Upon the advent of a new year, I, like many others enter a state of contemplation about who they are, what they want from life, and how they came to be where they are. This is something I admittedly do a lot, not just when it comes to hanging up a new calendar, but throughout the year. It was amidst this contemplation that I came to a very stark realization, one that stirred up a myriad of feelings in me:

I am now 26 years old, and since the age of 16, I have been battling depression.

That’s 10 long years. Important years that were crucial in forming the person that I am today. Years that by most are spent building the foundations on which one perceives the world around them, how one applies the meanings they’ve established throughout the years to reality in order to create a better understanding of the world around them.

Whilst I had the opportunity to develop those myself during my formative years, going through that process while feeling ultimately alone and lost was daunting and confusing, those elements which are required for us to better understand ourselves and the world became somewhat polluted by circumstances out of my control, be it something within that existed chemically, or factors external to myself, such as family.

"Im Cafe" by Angela Selders

At this point, you’d be safe to assume that this article is far more personal than anything I’ve ever been willing to post online so far, being so candid with others is something incredibly alien to me, as during those 10 years I’ve built up the habit of internalizing and repressing what I might be going through, appearing relatively stoic and composed to those around me, from close friends to work colleagues, and sadly, even my family. For the sake of privacy of both myself and those I know, I will refrain from citing any specific individuals who may have been the cause of emotional duress in my life. Those who know me personally are mostly aware of the issues I’ve faced over the years, each of them to different extents (as I said, to my own disadvantage, I often don’t share as much as I probably should in real life), so forgive me if I don’t reveal too much, but ultimately, this is a blog about gaming, and of course gamers are people, and people are very complex creatures, sometimes, wonderfully so. One thing that unites all people though — gamers, and those who’ve never touched a controller — is that through our hardest times, we all require something for distraction, to detach us, if only momentarily from a reality that can become unbearably overwhelming. For me, it was games.

Everyone has their vices, it’s a given, and they exist in order for us to be able to indulge in that part of us that defines who we are; to indulge in what you enjoy is affirmation of your existence, that the world still has something to offer you. For a lot of people around my age range in the UK, excessive alcohol consumption is the vice du jour; they work or study throughout the week, and in order to feel that sense of release and expression that’s inhibited in their everyday life, they drink, and let loose. I, unfortunately, have never been able to indulge in such a manner, as I am tee-total. I’ve never even been drunk in my 26 years of being alive on this planet, and not about to start. This isn’t due to any health ailment or religious obligation; I can, and have tried alcohol but found I detest the taste, and although I was brought up Christian, I stopped believing in God in my early teens. I simply don’t like drinking, and what it does to people, and as someone who believes that as an individual who already holds little control over his life due to circumstance beyond any immediate control, losing that last facet of control would be too much to sacrifice. Also, in all honesty, I think if I were to get drunk, part of me fears that I may like it a bit too much, and when suffering from depression, developing an external dependency can be a dangerous thing (more on that later).

I don’t judge those who drink or do drugs, I believe that everyone should have the right to put whatever they want into their body, so long as they’re not bringing harm to anyone else. In a way, it’s a little unfair to call gaming a “vice”, because that word carries certain negative connotations, where in fact it can be a term that’s a relatively innocent label. When people think of the words “gaming” and “depression” in the same sentence, there’s a tendency for institutions (namely, media outlets) to conjure up images of socially difficult, sometimes volatile and broken individuals whose lives have been overrun by a game. Quite famously there are even clinics dedicated to certain games these days, both online and in bricks and mortar form. There is a big difference though, between using games as an aid to help you deal with depression, and using games to reject a reality you’re not currently satisfied with. Overall, I do feel it’s a little unfair to say that game “addiction” exists, to me, an addiction is something that’s built up through chemical dependency, such as nicotine through smoking, or becoming accustomed to the effects alcohol has on the brain. I think you can have a gaming compulsion, in which you rely on games as a form of escapism; yes, their definitions are similar, but I think it’s the neurological differences that separate them.

Now, to how this has had an affect in my life. First of all, a little recent back story: back in April 2011 I was working at a job that I hated. I was relatively well paid but worked ridiculous hours, had very little time for myself, and most importantly, despised what I was doing there. I was undervalued by my superiors, I watched underqualified ass-kissers climb the ladder ahead of me, and for all my attempts to try and reap something good from my job, I simply couldn’t. Eventually, I felt trapped there, and I realized that I’d made a tremendous sacrifice just to be able to exist in that kind of environment, a mistake that would come back to shake my world – I gave up my creativity, a part of me that was once so huge and had defined me for many years, that I carefully cultivated in every way I could had been abandoned, because I didn’t have time for it any more. Before I started working there, I was able to express myself in so many ways; I can play six musical instruments, all of which I taught myself since the age of 16, I can also draw and write, but for some stupid reason, I just stopped doing them. Overall, I was someone who thrived on creating new things, not just for others, but for myself. When that fateful April came around, I started experiencing major problems with anxiety and remorse for what I’d done, and indeed, become. It had even started to affect me physically, I started experiencing extreme stomach pains in which I literally couldn’t keep down any food for over a week.

