I Can’t Play Video Games Anymore, and It Worries Me
How my inability to stick with a video game made me realize I am punishing myself for feeling depressed.
I am virtually incapable of finishing a video game. I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer, but it’s a pastime I've enjoyed throughout my life. From my first memories with Super Mario Bros. 3 to spending hours on World of Warcraft, gaming was the best kind of escapism. It was a test of skill and competitiveness. It was a fun distraction either by myself or with my friends. But it was also a unique interactive experience that I couldn’t get from books or TV.
Naturally, as I got older, I had less time for it. There were other parts of life competing for attention — be it relationships, writing, going out, getting in shape, what have you — but I never lost my desire to play a good video game through it all. There were times when I woke up and logged 12 hours in a game, several days in a row. Whether it was finishing a story or grinding levels, I put in the work when I wanted to. It was fun but wasteful. I don’t think any responsible adult can throw away that much time and feel good about it.
But there are still times when I have a few hours of spare time on the weekend or a night when I don’t have anything to do where I would love to game a little. And I find, increasingly, that I just can’t.
Staring at My Desktop
One of the worst parts of depression is how it decreases the size and scope of your world. Sadness has always pulled me away from friends and family and the things that brought me joy.
Throughout my early life, my weight was an unending source of despair. Because I didn’t want to be seen, I avoided going out or talking to anyone. Paralyzed by frustration, I didn’t even work to solve my problem. I sat in my bed, in my room with the blinds shut, listening to the quiet desolation of a suburban community outside my window. When I needed support, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it. Partly, I didn’t believe anyone could help me, and I was embarrassed at how poorly I was handling life. Stubbornly, I thought I could fix what was wrong with me if I could generate enough self-discipline. But weight issues were only a symptom of a larger problem, an outward expression of a lack of confidence in myself and a pessimistic belief that I couldn’t change. At night, I often found myself staring blankly through a glowing CRT screen, waiting for something that would never come.
Writing had become an outlet for those frustrations and increasingly became my most important mode of expression. When everything in my life was stuck in a holding pattern, I was endlessly inspired to write (on some level, it’s frustrating how connected writing is to bouts of depression). Eventually, I made it through the wilderness. My problems remained unsolved, but my outlook on life improved enough to move on. I grew up, got married, and started my life.
But now, I find that those distressing signals from my past are manifesting once again.
Punishment as Motivation
The last video game that I made a concerted effort to finish was The Witcher 3. I was on a short holiday break from work and went all-in on it, sinking hours into the RPG epic. The Witcher 3 is one of my favorite recent games because it rewarded the amount of time I put into it. When I wanted to push through toward the end, it allowed me to ignore the unimportant stuff and move on with little restriction. When I wanted to take my time and explore the vast world, I was given fascinating side quests with satisfying payoffs.
But I never finished it. Some 50 hours of game time and probably only a few hours away from the conclusion, I walked away.
I admit that I felt burned out on the game. Aging has diminished my ability and desire to push through the grind. But every week afterward, I told myself that I should go in and finish it. I enjoyed the game. I was invested in the story and wanted to know how my decisions would affect its conclusion. Eventually, I stopped pretending that I would come back. My last save file still shows a random date in December 2015.
To be clear, I don’t feel that I’m depressed anymore, certainly not clinically. My life is generally good. I’m happy with my marriage. I like where I live. I love my friends. But despite all of the great things in my life, I often feel a strange, indescribable malaise. An unknowable obstacle that casts a shadow on all of the bright things in my life.
In subsequent attempts at gaming after I set aside The Witcher 3, I usually couldn’t play more than 10 or 15 hours, all abandoned without a real reason. Fallout 4, Mass Effect 3, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Warlords of Draenor, Dragon Age: Inquisition. All solid games that I initially enjoyed and arbitrarily stopped playing. After wasting $60 on a few new games, I got a sense for my lacking commitment and decided that I wouldn’t pay for any games at full price anymore. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem…
I tried online multiplayer games that don’t require any long-term commitment to enjoy, like Overwatch and Hearthstone. I played regularly with a group of friends — the ideal situation to enjoy an online game. And still, inevitably, I abandoned them all and, as a result, abandoned my time with my friends.
