Last week I provided an overview of depression. This week I shall take a look at its connection with gaming. I’ve been gaming for fourteen years, and have had the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people – folks that I gladly call “friend.” And there is one thing that I have noticed about the gamer population compared to the general population. I believe that the rate of depression in gamers is higher than that of the general population.
Gamers & Depression
Why is that? Are depressed people drawn to gaming? Or does gaming make one more depressed? Or is it simply a coincidence, or faulty observation on my part?
We can eliminate that last question based on the proven fact that I am always right. (Which, by the way, is another source of my depression. It is an incredible burden to be right all the time 😀 .)
The second question seems counter-intuitive: How can something “fun,” like playing games, make you feel depressed? Sure, many of the games we play are competitive, and no one likes to lose; losing can put one in quite a funk. But at the same time we recognize that “it’s just a game,” so the prospect and experience of losing are not that emotionally traumatic. Furthermore, many games, especially RPG’s are cooperative, allowing everybody to “win.”
Therefore I’m brought back to the first question: Are depressed people drawn to gaming? I think that there is some solid evidence to indicate this probability.
First, depression makes it difficult to socialize with other people, but gaming provides a “bridge” to social interaction. It’s easier to address another person through the medium of a game, with its rules and structure, compared to trying to strike up a conversation with someone at “regular” party.
Second, it gives the depressed person something to do. Lack of activity and motivation are the most difficult parts of depression to deal with. Gaming, at the very least, is an activity to focus on and participate in. Thus gaming is the vehicle by which one can combat that lack of motivation and activity.
I’m sure there are other reasons (which a qualified sociologist or psychologist could explain) why gamers seem to have a higher rate of depression than the general population, but these two stand out strongest to me.
How Gaming Can Help Those with Depression
So what is a depressed gamer to do? In short: Play! Gaming can actually help those with depression. It is not a “magic bullet” cure, but it can be a big piece of a person’s treatment.
First, as stated above, it gives a depressed person something to do. It gives one something to think about, focus on (even obsess over) other than feeling depressed. Depression is a “self-feeding monster.” When I feel depressed, I think about things that make me more depressed, and the more I think about that stuff the more depressed I become, and the more depressed I become the more I think about that stuff, et cetera, et cetera, ad naseum. Jumping into a game of D&D, doing character creation, even playing Chutes & Ladders with my girls, gives me something else to think about and something else to do. And once you take that first step, it’s easier to take the second, and third, and so on.
Second, gaming gets you interacting with other people. Sure, some of them might be depressed, but there is something cathartic about shared misery. For as we share our burdens with one another the load becomes lighter – one person trying to carry his own depression is crushing, but two people helping each other carry the other’s depression, lightens the load considerably.
Third, in the process of interacting you have FUN! I have yet to be in a game session – from poker to checkers to RPG’s, where I didn’t end up laughing. Especially with my fellow role-players, the jokes just start to fly! I dare you to try and have a miserable time at my gaming table!
Finally, gaming becomes an analogy for life. I cannot tell you how many times something that happened to my character paralleled something going on in my real life. My DM/GM didn’t intend for that to happen, but it has happened – a lot. And so too does the in-game solution provide a framework for the real life solution, or at least a way to deal with the issue. The difficult part, however, is found in keeping everything in perspective.
How Gaming Can Hinder Those with Depression
Taken in excess, gaming can be a hindrance to one’s treatment of depression. Just as it gives a depressed person something to do, it can also become the ONLY thing they do. A hobby can easily become an obsession. Gaming can also become the ONLY way one socializes with others. Those social skills that help one navigate at work, school, or in public can atrophy. Sometimes relating the fun of a game to non-gamers can be a bit of a challenge. We all know “that one guy” whose every story is about what happened in a game. The virtual life (even in a table-top RPG, not just computer-based MMO’s) can supplant one’s real life. The key to avoiding these dangers are to have people in your life that can help you see when things become unbalanced. And I urge all readers to try to be that voice of balance for others in your gaming group.
As I stated last time, the treatment for depression in principle is no different than the treatment for heart disease. Changing one’s diet, lifestyle or job, combined with exercise and medication are the prevailing treatments for heart disease. The same has held true for my treatment of my depression – eating better, exercise, medication (yes, I take anti-depressants to counteract the bio-chemical contributors of my depression), and a change in job are all part of my treatment plan. The only difference is the social (and personal) stigma attached to emotional/mental disorders. Would I be “ashamed” to tell folks if I took medication for heart disease? No. So why should I feel “ashamed” to tell folks that I take medication for depression? To my treatment plan I have added gaming. It’s been a big help – and I have a wonderful wife and awesome friends that help me balance it with the rest of my life.
The best part about gaming is that I give myself permission to have fun. For a hyper-self-critical person with depression, it’s a real challenge to allow myself to have fun. Gaming makes that easier. (I don’t know why, but it just does.)
So, if you have depression and can avoid the dangers of excess and obsession, then I heartily recommend that you let gaming be a part of your treatment. Discuss it with your therapist (mine is aware of my gaming), to make it a balanced part of your recovery. Living with depression isn’t easy, but it does not have to define who you are. Go out and live your life. Have fun, play games. Because if my level 1 paladin of Bahamut can one day become a level 30 avatar of light, then maybe I can get off of my duff and do something pretty cool too.