I am a lifelong student… of math, of science and engineering and of Zen, Stoicism, grief and life. I am also – without doubt or shame – a gamer.
Gaming has a mixed reputation. To some, it seems like a pointless waste of time while to for some of us, games are where some of our our strongest friendships and connections have been forged. Yes, games are a fun distraction but can they be something more? Can games help us live a happier more connected life?
Gaming Your Happiness
Games have helped me through the very darkest and hardest times in my past and I continue to turn to them today when times are tough.
After my mother died in early 2016, I thought I’d never feel peace or happiness the same way again. Her death, coming so soon after the death of my brother, was always on my mind. Meditation didn’t help… it was hard to focus on the present moment when then the ever-present reality of their deaths weighed on my mind all of the time. Even grief support group therapy became harder to attend for me, now dealing with not just one loss but two sudden and traumatic deaths in such a short time.
And so, I started thinking outside of the box. I turned to acupuncture and to drum circles. It helped me to physically work through my grief and I was able to find some peace but happiness and joy were still elusive. I was able to find moments of peace but the celebration and elation of joy was rare. And then Pokémon Go was released in summer 2016.
Look, it even sounds weird to me: Pokémon Go helped me work through the grief of my mother??? Yes…. yes it did. Pokémon is a simple game: your character goes out and catches little cute creatures that you can care for, upgrade and battle with later. It’s a collection game with a dash of pet gaming and a bit of role playing and world building thrown in for flavor. There are more Pokémon games than I personally know about and I had never played any of them. I was familiar with the TV show from my childhood but that was about it. I had almost no nostalgia for the series, no addiction to that world. And yet… my summer that year was spent spinning pokestops and trying to fill my pokedex.
In a year where I had suffered the worst loss of my life: the sudden death of my best friend and mother, this game gave me moments of elation, it pushed me out of my house to explore my real world and it helped me experience happiness again. In the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go was a major phenomenon in my area. My husband and I would go Pokémon hunting in local parks that we had never visited before and we’d find many fellow “trainers” out there with us, trying to find and catch these cute little sprites on our smartphones.
In the wake of my grief, friendships had been harder to maintain. It was so hard to find the energy to make plans and meet people and when I finally managed to get out there, we often spent some amount of time on condolences. I couldn’t escape my grief… it was always there like a shadow that followed me everywhere. But, out in those parks, running across a beach because someone sighted a wild Gyarados, no one knew about my losses and I could simply enjoy the game. I could celebrate my catches with total strangers and friends alike.
I ended up quitting Pokémon Go in the fall of 2016. I went out to hunt for Pokémon and battle in gyms less and less as the days got shorter and the weather turned colder. But my healing process had begun. That game helped me through a difficult time by helping me move forward in my healing. It got me back outside for walks and runs, it helped me find my joy again and reminded me of the simple pleasures of life. In the years since my time playing Pokémon Go, I’ve heard stories of other people who were saved by games. Games like Animal Crossing have helped people work through their depression, helping them get through their hard times and make it to the other side.
Like other popular media such as television shows and movies, games can give us a safe space to escape to in hard times. As much as I believe in the power of meditation, mindfulness and connecting to the present moment, sometimes we need a little help. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that life isn’t all darkness and difficulty and that happiness is possible. Fantasy worlds help us do that and games can be a great way to experience the loss of defeat in a safe space where you can come back again and get the win. They can give us the little bit of a break we need to recover and get through hard times.
Finding Peace In Games
As the pandemic has dragged on, I’ve found that my life is just as stressful as it’s ever been. Many of us are feeling the weight of fatigue as the pandemic continues into the winter months, I know I’ve been feeling it more and more over the past few weeks and months.
As much as I’m a huge advocate of self care practices such as meditation, deep breathing and journaling, I also feel that there is actually a place for simple, idle pleasures. Like enjoying a cup of hot herbal tea, I’ve found that some basic, simple games can be a great way to unwind after a tough, stressful day.
I love to play solo board or card games for this purpose. It’s great to put on some chill music, grab a cup of tea and spend some quiet time gaming. I’ve recently found Graphic Novel Adventure books/games and for me these have been a great way to unplug from the stress of the pandemic for a little while and take a mini-mental health break.
Many of us also use video games to unwind after a tough day. We’ll grab the controller after a long day at work and lose ourselves for a while while playing our favorite games. I know that I enjoyed exploring the Japanese countryside of Tsushima, completing side-quests as I liberated the island from the Khan, leaving the pandemic behind… at least for a while.
This is why I don’t see video games (or any game for that matter) as a hobby purely for children. Gaming can have an important role in living a balanced, happy adult life. Just as a Friday night movie or catching up on your favorite television show can be a harmless diversion, gaming can fill a similar role. Gaming is an interesting story telling medium, you don’t simply watch the story play out on the screen, you interact with and – to some extent – influence the story as you play through it. You create your own experiences and memories as you play through the game.
Connection Through Gaming
Humans need and crave connection. We are a tribal species, even the most socially awkward, most introverted person needs some connection with others in order to feel that they have a place in this world. Playing games with friends and family is my favorite way to build and maintain my connections. Whether it’s adventuring together in D&D, failing to save the world in Pandemic or laughing at your terrible drawings over Zoom, gaming together gives us shared experiences and helps build bonds.
During these hard times of physical isolation during the pandemic, I’ve continued to find connection and joy in games. In the midst of a global pandemic and racial unrest unseen in the United States for decades, my family of Black Americans met on Zoom to share conversation, laughs and fun playing virtual party games. For a few minutes each week, we were able to leave the news behind and simply enjoy good times together.
I am drafting this post the week before Thanksgiving in 2020. I know this year has been hard for so many of us, and with COVID cases on the rise many states are introducing new restrictions that are going to affect a lot of holiday plans. Playing games is always part of my holiday celebrations and I know gaming will be even more important this year. We may need to maintain physical distance this year but we can connect with each other over the phone or video chat and share the joy of playing games together. For just a bit, we focus on the game and let the anxieties of life fade from our attention.