Anxiety and gaming: how do they go hand-in-hand, and how does one amplify the other?

Anxiety and gaming: How I learned to stop worrying and love the game

Hot take: video games are fun. Hotter take: even super fun things can bring out the very worst in you. Brian McDonald examines the effect that gaming had on his anxiety – and vice versa.

There’s a point at which any game, for all narrative and enjoyment purposes, is over and done with. You’ve completed the story and side quests, seen some cool stuff, and hopefully enjoyed the experience. You’re ready to put it aside. But you see that percentage bar, telling you that there’s another 10, 20, 30% of achievements to obtain. You don’t want to feel short-changed, or maybe you want to show how much you loved this game by finishing everything; these are reasonable feelings, and what motivates most of us to hunt for those trophies. But as you start to really grind it out for some of these achievements, you have to question why you’re really doing it.

Because at this point, it’s not about the trophy, which is just a tiny graphical representation of bragging rights that’s going to pop up in the corner of your screen. It’s about you. You, the game that you stopped enjoying about four hours ago, and your irrepressible need to finish it. So you push on further, and you grow to hate what you’re doing. Hate the game, hate the trophy, hate yourself.

So why, the everloving fuck, are you doing it? Well, that’s the problem; sometimes, you just can’t help it.

OGame and the beginning

My first experience with these feelings came from OGame. Not a particularly popular or well known MMO, they call it a “browser-based, money-management and space-war themed massively multiplayer online browser game”. OGame was basically a fancy spreadsheet with some not-so-fancy images of spaceships and planets and lasers and all kinds of sci-fi shenanigans. This was done in incredibly boring ways, with Metal and Crystal resources building up over time, so you could upgrade your Metal and Crystal mining, so you could get more Metal and Crystal, so you could upgrade your… you get the point, yeah?

You’d steal, swindle, strategise, and sabotage, all to be the king, queen, or non-gendered monarch of your system. The goal was to grow your little empire, and be the baddest baddie in that particular universe.

The browser-based game OGame, revolves around space exploration and conquer.

Sounds stressful, right? It was. But it was also pretty fun, for a while.

That goal of growth and expansion, when every upgrade was just a little bit further away, just a tiny but more playtime, ate up my life. I don’t like the person I was when back then. I was tense, snappy, and getting up at 4am to send my fleet to safety before going back to bed. This affected my relationships, uni, and health. I was worrying about my fleet instead of my exams. I felt physically unwell on the bus to college because I was worried I wouldn’t get in in time to save my resources; a sensation, by the way, that ingrained so deep into me that I was almost guaranteed to feel nauseous every time I got public transport until earlier this year.

In short: I was in a pretty bad place.

About 18 months in, my clan experienced a hostile takeover. One member, who will remain nameless, took advantage of a loophole in the clan management system. He booted us all, scattering our super-edgily named members to the wind, and creating a massive issue in the status quo.

This, dear reader, was stressful.

For a couple of weeks a few of us scrambled to get things back in order, contacting old members and trying to wrest back control from our cyber criminal. Then, as I was going away with my family for a couple of weeks, I turned on vacation mode, and realised for the first time that I really didn’t have to do any of this.

First time I went back to that site was today, to try and get a screenshot. The feeling I got when I saw that homepage reminded me why, eight years later, I still haven’t turned it back on.

Looking back, I can see that OGame sowed the seeds for some bad stuff down the line. And I don’t blame developer Gameforge or OGame for any of that. But this, as is often said by hack writers building up suspense, was only the beginning.

Trophy hunting

Gamers have always benchmarked against other gamers. How many combos could you do in Tekken, who’s your strongest Pokemon, how many teddy bears can you collect in Fallout; all of these and more are cool, but ultimately pointless, little goalposts that we use to compare with our friends and rivals.

Then official Achievements (Xbox, Steam) and Trophies (Playstation) came in and legitimised this. Don’t get me wrong, I like that they exist, but they do often royally fuck up a game. If you’re already dealing with issues around completionist stress, perfectionism, and future planning, they are not helpful.

The dreaded, and largely useless, crossbow from The Witcher 3.

Take one of my favourite games, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Most of this game is a goddamn masterpiece, and even the trophies seem reasonable; kill this, go there, craft that, all the usual benchmarks. One trophy, however, will be memorable to anyone to went for the Platinum: Master Marksman. You need to “Kill 50 human and nonhuman opponents by striking them in the head with a crossbow bolt.”

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Wrong. The crossbow in The Witcher 3 is a weapon that literally (literally) no one ever used except as an auto aim stunlock, and even that was rare. I spent about three hours reloading a specific checkpoint to do this, six bandits at a time, over and over and over again.

Was this fun? No.

I didn’t enjoy a second of that experience, between loading screens and actively playing in a way that didn’t fit my idea of what made TW3 fun, which was flailing around wildly with a sword and setting jerks on fire. And the consequence? I still love that game, but I don’t want to play it anymore. Going for that Platinum utterly destroyed my will to play one of my favourite games.

But I’d be remiss to just blame trophies, because it’s not like there wasn’t another issue lurking in the background. I just didn’t know it was there yet.

