People play video games for a variety of reasons. Some play for enjoyment. Others for competition. I play to escape.
For the last few weeks I’ve been unable to leave the house. This isn’t anything new for me; the thought of being in public has been a huge fear for years, ever since I started experiencing panic attacks in my late teens. I still find it nearly impossible to pass over the threshold of my front door; it’s as if I’m being blocked by some kind of invisible wall. The name of my condition is agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is a panic disorder involving the fear of any situation where escape may be difficult, although it’s often mischaracterized in pop culture as a general fear of going outside. It affects roughly 2 in every 100 people in the UK, and usually begins between the ages of 18 and 35.
“People with agoraphobia often have a hard time feeling safe in any public place, especially where crowds gather,” the Mayo Clinic states. “You may feel that you need a companion, such as a relative or friend, to go with you to public places. The fears can be so overwhelming that you may feel unable to leave your home.”
My agoraphobia manifests itself in the fear of being alone outside, visiting crowded places and taking public transportation. As a result, I tend to steer clear of these types of circumstances to the detriment of my personal life.
That’s not to say I haven’t sought treatment in the past. I’ve previously been diagnosed by a doctor with generalized anxiety disorder and depression and I was recommended medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. I turned down the latter, as I mistakenly believed the medication to be sufficient. It is not.
Video games have been an amazing help
I’ve tried all manner of activities to try and cope with the symptoms of my agoraphobia. This has included exercising, playing music and watching mindfulness videos on YouTube.
Video games, however, have proven to be the most effective tool so far. Not only do they grant me an escape from my monotonous surroundings and an excellent way to relieve stress, but they’ve helped me to develop a voice with which to express myself and reach out to others.
Role-playing adventures like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have become a place of respite for me, giving me the opportunity to travel beyond the same stale surroundings. Regardless of how well I’m feeling, I can scale tall mountains, hike through dark woods and explore deep and mysterious caverns.
I can also role-play new characters with more outlandish characteristics than my own. These pursuits have been indispensable for chipping away at the tedium and depression that I’ve come to associate with agoraphobia over the years.
This isn’t the only support that video games have provided. Mobile titles have also been incredibly useful for relieving panic attacks, on the rare occasion that I do successfully manage to leave the house.
Panic attacks, in my experience, usually come out nowhere. They begin with a tightening of the throat, then my heart rate shoots up and I find it difficult to breathe. A cold sweat covers my entire body, and I feel like I’m losing control. It’s at this point that I tend to look for an exit from the situation, fearing that something terrible may happen if I stay any longer. But this isn’t always an option.
Video games have become a lifeline in this situations. I’ve discovered that — by slowing down my breathing and just focusing on my mobile screen — I can control my thoughts instead of watching hopelessly as they spiral out of control.
Certain titles I’ve found well-suited for this purpose include Alto’s Adventure, an endless runner developed by the independent studio Snowman, and match-three tile games like Swap Sword. These are games into which I can jump quickly and begin playing with little wait, which suits the spontaneous way that anxiety that seems to announce itself.
Alto’s Adventure also has an optional zen mode that’s designed specifically to relax the player. This setting does away with the high scores and bonuses from the main game, in favor of creating a soothing downhill journey underscored by an ambient piano soundtrack.
The augmented reality game Pokémon Go is another mobile title that helped me deal with my phobia, at least for a small period of time. The focus on traveling outside of your comfort zone to catch and train Pokémon and hatch eggs helped me leave the house pretty much every day, both alone and accompanied by friends. I was excited by the prospect of what I might find, even at the end of my own road.
My enthusiasm didn’t last long. With no real way of interacting with other players and too much repetition in the types of Pokémon, it became difficult to motivate myself to go outside and play. I’m still cautiously optimistic that I’ll return to the game after a few more updates.
Writing about these games and others has also been beneficial for dealing with my agoraphobia. I’ve met lots of like-minded individuals who share an interest in gaming, and I’ve transcended many of the disorder’s boundaries by writing online.
Even at my lowest, when I can’t bring myself to go outside, I can go online and socialize with others or take part in discussions about what I’ve been playing or the games that excite me. I don’t feel excluded and — vitally — I feel like I have a voice that matters.
Gaming has helped me open up and join online communities, which give me deep connections to other people and help with the loneliness and depression that so often walk hand-in-hand with agoraphobia.
There are other times when video games aren’t much comfort to me, especially when I fear I may be putting off some breakthrough in favor of short bursts of entertainment and artificial rewards. It’s during these times that I feel I should be doing something, anything to improve my mental well-being and conquer my fears, as opposed to hiding away from the world.
Video games aren’t medicine, and they aren’t therapy. But I’ve learned that they do have the potential to keep me ticking into the next day and the day after that. They can ease conversation with strangers and they can help to foster important relationships. This is something that’s been valuable as I try to search for a more permanent solution. The important part for me is to make sure I take the next step.
Mental illness is personal and often different for everyone. It’s likely you have your own ideas about how video games and mental health intersect.
With augmented reality and the Nintendo Switch pushing social gaming, it’s my hope that video games will start help more people, like me, who are living with agoraphobia. A good way that they can do this is by offering new experiences that require people to go outside and meet others. Games that make human connection part of the goal are invaluable, even if they weren’t designed specifically for helping those with phobias.
The future, in many ways, is bright. And video games are part of the reason I’m able to say that.