On some level, I am punishing myself. Maybe as a subconscious or conscious motivation tool to rid myself of the malaise. But because of my inability to do so, or more worrying, inability to understand how to fix it, I have only rid myself of a pastime I've enjoyed since I was 6 years old.
Facing Problems I Don’t Know How to Solve
I say the malaise is indescribable because the feeling is hard to pin down. It is a mix of low-grade anxiety, stress, and sadness. Like the cosmic microwave background radiation present throughout the universe, it is detectable but only serves as evidence of larger goings-on.
I kind of know what the source is. I’m worried about my career, or rather worried that I’ll never get there. I want to be a successful writer, journalistic-ally or otherwise. But as I get older, I feel the minutes flying by. I worry that I’m too late, and whatever opportunities I had in the past have passed me by.
I never cared much about hitting my 30's in any vain sense. Physically I feel more or less the same as I did at 18. In fact, I’m mostly happy with the changes that came with time — more confidence, less excitability, less time wasted trying to fit in, more time dedicated to creating a life for my wife and me.
My favorite part of most video games has always been the start. In most modern RPG’s carefully designing a character to my specifications is a meticulous, exciting, sometimes hours-long experience. I can choose backstories, decide whether to be good or evil, make sure they look like a healthy athletic version of me and come up with a clever name. It builds up excitement for the rest of the game in anticipation of the adventures I was sure to have.
Similarly, in real life, I feel like I am at the beginning of that journey. But it’s taken a while for me to focus on it. I wasted a lot of time in my twenties thinking about the things I didn’t have or wanted, or the things I didn’t know how to get and wanted, feeling the anticipation of the adventure without ever actually accepting my first quest. I’m only just now entering the doing stage of my play-through. I have a writing job right now. But it’s not the right one, and that only heightens my fear that I’m just spinning my wheels.
I know I am far behind my peers. Every day I run through job listings while also running through the list of my deficiencies. This job is entry-level, or worse, an internship — I’m too old. This job requires 5–7 years of experience, and I don’t have the resume to even think about it. This job is based in New York. This job is based in San Francisco, etc. There was a time when I would have dropped everything to see if I could make it but now, with a wife and responsibilities — and in-laws — uprooting my life in Southern California seems like a harder sell. I have to ask myself, what is this all in service of? My slowly fading dream of becoming good enough to get satisfaction and not just a paycheck for my work.
Like my video game habits, I worry that at some point, my only choice will be to abandon this dream and never revisit it. That’s the true source of the malaise. It’s not that I’m stressed out that I haven’t made it yet. I’m worried that someday soon, I won’t have any choice but to give it all up for good.
I find myself just making excuses of why I can’t or shouldn’t or won’t go on. Racking my brain for answers that continually aren’t there, instead of just changing my thinking. That’s another trait I’m repeating from my youthful depression. Trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole. I kept wanting to be something that I wasn’t and not figuring out who I actually was. My unhappiness was a symptom of my stubbornness.
I once told a college professor that someday I wanted to be a novelist. But ever since then, I've only sporadically written fiction rather than commit to an attempt. I meant what I said. Deep in my heart of hearts, it was what I wanted for my life. But I didn’t believe in myself enough to try.
The other day I started a new save file on The Witcher 3. I had some free time over the holidays again, and I got the itch to play a video game. Rather than waste 20 or 30 bucks, I decided this time that I would play a game that I knew I liked but had sufficiently forgotten so that it would feel new again. I didn’t want to touch the old save file, still holding out hope that I would eventually finish come back and finish it. I had a great time. I played it for a few hours and set it aside. But at this point, I haven’t played for more than a week.
I don’t know if I will break this cycle and get back to playing video games. If I wait for the perfect moment to advance my fledgling career, it may never come, and that’s a hard thing to accept. As sad as it is, I can deal with losing video games. But if I never pick up the controller again, I hope that it is in service of something else that really matters.
My life, happiness, and success are not tied to how I choose to spend my free time. What worries me is everything else.