I’m a very anxious person. I have a habit of flicking through every single possible outcome in my head like a bored channel surfer, before plucking out the worst one and fixating on it until I’m convinced that’s what’s going to happen.
My last major episode of anxiety, back in November last year, was one of the worst I can remember. I could barely clear my brain fog enough to get through my tube travel panic, let alone do any actual work. I found myself in a cycle of withdrawal, hopelessness, and self-doubt.
Then I picked up my console controller. I’m a hardcore gamer. There’s usually nothing I love more than getting stuck into the latest Tomb Raider game, but that day I just couldn’t face anything. Until I found Firewatch. For those not aware of this little masterpiece from the San Francisco games studio Campo Santo, Firewatch is a first person walk-em-up, where you play a fire lookout called Henry in a beautiful American forest.
Henry is a recovering alcoholic whose wife has early-onset dementia. So far, it might not sound like a cure for mental health issues. But it is one of the greatest mystery adventures I’ve ever played in my life. I laughed; I cried; I jumped in fear and pumped the air with jubilation.
I played Firewatch straight through, for five hours. By the end of those five hours, I’d decided to get professional help — something I’d previously been avoiding.
Then I started wondering how Firewatch had helped me where so much else had failed. My anxiety, like a lot of people’s, revolves around control. I fear any situation that I can’t be sure won’t end up going horribly wrong. Ironically, though, anxiety takes away your agency. It holds you captive. Anything you want to do, anxiety convinces you that you can’t: going to a party will mean you’ll embarrass yourself, seeing your friends will make them hate you, working will simply prove you’re a failure.
Firewatch is set almost entirely outdoors. I spent hours walking in the virtual forest, soaking up nature around me, paying attention to every detail in order to solve the puzzles I was challenged with. And I found myself forgetting about everything else. Working through the problems the game threw at me, I realised that, for the first time in a long time, I was approaching something from a positive, solvable perspective.
As I was to learn in therapy a week or so later, that’s the purest essence of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT, in a nutshell, is a tried and tested form of talking therapy, designed to change your thought patterns, and equip you with coping mechanisms to help you avoid, or endure, anxiety attacks.
Using video games as a form of mental health therapy isn’t actually a new idea. According to author Jane McGonigal, brain scans have shown that gaming stimulates two pretty important regions of the brain: one “associated with motivation and goal-orientation” and one “associated with learning and memory”.
Basically, McGonigal found that gaming worked by first setting up a challenge, a quest line to be tackled, and then rewarding you for completing them. For anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety, where every day tasks seem insurmountable and the only reward at the end of the path is another day living with your mental health issue, a fantasy world where plotlines are resolved is a pretty easy sell.
Anxiety makes you think your goals are unachievable even before you’ve set them, that projects you’re halfway through are doomed to fail, and that all your past achievements are just that, in the past, never to be repeated.
Gaming, with its preset quest lines and inbuilt reward system, seems like a pretty decent way to re-engage, reboot, and regain your sense of self.
Self-medicating with games can also be a dangerous path to go down. If you play games with an ‘escapist’ mindset — that is, to ignore your problems, to block unpleasant emotions, or to avoid confronting stressful situations — you’re more likely to suffer some of the negative effects that many studies have found associated with playing games, like anxiety, depression, addiction, or social isolation.
My own anxiety has always become worse when I’ve given into it: when I didn’t attend that potentially career-defining meeting, or I’ve missed that night out with old friends. My withdrawal, and my unwillingness to get outside my comfort zone, caused the anxiety to stack until I was cowering beneath my bedsheets, unable to face my morning commute.
But playing Firewatch gave me the breathing space to regain my objectivity. It allowed me to see that my problems were surmountable. Video games can’t fix you — for that, you’ll need to level up — but they’re not necessarily the one-way ticket to nowhere that people often assume.