The Role of Virtual Reality in Depression

FROM THE START OF JUNIOR HIGH TO MY THIRD SEMESTER OF COLLEGE, I logged countless hours playing video games. I would come home from classes, sit in front of my TV or computer and play from then into the early hours of the morning. I rarely did any school work at all, and I often chose to sit in my room and play games instead of spending time with my friends. I had always been into video games, but I hadn’t always been a terrible student and a reluctant friend. The latter started when the depression hit.

I was never diagnosed, as I never agreed to see a counselor or psychologist, but I have no doubt in my mind that what I dealt with was fairly severe. All of the sadness, anger, frustration, fear and doubt that I felt was chronic for me, so much so that it was a part of my daily life. I was never happy, always depressed, and I distanced myself from friends and family, often seriously considering thoughts of suicide.

When I played games, however, I felt free of my depression. I wasn’t really free, of course − only numb to it − but the act of doing so was nevertheless distracting from everyday life, and everyday life for me was filled with negative emotions that overwhelmed my thoughts. Playing video games was not only a distraction, however, it was an escape from reality altogether.

This is the great danger of any virtual world: it’s not the one we live in.
The Lure of Virtual Bliss

In a mini-documentary released in 2013, staff member Danny O’Dwyer explores the link between video games and depression.

In the video, O’Dwyer states: “The relationship between games and those suffering from depression is a complex one. While some use games as a healthy crutch to get through the day, others may overplay to the point where their depression deepens, or worse − they spiral into addiction.

What is it then that is so appealing about living in a virtual world for those who suffer from some form of depression? And are those things entirely dangerous, or can they be beneficial?

Escaping Reality

The first draw of virtual reality is of course the opportunity to close our minds off from whatever issues we may be having in the real world that are causing our depression.

Life has plenty of ups and downs, so no surprise there, and an hour in front of the TV immersed in our favorite RPG (Role-playing Game) or some time spent alone with our smartphone, challenging Liam Neeson to a few matches in Clash of Clans, surely isn't a terrible mistake. However, as Danny says, once we begin to give ourselves more to that moment of levity than to the responsibilities we've taken up in our lives, it becomes a problem and we risk becoming dependent.

Joining a Community

Another popular aspect of virtual reality that could potentially be of some benefit to those suffering from depression, or spell further issues, is: virtual companionship.

On this matter, O’Dwyer raises the question: “While escaping into another world may be one way of dealing with your issue, the support of friends and family cannot be underestimated, so with the rise of internet connectivity and online gaming, could playing with others help ease a person’s suffering?

Some virtual worlds, such as in MMOs (Massively-multiplayer Online games), give us shared access to an alternate reality that is inhabited by other gamers from around the world. There are also lobbies, such as Playstation Home and Wii U’s Miiverse, in which players can come together for conversation and shared activities. For some, this is a valid way of making friends and forming relationships; for others who may struggle with most social arenas, it’s ideal. However, for people suffering from depression, be it for a day or a year, this offers something more: privacy.

I played a number of MMOs, starting in my senior year of high school, and remember making several friends; although, I never allowed any of those relationships to carry pass the virtual barrier. What I preferred about it, in those times in which I was burdened with frustration or sadness, was that I could enjoy time with friends without having to discuss my problems. When I was online, it was easy for me to avoid attracting attention to my depressed state because it wasn’t on my mind, and if it was I could hide it. However, when around family and friends in the real world, they often easily noticed my distress and questioned me about it out of love and concern. See the problem?

While online video games can provide us with a world of new relationships, we can sometimes use those relationships to avoid dealing directly with the source(s) of our depression.

Virtual Reality as a Coping Mechanism
O’Dwyer says of himself at one point: When I was younger, I tried to escape my depression by playing games… Being able to dive into another world and distract myself from my obsessions was my way of coping. Coping is something that people with depression get used to. Often times you can’t really help when you’re depressed, so you just have to manage your mood until it’s passed.

Essentially, this is what I was doing over that period of around seven and a half years in which I suffered from depression.

For me, playing video games was my way of coping with my depressive mood; however, my depression was not temporary, and so I ended up spending the majority of my time, ten to even twenty hours a day, playing video games to keep my “mood” at bay. What was worse was that I would later feel bad for spending so much time playing games, which would add to my depression. How did I deal with that? I went back to playing games so that I didn’t have to think about the time I had wasted.

So, while it can sometimes give us an avenue to curb our thought from unnecessary worry or frustration, or even allow us to exercise our body and mind, virtual reality can be a dangerous distraction for those suffering from some form of depression.

Can Video Games Cause Depression?

Allow me to leave you with a story. Last fall, a friend of mine accomplished one of his long-time dreams. What it was, I won’t say, but I will tell you that it was a massive undertaking for him and something he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to accomplish. It was a project of sorts, and after the completion of this project he was ecstatic, if not somewhat exhausted mentally. The project took him three months, and so he decided that, to celebrate and take a much-needed break, he would spend just one weekend playing one of his favorite video games. That friend was actually me (subtle, right?), and even though it had been years since last being tied up in my obsession with video games, that weekend sent me into a spiral of addiction. In three months, I had accomplished a dream; over the next three, I accomplished absolutely nothing and fell into a depressed state, by no means as severe as what I had endured in my adolescence, brought on by my awareness of the fact that I was wasting day after day.

I am no scientist, and I've done no studies. I only hope that my story can be of some benefit to you, and that you will play with care the next time (or the first time) you decide to explore a virtual reality.

If you find yourself suffering from an addiction to video games or any form of depression, however severe, know that it is a serious matter and one that should be addressed through therapy. Know also that what I learned from my last experience with video games was the value, even necessity, of speaking up to friends and family and admitting the need for help, as it can be difficult − even impossible − to overcome these issues on your own.

To hear more stories like mine, see Gamespot’s video here.

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