There is a stereotype that exists that all gamers are isolated, lonely and depressed. Too often therapists just assume that, almost to treating gaming as a symptom of depression if not addiction. I have written at length about this elsewhere, but today I wanted to address the suboptimal treatment that can come from assuming gamers are not lonely, isolated or depressed. I hope that this post will also be of benefit to gamers as well.
The 21st century video game is inherently social. In fact, the recent boom we are seeing as Facebook, Google+ and other social media networks rush to integrate gaming into their platforms stems from the recognition that video games can be very powerful media of connection and engagement.
This isn’t really new, even Atari’s Pong had two-player mode. And not all games are multiplayer, but multiplayer has become more and more predominant and accepted in mainstream culture. But this is all in a way of saying that video games are social media, and in many ways, group activities. Halo night is not unlike poker night, raiding takes place in real time with people talking with each other, and being in a guild can be a deep and abiding group membership that lasts for years.
Now when you are sitting with a patient, one of the things you often do is assess for engagement. Do they still go to poker night? Are they attending AA meetings? Have they been enjoying the touch football group they joined last month? And if they reply in the negative that should set off some alarms, or at least invite curiousity as to what’s changed. Isolation is a key component of depression, both as a symptom but also as a precipitant and cause of it. It’s why we often work with patients to become involved in community in some way.
Unfortunately, if therapists don’t see gaming as a community activity, they may miss early signs of isolation and depression. They’re not spending as much time “on the computer,” so what? Isn’t that a good thing?
No, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
I hope gamers will read and weigh in on this, but here’s my take. Especially in multiplayer games, changes in enjoyment or activity can be a sign of emotional upset. You’re just not getting the same sense of enjoyment from the game, or your guild. People seem less connected in-world, more irritable, and Ventrilo has more arguments or awkward silences. Or maybe people are rage-quitting more often, or a clique has formed and you aren’t in it. Sometimes, often, guilds dissolve or reconstitute over this, and the player feels disillusioned. And when this happens the gamer can turn to the gaming stigma from the “real” world and say, “these weren’t real relationships, they weren’t important.”
One thing that can happen is that gamers gquit (guild quit) at this point, and decide to do solo questing. If there is a new patch or content they may enjoy this, or going over the old familiar instances at a higher level to farm may be fun. But suddenly the game isn’t “fun” any more, and a feeling of numbness and ennui settles on the player.
At this point the simplest and most fundamentalist attitude is to blame the game, or oneself as “addicted,” but I think in many cases the truth is more complicated. Detached from her in-game community the gamer may begin to feel isolated, bereft and yes, depressed, just like many of us are when we lose a social outlet. But therapists and gamers may have a harder time catching it than if the social activity is one more socially sanctioned, like touch football or going to church.
Video games are social media and they can meet many social needs. If you are a gamer and the above description fits you, ask yourself if maybe the problem is a social or psychological one. Could your lack of interest in video games be a sign of a lack of interest in pleasurable activities? Could your isolation be what’s causing the game to be less fun? Is it time to consider risking the effort of joining a new guild, transferring to a server that seems more friendly, or help noobs level up and begin a chat or two? I do not think video games (or any technology for that matter) is inherently bad, but I do think our personal issues and emotional concerns can play out in any arena, and that includes the game world.
So if you’re a therapist and you’ve been trying to be gamer-affirmative, don’t take a naive approach. Don’t assume that things are hunky-dory in the player’s gaming, ask them about it. Assess their in-world activities and level of enjoyment just as you would scrutinize their other group activities. And be prepared to understand that decreased enjoyment and participation in their games of choice may actually be a sign of increased depression.
All of this is not to say that there is something wrong with people who play solo video games or even solo in multiplayer worlds. That would be like saying that reading a book is pathological unless you read it in the library among others or join a book discussion group. What I am saying is that video games are not, should not be exempt from our scrutiny, and that a gamer-affirmative therapist will explore these topics with their patients. And patients should report changes in their gaming experience just like they should any other changes that impact they’re mood and sociability.[Can’t find a gamer-affirmative therapist? I may be able to refer you to one in your area, and I also do online therapy with gamers all over the world. More info and rates can be found here.]
P.S. Those of you who read regularly may have noticed that I took the last 2 weeks off. I was on vacation and writing my book. It’s now out on Amazon and other eBook stores for the scandalously low price of $2.99, so go buy it! 🙂