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Releasing the Grip of Grief with Games

Gaming can be used to release us from the grip of mental health struggles, particularly grief.

I don’t like the hyperbole of saying that videogames saved my life, but it tracks true. Nowadays so many people say similar; ‘this song saved my life’, ‘this book rescued me from the edge’. Videogames did a lot for keeping me alive in a very dark period of my life. If it wasn’t for games, and to a lesser extent, writing about them, there’s a strong chance I wouldn’t be sitting here now, telling this story about how I used gaming to deal with the grief of bereavement. 

In 2007, my three-year old daughter Amelia was a passenger in a road traffic accident. The car was T-Boned on her side of the vehicle. Amelia suffered severe brain damage, was rushed from Essex to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, where she spent five days in intensive care, had two bouts of brain surgery and several blood transfusions. She died on February 8th 2007 after it was revealed she was brain dead. We removed life support. My world collapsed. Everything went dark.

The following months, probably years, were spent in a trance. I wasn’t sure what I needed to do, or even what I wanted to do. I reached out to my gaming buddies I’d met online, looking for a distraction; we played Crackdown and Rainbow Six: Las Vegas on Xbox 360. I wasn’t finding joy anymore though. Perfect runs through Terrorist mode of Rainbow Six didn’t please me, the beta of Halo 3 brought a small amount of fun to my post-tragedy life, but I was struggling to connect with the hobby I started twenty years previously on an Atari 2600.

The Grip of Grief

Grief feels different for everyone; for some it can feel like the loneliness of being the last person at a party; for others, it’s an overwhelming sadness that washes over them like waves of a frigid ocean. However it’s experienced, grief is relentless, it never seems to let go. It does occasionally relax its grip, allowing for some light to get through, as fleeting as it might be. In those moments I felt an overwhelming guilt that I could feel hope, which triggered another spiral.

I spent several years in this state, lacking any form of motivation or ‘want’, drifting from game to game, finishing them and feeling no sense of accomplishment. My days were spent in a mire of tiredness, guilt, shame and mostly, anger. My world felt empty despite having my wife and second daughter at my side. 

The death of Amelia gave me a sensation of lost control. As a parent, we feel we must protect our children from anything and everything. I couldn’t prevent the accident that took her life, I couldn’t save her in the moment she needed me the most, I couldn’t control my emotions any longer. The only control I had was in removing her life support and I didn’t want that. Loss of control is part of being human, but I needed, desperately, to reinstate my grip on it.

Isaac’s Eternal Journey

In 2011, a game came along that stole me away from my grief. A game played in bitesize chunks, it didn’t require too much of me.  It’s a game that has now been in my (almost) daily rotation for those eleven years, I’ve grown with it, it made me fall in love with the roguelike genre, it gave me back my sense of control. That game is The Binding of Isaac.

Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike played from a top-down view. With a slight edge of Robotron, players can shoot in cardinal directions while exploring separated rooms where groups of enemies await. Edmund’s major inspiration for Isaac was The Legend of Zelda, though his masterpiece is not at all family friendly.

I think I discovered The Binding of Isaac through YouTube. It first appealed for juvenile reasons, the game is filled with gore, scatological imagery and debased toilet humour. Beneath this is a deep and resonant story of religious indoctrination and the control religions have over people, as well as the human struggle with our minds. Over the years, McMillen has expanded The Binding of Isaac several times, but Isaac’s story has remained the same; to escape his murderous mother who believes Isaac is a danger, an evil.

In order to escape, Isaac must traverse several ‘worlds’ battling enemies and large bosses who resemble religious and parental tropes. In order to do this, Isaac collects items to change his base stats, attacks and abilities. Items synergise with each other creating powerful combinations. Over time you learn which combos bestow the most damage, you learn which items effectively ‘break the game’ open by min-maxing every room, every enemy, every item drop. It rewards the player by handing them full control over their fate.

Controlling Destiny

This aspect of control appears in all roguelikes, the majority of titles require the player craft their character builds, paying attention to the smallest upgrades and details to gain enough strength to battle demons and monsters. Ultimately, over the years, these games – Enter the Gungeon, Dead Cells, Spelunky, Hades, Nuclear Throne – have given me a psuedo-control over death.

