend a good book when things are stressful (something I also take a lot of solace in). Everybody has different ways for dealing with things. At this very recent point in my life it was the thrill of slaughtering huge groups of monsters and equipping shiny new pieces of armor that helped. As I killed Diablo’s demons I was also killing my own, or at least battling them back. As an introvert with a never-ceasing internal monologue I can’t properly convey to you how valuable it was for that monologue to just be talking about Diablo strategy instead of constantly echoing all the negativity going on in my life. It is that reason, among many others, why Diablo 3 was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

Playing Diablo 3 for a hundred hours didn’t solve my problems, but it did give me the space and time to slowly work things through and cope. I think that’s a very powerful thing, and in a time when the video game scene is being vilified even more than usual I hope that people don’t forget how important games can be now and then.


 


 

Comments

Super Step Contributing Writer

11/24/2014 at 01:20 AM

Yeah, games are a great escape and allow you feel as though you're working through your problems because you're the one inputting commands. 

Only downside is it kinda backfires if the game is really, really hard and you keep losing at it ... 

Still, that's great you were able to break away via Diablo III and I hope things are ok between you and your girlfriend now; here's hoping for better-equipped hospitals and less cancer in the future too. 

I'll add in that games can actually lead to a decreased need for medication for some. 

Great article, Julian!

Julian Titus Senior Editor

11/30/2014 at 04:20 PM

Yeah, things are a lot better now, but she's still coping. It's too bad she can't slip into Diablo 3 like I can. Also, don't get sick in Texarkana.

avidacridjam

11/24/2014 at 04:17 AM

Excellent article, sir!

Ranger1

11/24/2014 at 09:27 AM

As a fellow introvert with the inner monologue going on, I can totally relate. A former job, the death of my father, and issues in my relationship were causing extreme anxiety in my life a couple of years ago. Games helped, especially Journey and Flower. Flower's soothing music and gorgeous visuals and gentle game play did a great job calming the panic attacks that I was getting more and more frequently, and Journey, well, it's Journey. It was also good to play the Ratchet and Clank games and just blow shit up and get rid of the day's frustrations that way, too.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

11/30/2014 at 04:21 PM

I only recently learned that the constant internal monologue is an introvert thing. Now that I'm aware of it I can't stand it and I just want to shut my mind up.

TheMart22

11/24/2014 at 09:27 PM

Nice article Julian!

Matt Snee Staff Writer

11/25/2014 at 05:35 AM

great article, man!!

Nicoleb1989

11/26/2014 at 10:41 AM

Amazing article!

Some people say running from reality is bad but I tend to differ from that opinion. Escaping can actually be the best way to handle things especially when we get overloaded with too much. Escaping helps by letting us draw away and take it in smaller doses. Whenever I get an overload of negativity I definitely  tend to stay in a book or video game since it's let's me go somewhere else for a few hours  to get away from it. I find it a better option then stuffing my face, that's for sure. I'm hopeing things are going  sooo much better for you now. 

Julian Titus Senior Editor

11/30/2014 at 04:23 PM

One thing I always wish I could say when the violent video game thing comes up in the media is how video games allow me to focus on something else when I'm in a bad mood. Back in the GTA 3 days if I was having a bad day I would fire up the game and go on a rampage until I died. Then I'd go do a story mission and before long I was focused on making story progress and a lot of the aggravation from the day was gone.

Super Step Contributing Writer

11/30/2014 at 04:52 PM

If you want a cool name for what you just described, academia calls it the "catharsis hypothesis." 

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

11/26/2014 at 01:04 PM

Awesome article Julian! I think how cathardic gaming can be is an often overlooked aspect of it, and it is great to hear how a particular work helped someone pull through a tough time.

vesper27

11/28/2014 at 03:39 AM

Wow, that was damn heartfelt and was oozing with awesome. Such a great story! Video games can channel many a postiive thing. They can definitley heal us like music. And yeah sometimes life gets fucking retarded and you really need some help from games. Distractions are always a great thing to help with that. They can channel just fun power too. Life is not easy and it is not supposed to be. We all have shit to deal with good or bad. Sometimes it seems the scales are tilted with bad. For example. My aunt and Grandma died within the same year. That was really hard but I found solace in video games. I think I played some Pokemon Pearl or something. I think I played many games. I wish my aunt and grandma were gamers but sadly they weren't. Will people ever know what video games are truly capable. They are there when you need them most. I am a huge advocate for the pros of video games. :) I hope you heal up all nice and well and can punch life in the nuts!

