Video(game) Nasties Saved My Life

Being a teenager is difficult. Games were very important to me during the most difficult parts of those difficult times and when the going got tough, they helped me to survive.

This is an occasionally grim story, told with the consent of those involved. It involves self-harm, suicide and mental illness.

I saw too much blood in my teenage years. Most of the blood belonged – or had once belonged to – my sister. She lives with and currently kicks the backside of a dissociative disorder, but for almost a decade the illness seemed to be winning and every week there was enough evidence of its strength to decorate a particularly grisly crime scene.

Music was, if not the trigger, the release. Certain songs, certain bands, certain lyrics. There must have been a hundred or more tracks that I could recognise instantly as a sort of defense mechanism. Opening chords would make me switch off the television or remove my sister from the scene, knowing the reaction would be almost instantaneous. Sometimes the release was necessary, and conducted privately, but it would happen no matter what. I’d sit by her side in shops and on busy streets, holding bandages to fresh cuts. Responses from strangers ran the spectrum from overbearing concern to confused aggression.

A woman with two young kids who were excitedly trying to get a glimpse of the blood pooling on the floor offered to call an ambulance or the police outside a health food shop in the centre of Manchester.

“Has there been an accident?” She asked. If there hadn’t been an accident, her tone suggested, then violence had been done intentionally. Well, yes.

I explained as best I could. She does this to herself. She’ll be OK. She’ll be OK. I’m looking after her. She’s my sister.

No doubt my apologetic defensiveness was easily mistaken for guilt. The violence was so familiar to me that I no longer saw it as danger. The embarrassment was stronger than the fear. Extreme self-harm and frequent suicide attempts had become part of life’s fabric. We’d assimilated them into our daily routine as ridiculous as that sounds – when people threatened to pull back the curtain, I realised how it would look to them.

Every home has its peculiarities, which is one of the reasons social gatherings at Christmas and other scheduled times often require an elaborate performance. Avoid the odd practices, the rough edges. Some secret habits are pleasant and comforting – the pet names and silly mannerisms that even the most composed couples undoubtedly use in private – but others are mechanisms to cope with (and sometimes enable) distress. Living with illness can seem extraordinary, even though it’s more common than people sometimes assume, and as an already fractured family we sometimes nurtured the pain in the hope that it wouldn’t lash out if treated with kid gloves.

Anyone peeking through the window might have thought we’d invited a dangerous creature into our home, and that we sat back and did nothing as it tore through my sister.

No Smith family outing was complete without a scalpel (cleaner, easier cuts, less risk of infection) and a set of bandages in those days. Now, I’m more likely to pack a picnic blanket and a thermos flask.

Music may have been the conduit for self-harm but it wasn’t the cause. If it hadn’t been there, as a facilitator of relief, the inclination wouldn’t have vanished and pressure would have built and escaped in other ways, perhaps causing lasting damage. There are plenty of songs I don’t like to hear anymore, but Little Baby Nothing is the only one that really hurts. I think I’ll forever associate it with the worst days and even typing the name makes me flinch.

The hundreds of games we played through those years have much more positive associations. They were always an escape, a way to be outside ourselves and to hold the uncertainty and fear at bay. Favourites included dungeon crawlers and FPS games, the former to be played side by side, in close cooperation, and the latter as worlds to explore. They were often violent, dark, difficult, but they were always avenues of escape, in a positive way – not a setting aside of care and responsibility, but a space in which to breathe and talk with freedom.

The storytelling aspect of games has always been important to me. Almost any game takes on creative and social functions when people gather to play, or to talk about their experiences. By telling stories we escape from and explore the parts of our lives that we struggle to understand. There’s a comfort in knowing that the end result is essentially meaningless, in terms of lives lost and monsters undefeated, so that the challenge stands alone. Failure is only significant in a world that vanishes or resets with the touch of a button. Even when they do, games don’t really do permadeath.

But they can provide a space to fail and recover, and to talk about failure and recovery. And they did, for us.

Eventually my sister couldn’t leave the house anymore. The world had become too dangerous, always ready to unleash its knives, and she needed a space that she could control. Sometimes she didn’t leave her room for a couple of days.

While songs from that time still trigger a flight response from time to time, I associate the games with the happiest times. One day in particular stands out. We had a two-computer network – my crappy PC and my sister’s slightly crappier PC – and we played Doom from time to time. Usually we’d play cooperatively, killing monsters on the early maps of the first episode, which we knew better than our own backyard.

On this day, my sister had barely spoken to anyone for 48 hours. Maybe more. She was in her room, sick of/with life, and I didn’t know what to do. As was often the case, I decided to play a game. Escape. Solace. Doom.

