How Video Games Saved My Life, Part 2: How to Relieve Stress with Video Games

By | January 27, 2014

(Part One)

There were some tough times after that first weekend. Jobs were difficult to come by. I used my credit card for rent. At parties, I couldn’t finish one drink with the same girl because inevitably, the question came up: “What do you do?” My entire future seemed to be crumbling before me. It was the most stressful period of my young life.

I needed an escape. I turned to video games. Nothing else worked for me. Even now, with a great job and a loving family, I still need to step away once in a while, and put a band-aid over that cut to buy time and avoid the mind-screwing, and the potentially destructive first moments of stressful situations. Games do that for me and here’s how:

The first thing to keep in mind is that not all games will help. Some games might actually make you more stressed and frustrated. If you are looking for a game to help you with stress, select one that:

1) Engages the mind; AND
2) is Challenging, but Winnable; AND
3) creates a sense of Accomplishment

There are many great games that fit the bill, but I’ll use Creative Assembly’s Total War series as the example.

1) Games that ENGAGE the mind

For an activity to be an effective stress-reliever, it must be one that engages your mind. Television is a passive activity, and I often find my thoughts drifting when watching a show, regardless of its entertainment value. Some games may be fun, but they don’t engage the mind. I love hunting games and FPSs, but they are often reactionary, reliant on motor skills. I can play Halo and rehearse a presentation at the same time.

The engagement of the mind also involves creativity. Puzzle games make you think, but there’s one solution to the problem. Total War makes you think at different levels and it involves creativity. First of all, you are thinking at the strategic level: how to win the campaign against the French, how to capture Jerusalem without starting a war with the Turks, and so on. You also think tactically during battles: how do I defeat the Spanish army when I’m out-numbered 3 to 1? Well, there’s this hill. They’re mostly cavalry and I have pikemen, etc.

When a game engages your mind, you are no longer thinking about the lay-off, or the break-up, or whatever else life spews at you. And more importantly, an engaging game engages you even when you’re not playing. When I’m in the middle of a Total War campaign, I’m constantly thinking about my next move. Again, games will not solve your problems, but it will give your brain and body a much-needed break from them, which is important, especially at the onset.

2) Games that are CHALLENGING, but WINNABLE.

Seems obvious, but this balance is very important. A game that is not challenging will bore you, and you’ll stop playing, and you’ll go back to mind-screwing yourself. A game that is challenging, but not winnable, will frustrate the heck out of you and you’ll break your keyboard and throw things at the cat. Total War is challenging, even at the Normal difficulty setting. It takes time and strategy to defeat your enemies. Sometimes there are set-backs (“oh, man, my entire Crusade got wiped out”), but overall, the game is winnable.

3) Games that create a sense of ACCOMPLISHMENT.

Simply winning a game doesn’t always create a sense of accomplishment. If I hit the high score of a jewel or bubble game, it’s definitely cool but I never feel a sense of accomplishment because it’s largely achieved by chance – the right colors lined up.

The best games for relieving stress will have smaller accomplishments leading up to a bigger one. In Total War, winning a battle against the rebels creates a small sense of accomplishment. Capturing your most belligerent neighbor’s capital, after several blood-bath assaults, is another. And until the entire campaign is won, there are numerous wins – hard-fought wins – along the way. Every time I play Total War, even if it’s just an hour, I feel I have accomplished something.

And that feeling matters. When you’re down and everyone is kicking you, and your life sucks hard, you NEED a victory. You need to win a little, even if it is a stupid video game. You need that little boost, even if temporary, so that you keep your mind from jabbing itself repeatedly with an ice-pick.

Finally, when you are stressed, don’t play online. MOBAs are obviously off-limits, but other online games as well, even chess. The competition is unpredictable and you may meet that one a-hole who will crap on an already crappy day.

Like everything, games can become addictive and even harmful, but you will not go there because you are responsible and most of all, you are a winner – a winner with a flat tire that will get fixed.

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