To some extent, all videogames give us this control. Even playing Mario as a kid we were controlling the life and death of our hero and the enemies around them. But with a roguelike, there is rarely a safety net of ‘lives and continues’, there’s always a sense of finality, because often death relinquishes all progress made on that attempt at the game. Besting death in a roguelike is about more than success, it’s about retaining our growth, our abilities and our progression.

For me, during a time of desperate fragility, I needed to find solace and rediscover my sense of self. I could do that via these games, by crafting a character, slowing my play style and taking my time. They each allowed me to take calculated risks and create controlled situations because the finality of death had visited me, leaving me empty – progress could be lost with one missed shot, one wrong move, one blindsided action.

If we look at Spelunky, a game about discovering treasures untold in a series of worlds, we find a game hell-bent on killing us. Sure, the hero can take a certain amount of hits from middling enemies before dying, but that one bad jump could land you on spikes which kill you instantly. All that time, that care, robbed from you. Mastering this, taking control of the character’s fate, is in some ways empowering.

This sensation stepped up once I started dabbling with FromSoftware’s SoulsBorne games, arguably the pinnacle of roguelikes, though they’re often classed as adventure games. These titles, when broken down into their constituent parts, asked more of me as a player. My demons were bigger, more dangerous, my life more fragile. There was more on the line. A SoulsBorne game feels more like Spelunky; you can get peppered with small hits, but a one-hit kill is always around the next corner.

Repeat After Me

Roguelike games offer more than an adjustment of control. After devoting thousands of hours to these games, repetition becomes a large factor in the gameplay loop. Every journey starts out the same way, each try becomes another attempt at beating the same situation. Repetition is a powerful tool to those in desperate need when struggling with grief and anxiety. A recent study by Tel Aviv University states this on repetition, “people often act in these ways because they help increase a person’s belief that they are managing a situation that is otherwise out of their hands.”

Discussing the power of repetition, Dr. Jill Owen, a chartered psychologist from The British Psychological Society, says this, “repetitive behaviour and rituals can be very effective in increasing focus and reducing stress”. Over the years, the discussion points of videogames and their impact on mental health has begun to change. In the 2000s we saw many up in arms on the damage these games did, now we realise these were knee-jerk reactions to an emerging technology becoming mainstream.

Videogames offer us solace, they offer us peace when it feels like the world is against us. More than that, they offer us a different view, through first-hand experience or playing a role. They allow us failure at little to no cost; they can help build an emotional resilience; games create a sense of community and they can aid in rebuilding a life slowly, step by step, item by item.

Nowadays gaming is celebrated for having a positive effect on our mental health. Once society began to look past the violence which dominated the 2000s and developers began exploring our own psyches, games took on a new role. Psychologist Roy Sugarman explores the aid of videogames in those dealing with grief with Wired where he says, “Games put you in a metaphoric world where you can express a range of stuff honestly, where you can express grief.”

This is it, but What if?

I still gravitate towards roguelikes above all genres. Mostly because I still feel lost a lot of the time. My world is still fragile, the cracks still show. Sometimes I still need that sensation of organised chaos; that possible control over the game. The Binding of Isaac is still the answer I give when someone asks “what’s your favourite game?” I give this answer because it did save me in some way. It turned the lights back on, helped me rebuild my shattered world. Plus, it’s simply a masterpiece of game design.

Of course, over the years, my passion for gaming came back. I rediscovered what it was that made me fall in love with games in the first place – a sense of belonging and escapism. Whether it’s in a cyberpunk strategy, a World War shooter, a colourful battle royale, a mobile idle clicker or a roguelike, my enjoyment returned, along with some of that lost control.

In the same year I discovered Isaac, I also played Minecraft for the first time and used the creative side of the game to express myself, to be more mindful and to relax the thoughts of my busy and broken brain. Minecraft also offers that aspect of control; the deliberate placing of blocks, building shelter from the darkness, equipping your character with the means to survive.

Now I revel in the lack of control some games give, because it reminds me that life is not designed to be controlled. That fate, if you believe in it, cannot be changed or altered. In some ways, failing in videogames has begun to have more impact, because it reconnects me with the fact that life is filled with ‘what if?’ – that life can change in an instant and while that may be out of our control, it doesn’t mean we can’t wrestle it back.

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