After half an hour or so I asked, through the bedroom door, if she wanted to play as well.

“Yes.”

That was all. We stood in the opening room of E1M1 and talked for hours. Every now and again, during a break in the conversation, we’d clear the level of enemies and restart. Then we’d talk again.

And we talked about everything we needed to talk about. Of all the ridiculous places in the world, Doom had become what we needed – a familiar, safe space where talking was easier than in the real world.

Would that have been the case if we’d been able to talk on Facebook or even by text? I think so. Doom wasn’t just a way to speak without speaking, it was a place that felt comfortable and that we felt we owned. There were no adverts, no memes, no intrusions.

The takeaway image of this story is, of course, the ridiculous sight of two Doom marines chattering about mental illness and suicide. It’s the correct image because I think we always needed something ridiculous to counter the incredible weight of life, which seemed so serious and so short. And making the imps and the zombies fight was always good for a laugh.

File this one under games that prevented me from being unmade. But next to Doom, make sure to write “and the rest”, because it wasn’t alone.

I saw too much blood, but at times it was the most reassuring sight in the world.

Epilogue: My sister is happily married, still plays almost every game that matters, and thinks Doom 3 is brilliant. Everyone is allowed to tell her that she is wrong about that – god knows, I have.

Very Important Disclaimer (that I stole from John): RPS has no specialist knowledge or expertise when it comes to matters of mental health. We absolutely cannot and do not provide medical advice, as we are bumbling dolts who play videogames for a job. If the issues mentioned in this article affect you, we implore you to contact your doctor, or any of the advice lines listed below.

I’m also stealing this from John – a list of helpful resources for the times when Doom isn’t quite enough:

If you need immediate help, then in the UK you can call the Samaritans (08457 90 90 90, any time), Mind (0300 123 3393, weekdays, 9am-6pm), or NHS 111 on, well, 111. If you’re under 19, you can also call Childline (0800 11 11). In the US, there are lots of resources listed here, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255, any time) and SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline (1-877-726-4727, 8am-8pm EST). For the rest of the world (sorry to so tiresomely group you together), this site provides numbers for suicide hotlines around the world. And this site has a comprehensive list of international support numbers. (There’s a weird pop-up box – clicking “okay” didn’t seem to do anything bad to my PC.)

This article was first published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.

44 Comments

  1. daphne says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’m glad your sister is okay.

    There goes my fist clenching ability for the night…

  2. Wowbagger says:

    That was very insightful thank you – I can honestly say I don’t think I’d be alive today without computer games either.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Thanks for this Adam, really great piece.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Yes, that’s what I wanted to write too. It’s a great article.

  4. sonofsanta says:

    That was both the best of RPS, and a fine example of why RPS is the best.

    I’m glad everyone was OK in the end.

  5. blind_boy_grunt says:

    It’s so good to read that this is past tense. Still my heart goes out to those two kids.
    You’re a good brother. Sticking by her, despite her predilection for Doom 3.

  6. Cash at Folsom says:

    This is a really beautiful counterpoint to the “violent shooters cause violence” narrative we’re all sick of responding to.

    The bits about public perception really hit home. For me, it was a sibling who is Autistic–and endured many years of very public breakdowns–that caused my family to grow some pretty thick social calluses.

    The Tandy 1000 in the basement, and later, a series of Nintendo consoles created similar safe spaces for us. To this day, that sibling plays Animal Crossing to unwind from the hundreds of daily social pressures most of us are largely oblivious to [or at least take for granted]; a system of friends and neighbors, with predictable and pleasant modes of communication. Social interaction boiled down to a button press. While some would point to this quality of games as proof that they are ultimately a shallow reflection of reality, in this case, it’s a benefit. A way to organize a chaotic world into something manageable.

    Like I’m sure a lot of people on this site and those like it, I have a half-serious feeling that I’ve spent “too many words about silly games,” but it is games’ ability to create these special spaces in our lives that drives home what they really can be, if we’re willing to let them.

    • caff says:

      Exactly. I’m sure violent videogames have been the equivalent of a punchbag in the garage for many a teenager.

  7. BluePencil says:

    Glad to hear your sister is doing well. Mental illness is a big factor in our family too but I don’t feel quite safe going into it here.

    It’s also good to have an article that goes against the “video games cause violence” theory. I definitely often find games therapeutic. Something that’s really valuable if you’re in distress is to have something to focus on. TV and radio can help but there’s not a palpable downside to zoning out. If you drop your attention while playing a game you usually get punished in some way and are rewarded for being attentive. It’s good to have something like that. Of course there are times when your brain just won’t let you play at all but still.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    Adam, you’ve lost the links from John’s list of helpful resources. Hopefully no one will need them, but you might want to update just in case.

