One thing people don’t often get about me is that I am a disabled vet. No, I was not injured helping a chicken cross the road—the other kind of vet, and not from Call of Duty either. Like the real Army and everything. I served my country for over 5 years doing an interesting job in a not-so-effective way. If you made a game about the real military, like the Army has done before, it would not be very exciting, what with trips to the motor pool and everything. When it was exciting, it would also be overwhelmingly crazy. But I digress. The point of this is that I am disabled, and because of this, I often get frustrated with life.
How does this relate to video games, you ask? Well, actually really easily. You see, for me, one of the best forms of stress relief has been to engage in virtual fights. This has been a coping technique for a lot of my life. I did it in Dungeons & Dragons where, as the GM, I sent hordes of monsters after the players hoping to get a kill or two. But I also did this a great deal in video games where I could run around and let out my frustrations on pixels with extreme prejudice. Look at early video games and there are a lot of games that involve combat, so clearly, I was not the only one.
Thanks to the freak outs of the late ’80s and early ’90s, every act of teenage aggression was placed at the feet of video games and Dungeon & Dragons. There have been a lot of studies conducted on these types of games to determine if the charge—that games made you more violent and out of touch with the real world—were accurate. A good amount of money was thrown that way and despite the wishes of Congressional committees and worried groups of parents, the studies continuously showed that video games were not to blame for teenage violence. Lots of people were sad that this violence could not be so easily blamed.
In fact, a lot of these studies ended up showing that, unlike the charges against them, these video games as well as Dungeons & Dragons were good for people. Let me tell you, that didn’t make these people very pleased, as they had been so convinced that they were right. Study after study showed that gaming helped with creativity, working as a group, building reaction speed, and stress relief. It also showed that children really had no problem with recognizing that the virtual world was not the real world. While some people kept calling BS on these studies, other people looked into the possibilities of what this sort of technology could be used for.
The government got involved in these studies in a very large way. Flight sims led to better pilot training, being able to carry out missions that would be impractical otherwise, as well as the eventual development of drones. Combat sims reduced the need for certain types of live fire ranges. However, one thing that had not been expected with these combat sims was that they seemed to help soldiers with combat-related trauma to be able to get past these issues.
Paying attention to this detail, the military started using sims to recreate areas where the soldiers got injured, helping them better cope with post-traumatic stress. While there were some preliminary studies early on, it came into greater use after the second Gulf War and the insurgent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. From all the studies I have looked at, this type of treatment has been extremely effective at reducing the effects of PTSD. Part of that reasoning has been to provide the wounded soldiers with a way to re-experience and reframe events.
So where does all of this connect with my need for stress relief? Well, for me, I have PTSD and a number of physical disabilities thanks to my service. I have daily stress of one sort or another because I cannot do the kinds of things I used to be able to do before I joined the Army. Having your physical abilities drop is a major issue for these types of injuries, especially if you were very active beforehand. While I do a lot of things to help cope with this stress, from meditation to medication, I also use gaming to help deal.
When I had a PS2 I used to play a lot of Dynasty Warriors. My martial arts training made the fighting with various Chinese weapons easy and I got a hoot out of playing in the conflicts of the Warring States period of Chinese history. Before that it was Castle Wolfenstein. There were a few shooters I enjoyed, but certain ones like Duke Nukem did less for me than others. For me, I think it was less about the combat as it was the realism of it. I remember playing multiplayer Call of Duty at a local gaming store, and despite dying all the time, I felt better after several rounds.
Now I use Mass Effect to take care of that kind of stress. With three games that feel far more realistic than, say, Doom or Duke Nukem, there are plenty of combat missions for me to take my irritation out on pixels. Skyrim takes care of a different type of stress for me, but its more visceral combat can work just as well as Mass Effect. On the other hand, while I like BioShock, I don’t get nearly the same stress relief from it. By fighting in these virtual worlds, I actually reduce the chance that I will act out in real life due to my frustrations and physical limitations. I am good with that because if the ’80s taught me anything, I look terrible in orange.
So, if you feel better after you game, there are reasons for that. Science has shown it can be good for you in a number of different ways, but most especially with stress relief. Even less combat-orientated games have been able to elicit this sort of response from some people. While Congress and parents were unable to vilify the industry, they did get the ERSB passed, which was not a bad thing. Sure, you have to be of age to buy the latest Grand Theft Auto, but really, if you’re honest, do you want a 10-year-old to see the latest manner in which you can sleep with a prostitute? Me, I would rather keep such games where they should be and de-stress happily in the privacy of my own home.