When I finished playing Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, I began considering why I game so much. My gaming has especially picked up since I left my PhD program to write and moved across the country to where my husband is doing his graduate work. I’ve dedicated over 150 hours into Breath of the Wild. I’ve played the first 13 chapters of Path of Radiance at least four times. I’ve beaten New Super Mario Bros. U, played through most of the first Pikmin and Pokemon Sun, upgraded my house fully in Animal Crossing, played all the levels in Pokemon Snap, and seen the betrayal in Tales From The Borderlands. Among other games, of course, and not even counting all the board games and phone games I’ve been playing. (Check out my new favorite phone game if you haven’t already!) I’ve gamed more in the past few months than I have in years.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that gaming helps me manage my mental illness, giving me a distraction in the form of a task that I am competent enough to complete. It removes me from my world and puts me in another where I have control over my actions and, therefore, their consequences.
When my depression is so bad that I want to curl up and stare into space, I turn to gaming to distract me. It lets me feel productive without feeling like I’m expending mental energy I don’t have. Much of my anxiety deals with the passage of time, that it’s going too quickly or too slowly, and for whatever reason, gaming addresses that: rather than feeling like I’m wasting time, I feel like I’m getting things done. I’m playing something I’ve been meaning to play, garnering story inspirations in the back of my mind. (Seriously, I want to write a less-confusing Final Fantasy Tactics like tomorrow.) Story-based games are especially therapeutic to me in a similar way to reading. I am able to immerse myself in a world that is like or unlike my own. I can be a better person—brave, like Ike; protective, like Fiona; devoted, like Link. I can be adventurous and explore in ways that my body would be unable to in real life. I can interact with characters in clever ways that I’d never think of otherwise.
Ironically, of course, gaming should be a waste of time for me. As a freelancer, my work output correlates directly to how much money I provide my family, and my own inadequacies and failings on this regard choke me until I’m unable to do work. Oftentimes, I feel immobilized by panic, insecurity, and fear, to the point where I am unable to do my work (thereby contributing to the panic, insecurity, and fear). While gaming isn’t technically productive, it recalibrates my mental space, reminding me that I left grad school not because I was failing my own standards, but because I was no longer happy. I left my career as a scientist not because I was incompetent, but because I wanted to write. In the day-to-day anxieties of life, I forget that I’ve chosen a path that I enjoy over one that I thought I had to do.
What is remarkable about so many games is how I can forget about my personal failings and the marginalized identities that define my interactions with the world. I don’t have to worry that people think I’m a girl instead of non-binary. I don’t have people erasing my queerness because I’m married to a cis man. No one ignores my Persian background and Muslim faith because none of those things matter when I’m trying to stop Daein from killing all laguz and taking over the continent. Only when something from my everyday life does come into my game—like fat-shaming, for instance—do I suddenly remember where—and who—I am.
Mostly, when I game, I pretend to be someone else. I am simultaneously Joel and Ellie and Naseem, and Naseem-playing-Joel is different from husband-of-Naseem-playing-Joel, and Naseem-playing-Ellie is so close to Naseem-playing-Joel, but neither of them are Naseem. There is something deeply comforting about that, about not being yourself while keeping yourself close. I create characters modeled after ones that I write, pretend that I’m in an AU setting of my own universes. Instead of comparing my own failures as a writer to the storytelling prowess of a game, I marvel at the way the story moves forward. I think about the set up of conflict and the resolution of arcs that would be unsuccessful in another medium.
And I can think of tangible examples where gaming has pulled me out of my head and into its world, one where I was able to spend the time successfully distracted. A few years ago, I was commuting four hours a day to a job that I was beginning to resent more and more. This was around when A Link Between Worlds came out, and when my therapist suggested that I use it as a way to deal with my growing sense of doom about my future, I did so.
And actually, it helped a lot. At the time, my father wasn’t speaking to me, a move from a traditionalist who was upset that his oldest kid moved in with their partner after only a few months of dating, with no rings or bells. Becoming a painting-form of Link gave me the mental space to understand his feelings and also accept that I found them harmful, old-fashioned, and hurtful. Rolling my eyes at Ravio (seriously, WTF is with that guy) made me laugh enough to accept my fears that my then-boyfriend might break up with me when we separated for grad school. (We got married instead. And yes, my dad started speaking to me again once a ring came into the picture.) And focusing on my red 2DS meant that I didn’t have to think about my doubts about whether I wanted to continue my work as a neuroscientist, which gave me the distance to process those feelings when I was finally ready.
That memory alone is enough to seal my own sense of being a gamer. Am I a particularly “good” gamer, that gatekeeping criterion that bars so many of us from playing? Nope. It actually doesn’t bother me that I might die a hundred times before getting something right, that I have to redo a battle once I understand its mechanics. Sure, I might want my record to be flawless—my husband teases me that I have to win every Pokemon battle, and will turn off my console to make sure I do so—but that’s me being particular about Pokemon. Can I handle my failure in games? Sure—as long as it’s because of me, and not because of an annoying mechanic or impossibly difficult battle that is meant to trick you. I don’t feel the same sense of imposter syndrome when I’m gaming as I do in everyday life. It’s a game, which means I’m meant to fail, meant to go in circles, meant to figure out what I need to do (or else, consult a walkthrough). The successes of my life do not hinge on my success in the game, which is freeing, allowing me to fail just because I can.
And this acceptance and peace that gaming gives me allows me to let go of the failures and fears in my real life. This is why I game. It doesn’t matter if I have no motivation or low energy to do my work, because Ultros will still pop up in that opera house, right on schedule. It’s okay that I’ve had to save-state a hundred times in a battle against Wiegraf, because I will eventually beat him. I’ll keep tapping at the emulator, falling of the screen, and kicking Calamity Ganon’s pathetic butt. It’ll keep me sane.
Read the rest of the Why I Game series.
Sidequest’s former managing editor Naseem Jamnia used to do sciencey things, but they now slam their keyboard and call it art. By night, they play a lot of video games. And regardless of the time, they spend way too much of it on Twitter, @jamsternazzy. Also, their debut novella, THE BRUISING OF QILWA, comes out in August 2022!