    Thank you for this article.

  9. liceham says:

    “Would that have been the case if we’d been able to talk on Facebook or even by text? I think so. ” – I think this is a typo, given the context of the rest of the paragraph.

    • Awesomeclaw says:

      I think it should be read as “Would (Doom still be the safe place) still been the case…”, in which case it makes sense. I.e., even with Facebook or whatever, Doom would still have represented the best place to just talk.

  10. Premium User Badge

    garfieldsam says:

    Man it’s good to be reminded that rescue is possible, no matter how tight mental illnes’ grip. As somebody who’s been dealing with close friends and family struggling with mental illness lately I needed that. Thank you.

  11. Sin Vega says:

    Thanks for this. It’s not quite the same thing, but it made me think of (among other things) the summer after I had a breakup with someone I was in love with. That summer was terrible but what I remember most of all now is a good friend coming over practically every night after work, and we’d take turns playing Crackdown until stupid o’clock, pausing now and then to talk.

  12. Moth Bones says:

    MIND’s Elefriends forum is another good resource. You can go on here and virtually scream or cry in a manner which might have undesired consequences if done in public, on Facebook or whatever. It’s well moderated – you won’t get abused or mocked, and if what you post is deemed too harrowing for others it will be removed but you will get a kind explanatory message, not a rap on the knuckles. It’s helped ease the pressure for me a few times.

    link to elefriends.org.uk

  13. davorable says:

    Wow! That sounds so intense. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad she is doing well now.

  14. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Thank you, Adam. Good words.

  15. ZPG Lazarus says:

    That was beautiful Alex.

    Over the years I used video games not to run from my depression, but wallow in it. Escaping to worlds like Castle Wolfenstein gave me the ability to focus the fury of my emotions. Alone in my flat, smashing, shooting, and punching ingame were my way of thrashing out with the emotions I always kept bottled in.

    Eventually I started drinking. Hard. I thought what I was doing was therapeutic but in reality I was just a raging, violent drunk lashing out in futility. I became increasingly suicidal. I didn’t think I’d live to be 25.

    I realized I had to make a change when I woke up to a smashed room. In my rage I broke my keyboard in half and crushed my mouse. My monitor was halfway across the room–I suppose I tried to throw it out the window.

    Not that anyone asked for my story–I just had to vent. I’ve never told anyone, cause nobody wants to see you when you’re broken. Just thought you should know you weren’t the only one who found peace in iD’s games.

  16. airmikee says:

    I don’t know if they’re actually connected, and while I’ll stress that my parents did not abuse me, they did spank the hell out of me when I was younger (I always totally deserved it.) After bending a metal spoon on my ass they stopped spanking me, but they continued that tradition with my siblings, until I was entering high school and Dr. Mario came out for the SNES. By the end of first quarter my first year my parents had had a change of heart in regards to their slightly violent discipline methods, and none of my siblings ever got the chance to make mom and dad so mad they’d bend a metal spoon. Again, I don’t know if Dr. Mario is what changed their minds, but mom played it so much that she was entered into the rotation schedule with all of her kids.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Adam, I hadn’t really thought of the connection between video games and violence in my own life until reading about yours (and the ONLY real connection between games and violence is that games reduce violent tendencies.)

    • tonylaverge says:

      “Spanking the hell out of you” *is* abuse. And no kid ever, whatever they do, deserves being beaten. They’re, you know, kids.

      • airmikee says:

        Had my parents not been so strict with me it’s likely I would have gotten myself into a lot more trouble than I did later in life. I found a perverse pleasure in pushing people as far as I could just to see what would happen, and I thank my parents for spanking some sense into me and getting that out of my system long before I entered the real world. Growing up as I did, I have to wonder if half the stupid crap that kids do today might not have been solved by knocking some sense into them.

        We’ll have to agree to disagree. Speaking also as a victim of real abuse at the hands of a relative, I’ll flat out say you’re fucking wrong though. :)

      • SomeDuder says:

        There’s spanking and there’s beating a kid half to death. Nothing wrong with the former (goddamn little shits), but it’s strange how, when the latter happens, noone ever steps in to stop it.

        • airmikee says:

          I agree, and since my punishment never left a mark that didn’t disappear within a few hours (never once did any of those marks turn into even a slight bruise) I refuse to accept that my parents abused me.

          • Vapor_Strike says:

            It’s sad that parents are no longer allowed to even spank their kids without it being something awful and terrible. Abuse is a terrible thing and should not be tolerated, but I like to think that the spanking me and my older sister got is what really shaped us. We learned pretty quick what we should and shouldn’t do fairly early on. I don’t believe for a second that I came anywhere near being abused. Just a smack on the ass that was red for a few hours at most, but stung like hell. Enough to make me learn.

