My junior year of high school my family relocated to a different city. As sort of a consolation for disrupting my social life my dad got me an original Playstation, the console of choice at the time. Not knowing what else to buy, he inquired in the store as to what game was most popular, and the salesperson sent him home with a copy of the three-disc epic Role Playing Game (RPG) Final Fantasy VII.
If you aren't much of a gamer, you need to understand that FFVII was a watershed moment for video games. It raised the bar in just about every way. There had been RPG's before, but not like this. For the first time, battles happened on a 3D playing field with cinematic visuals. Working with the era's limited musical medium, composer Nubuo Uematsu crafted a soundtrack that was surprisingly gripping--haunting and full of emotion.
What is most responsible for the game's many lifelong fans, however, is its compelling story. I'm not sure a video game up to that point ever showcased a narrative so complex, all centered around a protagonist whose identity crisis would come to resonate more deeply with me as I grew and struggled to figure out who I was.
What Games Can Mean to Us
Gaming has evolved to impact our lives far more than anyone might've imagined the first time they plugged in Pong. For decades now, games have had characters with personalities and stories, who take us on journeys that we find meaningful.
People can also have a broader and more satisfying community experience than you expect. Cooperative and competitive games that take place online connect players from around the globe. For a while I ran with a 'clan' in a futuristic shooter called Destiny, and many of my cohorts were from other regions and even other countries. We didn't just share the game, we also shared in some of each other's life events and transitions. I still kind of miss that.
I think it's important to acknowledge the value of these experiences, and they can even be a powerful tool in helping us understand ourselves. As I mentioned, the internal struggle portrayed by Cloud, the main character in FFVII, came to mean a lot to me as I wrestled to find my own identity through a maze of those imposed on me.
Why Gaming Becomes Consuming
Not all or even most gamers have a consuming problem with video games. But the virtual world they offer can become a coping mechanism when the world outside comes up short on solutions.
Video games have limited parameters. There's only so much you can risk. (I'm not talking about predatory pay-to-win games that seek to wring out your bank account). Their naturally limited worlds keep safe from the dangers of real life, while still scratching our itch for challenge and adventure. In game you may fail--your character may even die--but you always get another crack at it.
The goals are fairly straightforward (or at least can be looked up online). The achievements are actually achievable.
Relationships are easier, too. NPC's (non player characters) entertain us with their limited pre-programmed dialog. There's no chance of harm or betrayal. A lot of games allow you to choose your appearance, your body. In so many ways, the world of video games is much more fair than the world of nature. In Skyrim if you want to find a partner for life, all you need is the right necklace.
It's easy to see how someone who feels abandoned, frustrated, who finds themselves in a chaotic season of life that never seems to get better might find a predictable digital escape appealing. For trauma survivors it can offer a world without triggers.
You can imagine what a relief it is for people with unique sensory and processing rhythms to have a place to go where life has a pause button.
Consuming gaming looks like:
multiple hours spent playing daily
constantly thinking about gaming
neglecting other activities, relationships, and obligations because of video games
unable to feel good when not playing
lying to others about how much you play
becoming disproportionately upset about events in the game
These are signs that video games have expanded out of the role of entertainment and begun to take up too much space in your life.
When it Becomes Consuming
With all it has to offer--and all it seems to offer--the realm of gaming can take more than we intend.
This doesn't make it inherently bad! It's our lack of awareness that we are turning to it to meet our needs that can push a positive pastime into a vortex of obsession.
If video games are the only place we feel safe, capable, or connected, we can start to lose interest in other pursuits. And it can ultimately fail because there are roles that games--no matter how advanced and engrossing they become--can never fulfill.
Soon what was once a sense of accessible achievement becomes a source of frustration, or the limits of it can leave us depressed. The sense of anonymity the online world offers people can bring out the worst in them; our search for a team can land us in hostile waters. We used to feel in control--but now the games are pushing our buttons.
If you think you or someone you care about is being consumed by gaming, it's time to speak up. Choosing to face whatever we're running from is tough to do, but it's worth it. And the sooner the better--it can be devastating to be forced to realize that gaming was never going to fulfill the longing you brought to it.
Like I said, games have meant a lot to me. They still do! And they're so much more enjoyable when you like the role they are playing in your life--when YOU are holding the controller.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a licensed professional counselor in Northern Colorado.