Julian Titus Senior Editor

11/30/2014 at 04:24 PM

Life punched me in the nuts a lot this year, so I'm looking to turn the tables next year for sure.

asrealasitgets

12/06/2014 at 03:20 AM

This is one of my favorite articles I've read all year Julian. I'm sorry about your life things, I hope things get better and I'm glad you decided to share the ordeal, pretty brave to share such heavy stuff actually. I feel like sharing and discussing issues with random strangers can also be helpful sometimes.

 

Also, I guess people find their own personal ways of dealing with life issues. I personally enjoy long walks, and jogs or fitness type things. Sometimes when things are so hard you just don't want to see the sunshine so I just get into a nice long game, book or pull out some old comics and read them all. Oh and alcohol. Yeah alcohol. Mmmmm. 

For me, playing through survival horror games helps me relieve a bit of stress from time to time. Surviving through a horror game can make you feel so good at the end of it. That's my personal game thing when life sucks.  I really love Diablo 3. I stopped playing after the first release and just got into the expansion for PC when it went on sale recently. It's pretty damned great now honestly! 

Here. For best article 2014 a award you with hello kitty ribbon! Wink 
 

Julian Titus Senior Editor

12/07/2014 at 10:08 PM

I am incredibly humbled. I struggled with this article. I wasn't sure if it was worthy of being a PixlBit piece or should have just been on my personal blog, and sometimes writing personal articles can come across as narcissistic. I am incredibly pleased with the reaction to this piece, and hope it gets people thinking about gaming in a more positive way, especially in light of the past few months. I accept this Hello Kitty ribbon with pride!

Wz'n

12/10/2014 at 07:54 AM

Julian, you did great by writing this article. Shows you've got guts and an instinct to know you're on to something. YES - Gaming has been used therapeutically in many settings and situations.  It is NO JOKE. There have been numerous psychological and medical studies on gaming, including the healing and helpful aspects. Assuming one is not gaming 24x7, here are some examples:
A). Gaming can help post traumatic stress victims including war veterans in two ways: 1) distracts the front of the mind so the back of the mind has a little breathing room to digest the traumatic event, and to gradually relax from its stress response. (Long after the stress is over, the mind both awake and asleep hasn't stopped reacting to the traumatic event, trying to emotionally assimilate it. Emotional processing is done with a more primitive portion of our brain compared to the rational cognition - that's why emotional healing of any type takes a long time, and bad trauma takes longer). And, 2) (safely) catharting out some things may be part of the emotional processing. There's a charity started by war veterans specifically to help war veterans with games as part of the help needed in healing from war. War in real life has a very deep psychological effect on people, no matter who you are; combat stress is no joke. By the way, the Pentagon wised up recently and has been actively working with games specifically to help PTSD as well as ongoing stress. They also use gaming as tools for education and training.
B). Gaming has been proven to aid fighting cancer (and other serious illnesses) with both patient compliance with treatment, and psychological attitude. In these situations, kicking ass and getting stronger in a virtual world, as well as causing or aiding positive outcomes in the game story, have a positive effect on many cases - this is not anecdotal, these were looking at large and small groups of people.  Games specifically designed for cancer patients and malaria patients for example, have been created (look 'em up!). Also it is very helpful when huge disease or other recovery challenges occur, to have a virtual world which is a little break from reality - in the same way that a good immersive movie or book is a break during our ordinary lives... except, a video  game is both interactive and participative, so it is MUCH more of a "break" than a movie is.  Because of this immersion and participation aspect, gaming has helped distract people from pain and suffering, to a degree that is comparable to some painkillers.
C). Gaming has also helped people recovering from injury to work on their mind-body coordination, without tedium. And older people that play video games regularly have a higher chance of maintaining mental flexibility and capabilities, because of how gaming uses your intellect and mind-body wiring (in plain language) - yes, various studies were done across all age groups.
D). Gaming has been studied with cognitive disabilities such as various types of autism. It has generally been recognized as highly beneficial in developing abilities that need strengthening, in developing social skills in the game and in the real world, and in developing certain cognitive skills that may be needed. (Regular and specially developed games are used.) Both kids and adults have been helped cognitively with games.
I can tell you that personally, from the experience of having had a serious illness after losing both parents, that Xenoblade Chronicles helped save my ass. It was better than all my other games, and I wondered WHY is this one so great? So then I began learning all about gaming; it's quite amazing technically, artistically and creatively; and, also, the above positive aspects. I read a lot of studies on it; some good books too. By the way, I'm an old fart. I was already in the workforce in the 80's, yes played a game on a mainframe once, & have collected a lot of different kinds of games over the decades, but I always use discussion forums, faqs & walkthroughs becuz I'm just not gifted to figure 'em out on my own :)

