More Than A Game: Playing for Mental Health & Wellbeing

A large hall was at 100% capacity. I think they may have turned away people because this panel was so popular. Who wouldn’t want to hear about how playing computer games improves mental health and wellbeing? 

Have I mentioned how much I love PAX? Especially the panel discussions? Not to mention that PAX Australia is the most disability-friendly expo I’ve attended. (Says me with my vision impairment.)

The usual disclaimer: This is an account from my notes, it is not a transcript of the panel. If I have made any errors, please let me know and I will make appropriate changes. 

The panelists are:

  • Jane Cocks [Researcher of Psychology, Games and Stories, PhD Candidate, University of Sunshine Coast],
  • Jennifer Hazel [Psychiatrist, Founder of Prescription Pixel, Prescription Pixel],
  • Charlie Francis [Junior Programmer at Mighty Games, Independent Game Dev, Mighty Games], Charlie has bipolar and borderline personality disorder. Strongly feels mental health issues need de-stigmatizing so is making a game about bipolar.
  • Eve Beauregard [Marketing and Brand Manager, Media Personality, Living Dead]. Her face is in Witcher 3. Sharing mental health issues helps her deal with it.
  • Leigh Harris [Director Flat Earth Games, Game Design Teacher AIE, Flat Earth Games]. A few weeks ago he started talking about depression and anxiety. After the loss of someone in games community in Sydney, it felt selfish not to talk about it. He started talking, following Jigsy’s example.
  • Jess Hodgson [Community Manager, EA], otherwise known as Jigsy. He ran out of PAX with a panic attack last year. This is his Moby Dick moment, his batman moment. He appreciates the support he’s received.

Jane: Are we all escaping reality when we play games? I don’t think it’s true, I think it’s about extending reality and doing things we can’t do anywhere else.

Jennifer: There’s been very little study into mental health and games but one research was about self-expansion and self-repression. It feels a lot of gaming is about self-expansion. It can increase a sense of self. Video games can be a positive experience of achieving.

Jigsy: Using Mass Effect affects real life relationships. For example, learning how to interact with people, overcoming social anxiety after practicing in a game. What is more productive: experience in games or sitting watching the goggle box?

Jennifer: Who’s made friends through gaming? (Most if not all the audience raises their hands.) Exactly.

Eve: I’ve felt safer in gaming community through shared experience. Gaming training helped.

Charlie: Sometimes I need to escape my life and need to take time away from problems, go into Skyrim and just kill a couple of wolves. I don’t do that in real life. I don’t think it’s bad escaping.

Jigsy: You can leave your problems and solve problems easily in a game then face the real world with added confidence.

Jennifer: Self-determination theory: gaming taps into all 3 core practices even if you don’t succeed.

Jigsy: Like Destiny. I just keep coming back.

Jennifer: Games tap into that. Now we’re putting a legitimate psychological reason into why games make you feel so damned good. Games are inherently immersive.

Jane: Games allow different situations and worlds with the player fully immersed and transported.

Leigh: It’s a very different experience. When I think of being immersed in a game I think of Crunchtime. I don’t find I can do that too much anymore. RPGs, every tiny detail reminding me it’s a game separates me from the game. I do anything other than video games or I play abstract games to experience something audiovisual but not narrative or world building sense of immersion. Whenever the game tries to convince me there’s a real person but I ask the same question twice in a row and they give me the same answer twice in a row I feel they’re a weird robot.

Jigsy: VR was the best experience I’ve had in games in a long time. I was in a cage and didn’t step out of it. My hand was resting on the ‘wall’ and must have looked like such a fucking twat. Then the manta rays came in. Being in a first person environment where I wasn’t shooting things was a really interesting experience.

Jane: There’s a psychological thing called Flow, one of the most optimal psychological states that can be highly positive. You get into it by being challenged but not fully immersed. Games are one of the few things giving you increasing levels of difficulty building flow.

Jennifer: It can be therapeutic. It can be abused to make money and abuse players. Used responsibly, it can be good. Spending time in a rewarding game state every good day is good for mental health.

Charlie: I found Skyrim really massive. One of the first games I played was Morrowind. It was incredibly immersive. High school sucked but I had Morrowind. Different things are immersive for different people. I think all games have the potential to be immersive and create the potential to escape.

Audience: Monster Hunter had real strengths to help someone through dark times

Leigh: Like the movie Rain On Me, or playing Shadow of the Colossus. The player overcomes large obstacles. I have a tenacious desire to be a smart arse. If I’m this big I want to be able to take out something 50 stories high.