Anxiety

Most people think of anxiety as just plain stress. Worried about bills, work, all that. Hey, we all get that. Unfortunately, chronic anxiety takes this idea and runs with it. While you still worry about normal things, like project deadlines and missing the bus, you also worry about less normal things, like listening to songs with the word fire in them in case your house burns down, or being seen as a fake for not 100% completing a video game.

If these sound like weirdly specific examples, it’s because they are, and both have happened to me in the last year.

In January, just before I finally got diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I left work at ten minutes past nine on a Wednesday morning because one of my house alarm sensor battery had died. I wasn’t worried about having anything stolen. No I was worried that if someone broke in, my sick cat, who is perfectly capable of looking after herself, would get out.

That, my friends, is not a reasonable reaction.

Take that same way of thinking into video games, and a relaxing hobby becomes a trap. I was restarting missions in Deus Ex after three minutes because I wanted to get the hidden achievements, even though that wasn’t how I wanted to actually play the game. I used to look up roadmaps for each game I wanted, to see how difficult it would be for me to Platinum it, and would sometimes avoid a game because of it. I put off finishing 2013’s Tomb Raider for 4 years because I knew I wouldn’t get the multiplayer trophy. To repeat, I actively didn’t play a game I wanted to play because of unachievable trophies.

Luckily, people close to me realised that there was something up, and convinced me to go and talk to the doctor. I walked out of that office with a prescription that has literally changed my life. After a week of constant nausea as I got used to my new meds (not the worst side-effect that could’ve happened, to be fair), I started to see things differently. I wasn’t agonising over every word I wrote in work, so I got stuff done faster. I went to the local shop and didn’t deadbolt the door, or worry about it constantly.

My moment of realisation was listening to Dragonforce’s ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ on the train and not thinking my home was going to spontaneously go up in flames. Sure, I wish it had been a less embarrassing song to have an epiphany to, but I’ll take it.

I also finally played Tomb Raider, which was pretty great.

It’s hard to tell yourself, when you’re in a spiral of absolute terror, that you’re stressing about something completely pointless. You know it rationally, but your body simply doesn’t listen. I’m just glad someone did. 

Tomb Raider was one of the smash hits of the 2013 year in gaming.

The Way Forward

If you’re here looking for answers or tips on how to overcome your own issues, I’m not able to answer them. I didn’t hack my brain into something resembling normality again; I went on chemistry-altering medication to fix my thoughts.

Actually, I guess that kinda is the same thing.

Here’s the thing, and something that often seems counter to the wider gaming community; you do not need to prove your love of anything to anyone. You owe nobody anything, especially at the expense of your own enjoyment.

Sure, people have experienced gaming addiction a helluva lot worse than me, but that doesn’t change that I’ve seen people talking about how they had to stop playing No Man’s Sky because they were getting sucked in to repetition. Hell, there’s a guy on a forum I frequent who just hit 10,000 trophies on PlayStation, and Jesus Christ man, blink twice if you need help.

What, besides a wonderful chemical intervention, has helped me? Well, oddly enough, the Nintendo Switch has been a big deal, simply because it doesn’t have achievements. I can play Breath of the Wild, or Darkest Dungeon, or Mini Metro, whatever, without worrying that i’m playing it wrong. That, to someone who used to obsess over every little thing, is incredible.

The supremely chill The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn’t judge how you play – and doesn’t measure your play with achievements or trophies.

I’ve also started looking at games differently. I haven’t Platinumed a game all year, and I’m happier for doing so. When playing Tomb Raider, I knew there were trophies I’d never get, collectibles I didn’t want to find, a multiplayer I’d never touch. And I didn’t care. I played that game for the story and the enjoyment, not for a couple hundred pixels on my PSN account. That is what I feel games should be: fun.

The closest I’ve come recently is Spider-Man, which I loved, and am sitting on 78% for. And sure, I could go back and finish off the crime stopping and whatever else that would unlock that little icon in the top left, but I won’t, because I don’t want to. I might when DLC comes out and there’s more to do, but I don’t want to remember Spider-Man as the game that dragged me back to self-destructive behaviors. I’m happy with what I got from that game, and don’t need to give it any more.

Instead, I went back to For Honor, which I haven’t played in ages and never finished the campaign on. I had a good time.

Then and now

Why am I talking about any of this? Well, because as I looked at that list of unachieved Spider-Man trophies and pictured forcing myself back into that game, I caught myself. I’m done. And I want to tell others that that’s an option because I’m loving games more than I have in years.

Now, I look at my Platinum trophies and think about games I loved that I ruined for myself. I spent about a week too long with FarCry 3, and about 6 hours too long with Infamous: Second Son. I never want to play either of them again, and I LOVED them. I know that other people feel this way, and I want to let you know that you’re not alone.

I’m the first to admit that my own story isn’t particularly dark; I didn’t spend a huge amount of money, didn’t destroy anything permanently, and I got help before things really got out of hand. But that’s not everyone, and we simply don’t talk about these issues enough. Media today sensationalises people who can’t stop playing StarCraft or Fortnite, but the people who stay up until 3am to track down one last doll in DOOM so that the trophy will pop and they can finally feel like they’ve finished the game? They’re hidden among us, and might not even realise that that’s not how they should feel. I didn’t.

I love games, and I don’t want people to mess up their hobby over nothing. And I love mental health, and want to reinforce that anxiety is a nightmare. But it’s one you can wake up from.

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