mothman

12/10/2014 at 10:49 AM

First I think it is excellent that you felt comfortable enough to post this. Secondly I can't imagine what it's like to lose both parents and at my age it's a miracle that I still have both of mine.

Moving on, Xenoblade Chronicles is so immersive and has a vast world you can explore for hours. Furthermore games like that make you feel like you can make a difference when life is trying to tell you otherwise. I sold my copy for a lot of money but I regret it every day. 

Lastly, there are plenty of old farts here. As far as I know I'm the oldest at 60 and yes I'm still gaming. :) 

If you care to stick around there's a very accepting community here.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

12/11/2014 at 01:31 AM

Thank you for your kind words and amazing information! The cancer treatment was a huge surprise for me, but it makes total sense. It kind of reminds me of an older player in my Final Fantasy XI linkshell. He actually turned 50 while we were playing that game, but he was very sick and in need of a kidney transplant. Sadly he never got it and died after a couple of years, but I think playing that game and socializing with our linkshell kept him hanging on longer than he would have without it. I still miss our conversations to this day.

mothman

12/10/2014 at 11:04 AM

Julian, very well written and honest article. Being able to articulate that sort of thing is a big part of the battle.

My continued interest in games is part of why I'm still alive as is my love of technology and most importantly my wife.

I love getting lost in a world I can explore, fighting the good fight and emerging victorious. Strangely doing that gives me confidence to look at real world problems with the confidence to say Yep, I can do that!

After all, what is life but a quest involving a series of puzzles and the odd boss fight. :D 

Wz'n

12/10/2014 at 05:52 PM

Moth man, yes, you have nuts helped it perfectly. A little break at the end of the day where positive progress (helping people, figuring stuff out, & smashing bad Fuglies with a team) all in a beautiful varied world. Even though its always just a game, somehow it DOES feel encouraging when dealing with really hard reality times. Bonus: gets your mind off physical pain & limits as well. And in the game, you can just run everywhere & get stronger as the game progresses. Also apart from story, character development, & saving the world, just overcoming Fuglie challenges is rewarding. Yes real life is learning learning, puzzles, & some fuglies to deal with or go around. That can be a mostly fun challenge, its how we enjoy careers, if we are lucky & persistent. When Ill health or personal events make ordinary life really difficult or limited, then gaming gives an encouraging, distractive little respite. Better than a good movie. Helps return to the real fray.

Wz'n

12/10/2014 at 05:57 PM

PS everyone, on this topic, I remember reading or YouTube posts about how gaming helped other people in many ways - getting past different types of real bad times, healing physically, etc. Some did a series on YouTube, & people posted other places. To find them just Google these phrases: "how gaming saved my life" and "what gaming means to me"

Wz'n

12/10/2014 at 06:00 PM

Plus, unrelated to healing: gaming is cross-generational & cross-cultural topic of great variety & depth. 

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