Gaming While Grieving: Side Quests & Grinding Through the Healing Process

The Legend of Zelda

I should preface this return to writing for FemHype by saying I’ve missed this so much. And sorry I’ve been gone! I posted two stories when the site first started, and while in the middle of working on my third, found out my father had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in October. After a four-month struggle, he passed away this January.

[Source: GriefEncounter.org]
[Source: GriefEncounter.org]
The last few months have been like hell. I’ve always been someone very in control of my emotions, or at least aware of why I was having them. Suddenly, I was caught up in what many are now calling a spiral of grief: sadness, shock, fear, anger, and guilt, all while trying to wrap my head around the humongous change that happened the day the doctor said cancer. As you can imagine, many things went off the table when I found out my dad got sick: writing, certain music, having the energy to go out—lots of things. But one thing that I always found was waiting for me after work, on my breaks, and especially in that hospital waiting room was my video games. Now, I wasn’t really playing anything exciting. I have yet to purchase an Xbox One, a PS4, or any of the shiny new consoles waiting to set my imagination on fire through all the new storylines, breathtaking graphics, or re-dos on classic monster hunting with your team. I was just replaying two old favorites.

First, an online mobile game that I had gotten bored of and picked up again when they released an update, Knights & Dragons, and a ported emulator version of Final Fantasy VII for my Android phone. Knights & Dragons is another freemium, partially mindless, pseudo-RPG/action game where you have some little knights who can either fight on a cookie-cutter storyline, fight in an arena, or team up with a guild to fight each other/big monsters. It is super simple and requires almost no thought other than fusing armors together to get cool looking new ones. But sometimes, games like these are the perfect balm to uncertainty and unease.

As my life got more chaotic, as I tumbled down that metaphorical spiral and spent more time in the hospital, I was able to set attainable goals that I could actually complete in-game more often, versus having no control over what was happening externally. Today I will collect 8 shards, I will get that epic armor. Tomorrow I will level up. Friday is a guild war, I have to prepare. And so on. When your world is suddenly out of your control, video games at least let you pretend that something is within it. They help manifest this other world that you can escape to and interact with. It’s almost like reading a great sci-fi/fantasy novel, but video games actually let you virtually exist in them to some degree, rather than passively going along for the ride. What better escape could you ask for?

I think I have always known and loved this about video games. Nothing cuts through a long day at work better than running outside for a 30-minute grind-fest in the Sunken Gelnika in FF7, which I finally beat during my dad’s sickness thanks to that great Android emulator. (Where is FF8?! I’m waiting.) But video games can also help us deal with things we can’t deal with in real life. I can’t hack and slash my way through cancer no more than I can pummel my coworkers when they are driving me crazy to deal with stress. But I can hack and slash 10,000 attack squads, armored golems, Cactuars, and Master Tonberrys instead, watching my character’s attributes and my gil keep climbing higher.

Final Fantasy VII Sephiroth_Attack

No matter how much I level up in real life, I can’t max out my stats and get strong enough to fight cancer head-on. I couldn’t save his world, and I couldn’t save my own from falling apart. But damn it, I could at least take down Sephiroth (finally after 10 years of talking about it)—a surprising letdown after how many hours I spent grinding/beating all the weapons. I could at least be a character that comes from nothing, finds something extraordinary and great in themselves, and save the world. I could at least watch other people die in-game and see the real grief on other characters’ faces. I could at least remember that maybe my dad is gone, but my whole family, my whole town, maybe even my whole planet isn’t under the imminent threat of destruction. In a warped kind of way, it helped me put things into perspective.

I’m not saying that video games can cure grief or that I should project my feelings onto a virtual make-believe world with set rules and limits to human emotional responses. That I expect I will be miraculously cured. That I will somehow find universal answers to cure sadness. No—what I am saying is that cancer, sickness, and death suck. They make you sad, angry, frustrated, hopeless, exhausted, and so many other emotions I haven’t managed to name yet, but that have been tangled in a ball at the back of my throat for the last six months. I’m saying that having a virtual space to play some of these feelings out—even if it is artificial, even if it is controlled—can give you a sense of release, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of purpose. No matter how fabricated, that can keep you going a couple more days.

It’s been a couple of months now, and as winter fades into spring, I’ve started to feel alive again, and for now I have put down the phone and the controller to just enjoy the sun for a while. It is surprising how one nice day can make you feel alive again. But I’ll be back with my games soon, and this time also as a creator, not just a consumer (stay tuned). I’ll play new games, experience new stories, see new worlds, grind through new monster classes, and one day I’ll take all these experiences I’ve had with games and how they helped me get through one of my bleakest periods and I will create new ones. Hopefully, I will help to craft meaningful interactions between people and the characters they come to embody in so many ways.

After all, anyone who says that games aren’t important, that they can’t lead you to feel real emotion or have sympathy and love for make-believe characters can just go ahead and watch the Aeris death scene one more time below (I still sob like a baby when watching this).

In the end, I’m happy to be back and talking about games again. Gaming has helped me with my grief like not many other things could—including other people. Both escaping grief for a time and journeying through it using the perspective of other characters who were facing exponentially more difficult obstacles as my guide. I know games will keep me going in this way forever. You know what they say: when life throws you lemons, just get out your claymore and hack them into lemonade.

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3 Comments on “Gaming While Grieving: Side Quests & Grinding Through the Healing Process

  1. Pingback: Sunday Loot: Top Tweets From This Week | FemHype

  2. Such a recognizable and life altering experience, and I can say things will never be the same again. I still remember sitting at my dads hospital bed, with him tangled up in tubes and such, and me playing Pokemon, waiting for the doctor to come back from what ever errand he was on. So I was moved reading your blog.

    Like

  3. Beautiful article, thank you for sharing! Grinding away for hours on an mmo got me through so much at the time I hadn’t even realised.

    Like

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