19
Feb

Mental health and games

OK, help me think about this.

I have spent a year recovering from burn-out. During the first period, I frankly do not know how long it was, I could not play in any way whatsoever. Given that game-playing has always been important to me, this was a sign of poor mental health. As I started to recover I regained interest in games. I started running a Savage Worlds (tabletop rpg) game for a group of teens and I started playing computer games. Let us look for a moment about the effect of those games on my health.

I experienced the tabletop game as an important creative outlet. I made a story-world for my players that was an adaptation to the modern day of  the book "Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham. I was inspired by rereading the book and created characters for them to interact with, going so far as to paint small portraits of them. I also crafted miniature Triffids out of papier-mache and drew an elaborate map of the caves and the cave entrance that the characters emerged from at the start of the story, teaching myself the GIMP image processing program to do so.  These were little steps on the way to being myself again. I was proud and encouraged that I had created something, surmounted all the little obstacles to trying something new and succeeded. Running an RPG game is also a small, well-structured social arena to rediscover the skills of connecting with others in. I believe the reason that some less socially adapted people are attracted to role-playing games is because they are a wonderfully safe and encouraging environment. They are non-competitive, create rapport and team-work and supply cool successes.

In the same period I gradually started playing computer games again. I started playing Team Fortress 2, a game in which you, as part of a team, attempt to defeat another team. Though TF2 is a shooter and you spend a lot of time being blown up, often after a mere few minutes of life, it somehow manages to have a cheerful, humorous tone. The characters you play are cartoonish, bombastic parodies, so it does not hurt your pride when you are repeatedly massacred by more skilled players.

That last part is important. I am rather competitive and a bad loser. It is not a trait I am proud of, so I do my best, at some cost, to be graceful. I had previously abandoned "shooter" games largely because my initial lack of skill and subsequent rapid defeat caused me to become frustrated and upset. Strangely enough, something about the goofy tone and rapid pace of TF2 did not press my competitive buttons and I was able to play it with pleasure and therefore become quite expert.

Which brings us to the here and now. I still play and enjoy the tabletop games, but I am finding it harder, as I get mentally healthier, to enjoy Team Fortress. I now get impatient if I am not among the top scorers and I get very unhappy if my team performs (in my view) badly. Apparently as I pull out of the burnout, my competitiveness and aggression are gradually increasing, to the point that it is becoming harder to participate and progress in the game I used to enjoy. It is something of a paradox, that becoming more of "my old self" brings with it traits that I was happy to miss. It also points up that some competitiveness is useful and a spur to excellence, but that too much can prevent you from sticking with a learning task long enough to become excellent. Video games are a powerful metric. They show you in many ways how skilled you are at playing them and the change in your skill level is visible from day to day. My learning task now is to find a way to relax and enjoy the times when I fail, in the certain knowledge that this will enable me to become more skilled and capable in the long run. I think the most crucial aspect of my early play was a concious setting of low expectations and the goal of having fun, rather than being very capable. Fun leads to skill, to expertise, not the other way round. If I want to get good at Team Fortress, or anything else, I had better be able to enjoy it.