Press X to Exit: What It’s Like Gaming With Anxiety

[Art by Miri]
[Art by Mir]

When I was a kid, I loved Lara Croft. She was brave and strong and capable, everything I wasn’t but longed to be. I wanted to go on her adventures with her so badly, but every time I tried, my attempt would follow the exact same pattern: I would play through the tutorial, maybe hone my skills further in Croft Manor, and then start the game … for five minutes, perhaps. As soon as I met my first foe, my heart would start pounding and I would become completely panic-stricken. It was the first baddie, so of course the combat would be pretty easy, and I would win the fight without losing too much health, but that wouldn’t put me at ease. I’d still be shaken to the point of having to pause the game to calm myself down. I couldn’t handle following her into danger; it simply caused me too much distress.

I’ve been an anxious, paranoid person for my entire life. I double-check locks and my wallet contents multiple times a day, and I can be startled just by someone behind me speaking unexpectedly. You’d better believe violent video games press all of my stress buttons. People I knew often had trouble understanding this, though. “It’s just a game” and “it’s not real” were usually the reactions I got. The trouble is, the way these games affected me was very real, and I know I’m not the only one. If horror games get you scared and tense, imagine having that reaction any time you tried to shoot a gun or act quickly in a game. Imagine having that reaction any time you had to achieve an objective with stealthy methods. These aren’t the only ways people get anxious while playing a video game, but these affect me the most.

Due to my anxiety, I often found myself watching other people play games I was interested in, and I missed the chance to play a lot of action games that are considered classics. I missed the entirety of the PS2 era, for instance. I certainly can’t play horror games, since horror games actively try to make the player anxious and scared. That’s not to say I couldn’t play any games, of course. I found enjoyable stories in games like the Myst and Monkey Island series, and found comfort in the fact that actual deaths were rare-to-nonexistent in these sorts of adventure puzzle games. I could struggle to progress through the story and make mistakes without constantly stressing over scenes that demanded quick reflexes or might end in a bloody death.

Adventure/puzzle games have still made up the majority of my gaming experience. When something is as innate to your being as my anxiety is to me, it takes a very long time for things to improve. Life can act a bit like exposure therapy, though. I simply can’t live my day-to-day life, much less pursue my long-term goals, without experiencing anxiety on a regular basis. So, over the years, things have gradually gotten better for me. I discovered MMOs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. I found them much easier to play than shooters, since you can simply hit buttons to attack and heal, and there’s usually a good distance between player and character, so things don’t get too immersive. After that, a friend recommended BioWare’s RPGs, which I could handle as long as I kept the difficulty low, so that I could enjoy the story without having to worry about any unexpected combat-related stress.

Burial at Sea, BioShock Infinite

I knew I’d made real progress on this front when I completed my first shooter game in the winter of 2013. It was BioShock Infinite, if you’re curious. Completing the game was by no means easy, even after all these years of dipping my toes into the action genre. I also played the Burial at Sea DLC, which was a lot harder than the base game for me, particularly in Episode 2. I couldn’t play for long before the pressure of staying stealthy would become too much to bear, and often I had a friend on Skype to keep me company. I’m really glad I pushed myself to finish, though. However, I would not advocate for all anxious gamers to make that choice. Everyone experiences anxiety differently. If video games make you anxious, trust what you already know about your anxiety, and push as much or as little as you feel comfortable with.

You don’t have to push at all if you don’t want to. In some ways, it’s a great time to be an anxious gamer. With widespread digital distribution and Let’s Plays, you can watch someone else play a game you’re interested in, decide whether or not the game will cause you an unbearable amount of stress, and then buy it online (or not). With the blossoming indie game scene and easy-to-use software like Twine and RPG Maker, anyone can make a game about whatever they want, and so there’s more variety in video games now than ever before.

There are plenty of games that fall within everyone’s personal comfort zones now, and that’s how it should be. I can play Thomas Was Alone when I want a platformer with personality, I can start up Shadowrun Returns when I’m in the mood for something with turn-based combat, there’s always Octodad: Dadliest Catch when I want genuine silliness, and if I’m feeling brave? Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, so I can be my childhood hero with the added comfort of a more distant camera. All of these games are within my comfort zone, but offer very different experiences.

Bottom line? Anxiety can be a setback for anyone who wants to experience a wide variety of video games, but as the available games become more varied, even the most anxious gamer can accumulate a library of games that they enjoy. Take a deep breath, grab a friend to adventure with you if you need it, and take things at your own pace.


14 thoughts on “Press X to Exit: What It’s Like Gaming With Anxiety

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  1. I can relate to all of this so hard. I ADORE the Silent Hill series, but it’s always difficult for me to play — it frequently triggers my fear of dark/closed in spaces, so making progress in an SH game is always slow going. I’m am eternally grateful for my fellow Let’s Players for letting me live vicariously through them while I take the time to make progress with my anxiety at my own pace!


    1. I feel just the same! I absolutely love Silent Hill 2, but I had to watch a Let’s Play of it to experience the story. There’s no way I could’ve handled playing it myself. And that’s a great way of putting it! I’m so glad we’ve got Let’s Players these days.