Eventually I called in sick to work and arranged to see my doctor, after filling in a form which measures your level of anxiety and depression at that given time, on a scale of 1-5 on each option (5 being the highest), I realized that I was at the very extreme on each of these scales, this included terrifying questions like whether I’ve had “thoughts of self-harm?” or “ending your own life?”, and facing this truth, I broke down into tears, feeling foolish for allowing myself to get into such a state, and not attempting to address it beforehand. And thus, for another time in my life, I had entered on the dark and difficult path of depression, one that I now realize has been the hardest I’ve ever faced, and as of right now, while I write this, I’m still on that path, unknowing as to when it’ll eventually come to an end, or where it will take me, but finding solace in the knowledge that one day I will overcome it, and things will be different.

I was given an extended period of leave from work, thanks to the support of my doctor, and during that tine, I wanted to rediscover the things that once gave me such joy that I’d left behind. I had been playing games during my employment, but very, very little of them; as I mentioned, I worked a ridiculous amount of hours, which isn’t forgiving for someone who wants to both maintain a personal life and indulge their hobbies. Fortunately, I wasn’t and still aren’t beholden to anyone else, so apart from maintaining my relationships with friends and family the best I could, I was afforded a lot of freedom, so I made an effort to get back on the gaming wagon.

So back I went, feet first into the wonderful world of gaming, I managed to catch up on all the old titles from my library I hadn’t managed to invest enough time in. Games with unfinished campaigns, unresolved stories, untouched modes, and even ones that hadn’t been unwrapped. Every day it felt like I had something to do, and there was something undeniably wonderful about it. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily productive, but for once in my life I felt like being selfish and offering my time to a fictional reality.

But how was this helping me? Well, even though it didn’t serve as a “cure” to my depression, I noticed that these games became almost a surrogate for a reality that I felt I had ultimately failed, and even been failed by. In these worlds I wasn’t burdened with the feelings that had come to overwhelm me in real life; in taking on the role of these avatars, I walked in the shoes of someone who wasn’t worthless, who had purpose within their prescribed reality, whose narrative was more often than not in a straight line, and offered predictable outcomes. It also offered me a sense of accomplishment, albeit on a microscopic level (I don’t take pride in achievements or trophies like many other gamers do, but I do like the feeling of having brought something to a resolution). In some cases, it was aesthetic factors that made me enjoy visits to these different worlds; during that period, titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Catherine, Portal 2, and – despite its grim subject matter – LA Noire (what can I say? I adore the noir genre and late 1940s design motifs). Each presented worlds that attempted to mimic reality, yet at the same time lacked its counterpart’s chaotic nature, that for some reason had begun to bore and disappoint me.

Later in the year during the hectic Autumn release schedule, I picked up what for me and many others became the ultimate self-contained reality of the year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Skyrim is an RPG set in the expansive lands of its namesake, where you take on the role of the “dragon born”, a being rarely born over the space of centuries whose return spells a new threat on the lands of Skyrim. Upon beginning the game you find that the character whose role you’ve been thrust into is being held captive as a prisoner, and on the way to your execution, events unfold that avert you from your demise, and set you on the path of your true fate: to be the saviour of Skyrim.

What makes Skyrim so great though, is that even though your destiny and goals are set out before you as clear as day, you can roam the lands as you see fit for as long as you want, and the more you scour it, the more you find there is to discover; magnificent landmarks, bandit hideouts, shrines to long lost gods, bizarre inhabitants and dangerous creatures. It’s a beautiful vibrant world in which you can lose yourself, both as the character and the player. I liked it so much it was even my pick for the best game of 2011, along with many others online publications.

I sunk a ridiculous amount of time into Skyrim, and in a very short period too; within two weeks I clocked up over 100 hours in the game, and for the first time in a while, waking up each morning didn’t feel pointless, I could look forward to paying visits to its world and seeing what it has to offer me, it offered unpredictability that I felt I could handle, because for as diverse as this game could be, I found comfort that its framework was still that of a game, and that unlike reality, should failure come my way, it’d be something that I could try to resolve with the load of a save file, and rationalizing my mistakes could be accounted solely on my actions. In my reality, my mistakes sadly get attributed to my emotional state of mind, something that serves to bring upon further feelings of guilt and remorse, and even lessen my already low sense of worth.

A lot of this can be perceived as gaming being a distraction from facing my problems, but this would be unfair. A lot of the underlying issues behind gaming compulsion (or addiction, depending on how you look at it), is that the people who fall foul of it use gaming as a substitute for a reality that doesn’t fulfil their needs, or disappointed them, or indeed that they could no longer handle. As with many who suffer from compulsion or addiction though, there is often some past event, be it recent or from childhood, that has brought them to retreat from the world.

