When people talk about mental illness and video games, they usually talk about how video games helped them cope with it. I have a shameful bit of history I’d like to share with the world in hopes that it offers insight and a way through similar shameful periods of life. A year ago, I became fully invested in the massively multiplayer role-playing game EVE Online. I woke up and logged on and usually didn’t log off until it was time for bed.
I’ve had periods where I played a game obsessively before. When Halo 3 came out, my childhood best friend and I stayed up all night to “finish the fight.” And it’s worth pointing out that while I loved MMORPGs like Star Trek Online, World of Warcraft, and the underappreciated Champions Online; I got bored of them after some time. EVE Online was different.
I lost an entire summer while I was unemployed and playing EVE Online. I had just left grad school and I was desperate for something to take the edge off the immense weight I felt on my shoulders. EVE Online was advertising broadly about their new expansion Triglavian Invasion. I thought I would give it a try since I could play it for free, and I figured I’d get bored in a week or so, per my usual with this genre of games.
A week turned into a month, and before I knew it, I had spent an entire summer almost exclusively playing EVE Online. What was different? I didn’t know it at the time, but I was sinking into a deep depression. It’s fairly normal for people who enjoy video games to unwind on a bad day with long sessions of their favorite games. It’s not normal to spend every waking moment immersed in a fictional world, mining pixelated rocks to hoard a fake currency for weeks on end.
My depression was such that it created a feedback loop where I didn’t want to leave my room. I couldn’t spend time with my spouse without feeling anxious that I was missing something important in EVE. It got to a point where I would have emotional breakdowns if I had to spend too long outside of the game. I gave up almost all the pretense that I had any interest in the real world.
As time wore on and I had lost all semblance of normalcy and healthy boundaries around pastimes, I became aware that I had a problem. I started working with a therapist, not to address the fact that I spent my entire life that summer playing this game, but rather tackling everything that was going on in my life leading up to the warped decision-making process that led me to choose this game over everything else that was good in my life.
Eventually, I got to a place where I was no longer satisfied with the meager, digital returns the game offered me. I quit the game entirely and started the difficult work of repairing my relationships with people. There was a period of about two or three months where I had to relearn how to “do life” without giving up and playing EVE Online when things got hard. And at some point, I realized I had to switch therapists because I was dealing with a lot of trauma that couldn’t be fixed just by changing thought patterns and behaviors. Pro-tip: not all therapists are equipped to handle every kind of mental or emotional issue affecting you. Sometimes you have to seek out a therapist who specializes in the kind of suffering you’re experiencing.
I don’t want people to reductively assume that I’m saying people who play games obsessively can just get out of them the way I did. I wanted to change. I sought out professional help because I recognized that I was losing everything that mattered to me for a game that often left me feeling hollow and cold when I went to bed at the end of the day.
What I’ve come to understand about the experience is that I used this specific game, with all it’s various systems and mechanics designed to encourage players to remain logged on for longer and more frequently, as an escape from a variety of untreated mental illnesses ranging from trauma that I was reliving daily in semi-lucid flashbacks to anxiety spirals in which I saw monsters lurking in every shadow.
People like me who were suffering from untreated mental illness and retreat into a video game should not be confused with addiction. My hope is that people who read this can recognize themselves or their friends and loved ones in my story and find help in a nonjudgmental environment. If I didn’t have a spouse who cared more about me getting better than judging and criticizing me for wanting to escape, I might have never sought help. Mental illness kills relationships and yet, the most crucial thing for recovery is a support system. There may not always be a visible light at the end of the tunnel, but there are people who will walk with you to help you find your way through the dark.