    2. Oh, gosh. I tried to play Silent Hill 3 with a friend years back and it was…slow going, ha ha! Shit, my boyfriend and I stopped playing Alien: Isolation after awhile for how much it frayed our nerves.

      Thank goodness for Let’s Plays indeed. I’ve seen a running joke online that nobody likes to play Five Nights At Freddy’s, but everyone loves to watch others play.


  2. I hate playing the campaigns of shooters because for some unfathomable reason when I’m getting shot at it literally scares me and makes my heart race and palms sweaty to the point where I’d rather quit than continue on. For some reason this doesn’t happen while playing the multiplayer portion of these games, but going at it alone is stressful beyond enjoyment for me. I can relate to using Skype as a method to conquer this anxiety and actually get to enjoy the game. I have no problem playing these types of games if there’s someone else in the room, even if they’re off in a corner doing something else.

    Great read!


    1. Yes, you described that feeling really well. Shooters have always stressed me out a lot more than fantasy games with swords/magic combat, and I do wonder if it’s because of that very distinct feeling of being shot at. It definitely helps to have someone else around in some capacity, even if they’re not actively supporting me. A friend of mine and I both got Left 4 Dead 2 recently and played through a couple of the campaigns; while it was still more draining to play that kind of game than something that offers me more distance from the characters, I still had a much easier time playing it with her than I would’ve alone, so I know what you mean.

      Thank you, thanks for reading! It feels a bit… baring, I guess, putting this sort of thing out on the internet, so I really appreciate hearing from people who’ve been feeling similarly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I actively avoid horror games so imagine my surprise when the Tomb Raider reboot was released and brought a more horror-survival feel to the franchise. The older games made me a little jumpy (enemies seemed to come out of nowhere a times) but they never stressed me out to the extent the reboot did. Perhaps it was the creepily realistic graphics or the somewhat grim tone of the game but it took me a few weeks to complete the game the first time I played it as I had to keep taking a break from it. The too-frequent gun battles were exhausting and repeatedly failing to get through certain sectors of the game crushed my enthusiasm and spirit more often than I care to admit.

    I did get through the game eventually and got through it a lot quicker the second time around but it’s not a game I’d choose to play again in a hurry. Needless to say, I won’t be trying out any games like Alien: Isolation or 5 Nights at Freddy’s any time soon…


    1. Yeah, I haven’t played the reboot because those are often the criticisms I’ve seen, and I’ve watched enough gameplay to be pretty sure I couldn’t handle playing it myself. Did you get enough of a feeling of accomplishment by finishing it to feel like the stress was worth it? I have to admit, I was a twitchy mess the entire time I was playing BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 2, but it did feel good to know I could do it, and I think that was actually more important to me than the plot of the DLC.

      And I’ll be right there with you, veering sharply away from the atmospheric horror games. I can barely stand to watch my friend play Five Nights at Freddy’s.


      1. It’s hard to say whether the stress was worth it or not…but I was definitely happy when I completed it. I rarely finish games so this was an achievement in itself. 🙂


  4. Wow, I’m so glad I’m not alone on this. I would always get weird looks from people when I tried to explain how I felt when playing FPS games. You articulated this very well!

    I’ve been doing the same as of recently…trying to slowly get into FPS games or other spooky games. Bioshock Infinite is absolutely gorgeous and I received it as a gift. I tried playing a few months ago, but I got too stressed once it came to the enemies. I’ll be picking it back up soon though! Even games like Mirror’s Edge make me feel too intensely when it comes to the enemies. I feel like I always get so much flack from people when I put the gameplay on easy because I’m trying to enjoy the story as well!

    I do much prefer sitting down and watching other people watch games. That’s why I’ve become to involved in the communities and watching Youtubers. Once you find people who you enjoy, it’s great to sit down and experience the story rather than having to act and make quick decisions yourself. I also find it interesting to see what decisions other people will make!

    – Cheyenne


  5. Every time I try and play a part of a game where if I get caught and I die, I get so anxious for no reason, Lara croft is a perfect example, I love it but can’t stop freaking out :/


  6. I am the exact same. I love uncharted but hate the shooting (I just want it over with as quickly as possible). People wonder why I play because apparently the shooting ambushy aspect is the whole point -but not for me. I love playing to explore and discover where to go and find hidden treasure. Just wish there was a combat “show me how it’s done” option. Currently I play in short bursts.


  7. While searching for a way to overcome my dread of playing Bloodborne I decided to look up ‘anxiety while playing videogames’ and this article came up. My dad bought me a N64 when I was younger so I could play Zelda, but that game scared me so much all I could do was go fishing, so he played it for me (and thus my love of Let’s Plays). I’m determined to get through Bloodborne though! It’s not turn-based like some of my favorite games, and I’ve been chipping away at the first level for a month but for every third death comes an ambush that leaves me reeling. I won’t give up though!


  8. Oh my God, finally someone who understands!!! I love games so much, but there are almost no games I can play without feeling anxious 😦


  9. Thank you for this article! I am trying to play through the reboot of Tomb Raider currently and I also have to take frequent breaks due to my anxiety. I’ve always loved video games and I too was obsessed with Lara Croft as a kid. I played through the tutorial more times than I could possibly count because I got so anxious playing the real game that I could only do it in short spurts. I guess not much has changed!


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