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.
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.