For all the time I spent in these alternate realities, I never denied that the reality I lived in was what I needed to find comfort in, and accept for all it had to offer, chaos and all. Gaming helped me realize that for all the varying forms of reality they had to offer, they all had something in common; they offered purpose, something which I’d lost in my life, and worried that I’d never find again. After I finished Skyrim‘s main quest, I had to deal with the fact that I’d experienced and exhausted most of what its world had to offer me, and in a strange way, this saddened me. It reminded me of my reality, where despite the random nature of our world, people and events had become predictable, and much like that horrible day back in April, I felt like I’d exhausted all of my options, and didn’t really have anything left to do other than repeat menial tasks. It’s a shame, because I grew to love its world and its inhabitants, and it suddenly struck me that this fictional reality has more in common with my own than I cared to acknowledge at first.

Games like Skyrim among many others have also taught me something else during this endeavour, something that surprisingly may not be all that profound, but it’s something very significant that I’d clearly lost sight of in my own life: that for every mistake you feel you’ve made — whether it’s from being short-sighted, immature, arrogant or haphazard — or even failing to recognize a problem before it got out of hand, it’s completely up to you whether you give up or try to somehow deal with these issues.

Ask anyone who’s ever played and finished Demon’s Souls or the recent Dark Souls; two games which are near perfect allegories for the trials and errors we, as humans face as we try to overcome that which holds us back. Both are crushingly hard games, and both use death and error as an effective teaching tool; because of the rules set within these titles, players must progress with both caution and observation of enemies and traps that lay ahead. There are messages along the way which are left by other players who’ve once travelled the same path as you, most are helpful, but some can lead you to danger.

A lot of the time, your journey can be a lonely and difficult one where you feel overwhelmed by the world, but upon admitting you need the help of others, you can summon the help of people willing to offer a hand, and whilst they may not remain in your world, they make the journey a lot easier for the time being. I could go on about how else these games brilliantly mirror the trials of life, and even depression, but I feel the greatest connection in them is how we deal with failure; in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, when you die (or fail), there are consequences, you lose the souls you collect which are the very driving force of these worlds, not only can they be used to purchase better items, but they can be used to develop your character. When you come back after death, you have the opportunity to rectify your mistakes by fighting all those you once faced before in order to reclaim your loss, but should you fail again before you do this, the souls will be lost forever; and much like life, sometimes when an opportunity has been lost, we have to accept that it’s gone for good, but it’s still up to us whether we strive to find further reward and accomplishment in this world. These two games show that for as dark, bleak and overwhelming as the world may be at times, you can still fight, and you can still win, and the harder the fight, the more glorious the reward can be when you win, the hardest part is keeping the will to fight.

I owe a lot to games, for the many wonderful experiences they’ve given me, and now, the important lessons they’ve taught me. As far as my depression goes; I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m making the effort to better myself. I’m seeing my doctor on a regular basis, speaking in-depth with a therapist who’s been instrumental in me uncovering and addressing the problems that’ve affected me so deeply over the years, I’ve taken major steps in improving the quality of my life by applying to return to university in September, and despite how life has this horrible habit of separating you from friends whom you hope can remain close to for as long as possible, I still have some truly exceptional people in my life, who’ve made the effort to listen to me, and try to understand the chaos that rages on within my head, and do whatever they can so they can calm it down, even if that means just letting me know that they still care, and that I’m not completely alone.

To understand, and be understood, is to be free. When we lose our meaning, we have to search for meaning in the things important to us, and within games I found my meaning again, hopefully it has for someone else before me, and with the medium growing and becoming ever more significant and profound with each development, people will some day see it for the remarkable things it can do.

Final note: If you know anyone in your life right now who’s going through depression (or even seems like they’re going through it), please, for their sake, just talk to them. They might wanna talk about it, and they might not, but knowing there’s someone out there who’s remotely willing to acknowledge them, and how they are makes so much difference. Most of the time, you don’t even have to try to offer them solutions, or even say much at all; just having someone willing to listen can mean everything, and make things better for them, even if it’s just for that brief moment.

Depression can be an incredibly lonely and isolating affair, one that can bring a person to think that no one truly cares about them, and as a result, they become reluctant to even reach out for help. To reach out to them without prompt can affirm their place in this world, and in your life. If you happen to be suffering from depression yourself, please, never be too proud to admit that you might not be able to deal with it on your own; I tried this, and it nearly destroyed me. There are so many people out there willing to offer you their help, speak to your doctor, a family member or friend you can trust, or even find people online who’ve been through similar ordeals. As alone as you can begin to feel during those dark times, there is literally always someone out there willing to help, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for it, and know that one day, things will be better; it just takes some patience.