Eve: Bioshock 3: I was in an abusive relationship. Connecting with Elizabeth was like a mirror to my life. I had a character who I felt was me.

Jigsy: Watching Shepherd in ME3. Seeing someone in impending doom, doing whatever it took to do things the right way helped me grow up. She would just stand there and do it. Sometimes the renegade option is the right way. Sometimes the right thing is to punch a reporter in the face. As long as you have the right people by your side and you’re going to do what it takes, you’ll get thru. I love Final Fantasy 7

Audience: Is it possible for games to become too immersive?

Jennifer: There is game addiction, which is now an official diagnosis in the DSMV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual fifth edition). There are risks. There is help available. Not everyone can control or realize. That’s when you have to know yourself and have a support network.

Charlie: I used to be against World of Warcraft until someone got me to play it. It’s the one most people think of regarding addiction is WoW.

Eve: It’s usually an MMO (massive multilplayer online), often WoW.

Jennifer: It’s about educating society about the signs. When you’re forfeiting primary needs for gaming, it’s a problem. Hopefully as the stigma around mental health and games diminishes, society can be more informed.

Jigsy: We have the responsibility to set an example, to educate people. We’ve all seen Idiocracy and been locked into VR worlds and only talking through helmets. It’s up to us to be the shining light. I’m talking about Mass Effect again. I promise that’s the last reference.

Audience as a group: Awww.

Audience: Do you play more as yourself or do you try to do better?

Charlie: I play as a really terrible person. I play a rogue and steal everything. I stole a house after a guy died and stole everything I needed from other houses.

Jigsy: Were you the one that killed him?

Charlie: Yes.

Jennifer: I get upset when you have to kill things. When my partner plays, I make up little stories for everyone that he kills. ‘That’s Dave, he has a wife and kids’.

Eve: I thought I was the only one who did that.

Jane: I like being someone completely different. It’s like driving a bright shiny car to be someone different.

Jigsy: I’m shit at sports and I can play premier league — although that’s not a game we make (cough). I used an entire work game trying to recreate someone else and got into trouble for it. My second play through of Skyrim was as a junkie.

Jennifer: If you’re realizing yourself in a sports game, and Charlie is cathartically experiencing the weight of rage in a safe space.

Eve: I’m always thinking about consequences. In a game if I make a mistake or get to be a horrible person then I can turn off the console and that’s fine.

Jigsy: So you don’t get to a really important choice and turn off the console and say ‘Well, I’m not going to finish that game’?

Audience: Has being out hurt your business?

Leigh: I still have the same problems overcoming depression & anxiety as well as public perceptions potentially damaging business.

Jigsy: After PAX last year, I wrote an apology note for running out. I poured my heart out. So many people in games development, media and players thanked me for sharing. People called me brave when I felt I’d betrayed a friend and let down the audience. It’s fucking scary putting yourself out there but once you do and realize there are other people there with you, its the greatest thing in the world.

Leigh: I have imposter syndrome. I’m still waiting for someone to ask for my game designer badge to be taken back. I feel woefully under qualified.

Jennifer: Me too, me too.

Jigsy: And she’s a fucking doctor.

Leigh: I felt it was pointless to talk about it but since giving the talk people have talked about enjoying it and expressed their gratitude for talking about it.

Eve: I really agree. When your job description is dressing up for fun, imposter syndrome is a real thing. When I first talked about having anxiety, I called it being an introvert. I explained I’m terrified, so many people in the room all looking at me like right now. It really helped because everyone shared their experiences. I have this vision in my head that’s the Mental Health Avengers. I feel so honored to sit amongst you guys who are making changes.

Jigsy: I worked in hospitality for 15 years then I got a job in games industry for 1 year then this job in EA. There’s so much imagined pressure that we put on ourselves in our day-to-day lives. I have an image of a support pyramid: home, social, work life. If at least 2 of them aren’t supportive, things are going to be difficult. I didn’t want meds so I looked at therapy. My goal for the day was to go to the front door and step out. I’d put my hand on the handle and find the tiniest shittiest excuse not to go. I went to my GP for drugs. Once on the right medication, it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. I was incredibly lucky work was so supportive. I have goals. On the weekend it’s to put the washing on, put it in the dryer so it doesn’t sit there for two days and play Destiny for 12 hours. Failing at goals feeds anxiety.

Jane: I like starting lists with 2 things I’ve already done so I get to cross them out.

Charlie: I work in a really supportive workplace.

Jennifer: A survey majority of 362 so far said games improve mental health. 12 said no. 55 said they didn’t know. Helpful games included: Mass Effect, Skyrim, DragonAge, Zelda, Prof Leighton, and a variety of others.