I’m shit at meditation. A few times a year I’ll get back into the habit, be grateful I invested in that Headspace subscription and note how much better I feel having it as a daily practice. Inevitably, the routine will fade and when I’m frustrated, angry or stressed, I’ll revert to my favorite form of self-care: murdering digital baddies.
I’ll plop on my couch and boot up whatever game I’m playing, hungry for blood sprays, for bodies to drop, for that feeling of power you get when your axe/shotgun shells/arrows rip through someone else.
Yes, some women like violent video games, too.
Rather than sitting with my feelings, I’ll do my best to overshadow them. Initially, the shooters work as a relieving escape, but those few hours of distraction function only as a wet Band-Aid over something festering. After a few hours, I emerge a melty puddle, no better off than when I started.
Look, humans are crap at self-care. If we weren’t, Rich Roll and Oprah wouldn’t have their empires. Killing NPCs is decidedly not meditative, but it makes me feel temporarily capable and in control of my universe. When you’re fragile, that fleeting sense of domination can be everything, and in the moment it’s certainly the easier choice than going for a run or quietly observing your thoughts for 10 minutes.
Mindfulness seemed like it would always be at arm’s reach for me, second fiddle to more hedonistic stopgaps. Then I met PUBG.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, lovingly referred to as PUBG (pronounced pub-gee), is a Battle Royale-style multiplayer shooter in which a hundred-ish players parachute onto an abandoned island scattered with derelict cities and suburbs. To be the last person standing, you need not only to survive, but also to stay within an ever-shrinking blue circle meant to force engagement. Don’t ask what the narrative justifications are for why players are killing each other, what this island is or why the blue circle is closing in. They don’t exist.
PUBG is a giant murder playground that supports a wide variety of play styles. I have friends who are there to go HAM, running through Mylta or Pochinki in their underwear with nothing but a pan and a P18C, trolling enemies over voice chat. Despite my best efforts, I can’t be that guy. If we’re being honest, I’m a terrible shot but also an overachiever. When I play, I play to win. So instead, I’ve become the gal who hides in a bathtub for half a match, waiting for you to open the door so I can blast your face off with my pump-action and steal your gear. It’s beyond boring to spectate, but invigorating to execute (pun intended).
(I’m down for the underwear-only choice though. I’m convinced it ups the fear factor.)
After playing for a month or so, I discovered that after well-fought matches I was calm, clear-headed and ready to get back to work. PUBG wasn’t functioning as an emotional distraction, but as a mental palate cleanser. It was so effective that I started playing during lunch so as not to carry morning stresses into afternoon meetings (or at least, that’s how I’ve justified my midday rounds.)
By playing cautiously, I’m forced to sit mindfully. I have to gauge the direction of shots fired, stare out at a still vista and study the floorboards creaking under the weight of an unsuspecting enemy exploring my house. I don’t think about my deadlines, or rehash conversations I regret. With each “chicken dinner” (win) I nab, I’m rewarded for being present. If I die early, often it’s because I wasn’t focused on the world around my avatar.
The permadeath is important. When you die in PUBG, you don’t get to return to your same match. You’re kicked back to the lobby, forced to loiter as another group of a hundred players is assembled. Due to the inherent randomness of the game, you can’t be guaranteed each new round that you’ll find your preferred guns, or that a car will spawn along your route. Every decision you make feels vital.
As good or even better, there is no leveling up. Call of Duty: WWII came out this year on a Thursday. I downloaded it that Saturday. Before I could even get my feet wet in multiplayer, there were dudes who’d prestiged. The game made great efforts to give me a sense of achievement, but I felt absolutely out of my depths in matches. Unless I was willing to spend hours upon hours getting my ass handed to me while I leveled up, I would remain outpaced by players with better weapons.
When I’m looking for stress relief, I’m not going to give my time to a game that makes me feel powerless. Superficial badges can’t erase an unrelenting sense of impotence. It’s like being given a flimsy lollipop after a brutal injection: The sugar won’t distract you from your throbbing arm. When I’m playing Call of Duty nowadays, I’m hiding in single-player, where my sense of improvement and accomplishment aren’t mitigated every 20 seconds by a respawn screen.
In PUBG, I’ve never felt at a disadvantage. Players are dropped in with only the clothes on their backs (if they choose to wear clothes at all — #undies4fear). From there on out, their destiny is in their hands. The only asset serious players have over newbies is a knowledge of the map — where cars or better weapons tend to spawn, the layouts of buildings, etc. But it’s very easy and common for beginner players to make it to the top 20 on cautiousness and a little luck. From that point on, it’s about learning how to play smart.
Success isn’t binary, either. Because only one player wins each round, death is almost inevitable. Players then are able to define for themselves what success is — making it to the top 50, top 20; getting three kills, five kills. More often than not, you’re competing against your past performances rather than the other players in your match. That reframing of success is inherently healthier, and it allows even the most casual player to feel a sense of achievement after a few rounds.
It’s the rare game that can make you feel like you’re walking away better off than when you started. Were the creators of PUBG aiming (sorry) to make a psychologically beneficial shooter? Probably not, but I’m grateful for how it’s helped me. If you also pursue violent video games as a stress reliever, give PUBG a try. You may get more peace than you bargained for.
And, if while playing, you see a mostly nude blond gal running into a house, check the bathroom first.
Halley Gross has written for several television shows, including HBO’s Westworld and the upcoming Amazon series Too Old to Die Young. She’s also currently co-writing The Last of Us Part 2.