  17. Skapark says:

    Good one. Thumbs up thousandfold.

  18. Serial Breaker says:

    That why I read RPS

  19. Henas says:

    Thanks for sharing Adam. Really positive to read of your sister’s recovery and the support you were able to provide via the context of video games.

    As a child and adolescent psychologist I manage non suicidal self injurious behaviours and suicidal behaviours and ideation every day so it is nice to read about a long term ‘win’.

    The severity of your sister’s symptoms are evident in the one line you mention taking a scalpel on outings. Presumably as a measure of harm minimisation, however I don’t think I could condone that for one of my clients particularly if the suicide risk was so high. Without additional knowledge of the situation I don’t presume to understand why this was chosen and obviously your sister is still here.

    Don’t underestimate the positive influence of social support and just ‘being there’ for your loved one/friend etc.

  20. Kefren says:

    Thank you. This resonates with me and is topical. Whenever I have been depressed, and my mind has been too busy going in circles in the dark, playing a game is enough to break that track and distract it for a while. Last night Teleglitch and Dead Island enabled me to eventually fall asleep. O cathartic games, how I love thee.

  21. James says:

    Reading this brings back a few memories. Having been the subject of exceptionally poor parenting early in life on the part of my dad, with my mum doing her best to pick up the pieces (not anything abusive at the time, though under last year’s law changes to child neglect my situation would have sat in the grey area those laws fail to fix), my childhood is one I’d like to look back on fondly, but I cannot, I cannot deny the facts of my life. Fortunatly, among those facts was this :gaming was always a refuge, it was amazing to 6 year old me to have another universe in the screen. I remember spending hours in Simpsons Hit & Run doing nothing in particular, just driving around. Whilst this was enough to prevent self harm or suicide it was not enough to stop depression. I still deal with that 12 years later to some extent but I no longer think of self harm at all and stressful situations that I would have run from to cry in a corner only a couple of years ago just pass me by.

    Despite years of counselling to deal with the worst stages of my depression, the work of three councellors was easily outperformed by an hour in my favorite games. From aorund 12 I would just go home and play games for hours upon hours, though looking at my games shelf (that I have never cleared out) the games I played were crap – though Imperialism II and Star Wars battelfront were excellent. Then the story driven RPG opened me up to a situation where I was in absolute control. It felt great and as such I still have a thriving love of story driven action/rpg games. From then a bad day could be resolved by carving my way through a dozen Sand People in KoTOR because I had the control, I had the power and it was impossible to be anything but happy, or at least distracted.

    These days I should be more stressed than ever. University is looming, A-Levels to do well in. Coursework due in next week. Some personal stuff I’m not going into for reasons. But it’s fine. Any slight sign of depression is given a firm kick into oblivion by the insanity of Just cause 2 multiplayer and the nice community I’ve become part of there. It is hard to be depressed when tethering a tank to a helicopter, optimistically calling it the ‘AirTank(TM)’ . and taking it to the airport for ‘testing’. It’s simply too much fun, and too batshit crazy to care about whetever it is that has me down.

    Just needed to vent. Having read this brings back a few too many bad memories. It’s off to ‘test’ the JC2 physics.

  22. Premium User Badge

    Nianox says:

    Lovely words. Thank you.

    Damn – the air has got very dusty in here.

  23. mbp says:

    Terrific piece. Thank you.

  24. Josh W says:

    Whew, this is too much for me this evening, I’ll have to try again later.

  25. Premium User Badge

    corinoco says:

    Three games, no, four have got me through the nastiest periods of depression I have faced (chronic major depression & anxiety).

    The Baldurs Gate / Planescape Torment / NWN series (OK that’s about, what 8? In total)

    SSX Tricky on the PS2

    S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl which is like an opera about depression.

    And of late because that damn black dog has been sniffing around again, Elite Dangerous.

  26. dskzero says:

    This hits a lot closer to home than I expected, but I want to congratulate you on this awesome piece that show the social side of gaming that’s worth writing about: what games mean, and what they have meant to the people who played them.

  27. danimuriel says:

    This is a good example of the powerful mediation capacity of video games. Doom transformed into a space for communication between people who, although sharing the same physical space, are having difficulties to interact.

  28. cpt_freakout says:

    Thanks for sharing something so special.

  29. twohanhime says:

    <– treatment-resistant psychotic depression for over a decade and i'm 23. self-harm and suicide attempts in school got me expelled, i was in and out mental institutions constantly, state-facilitated and otherwise. i had no real friends, my parents were gone, only my twin sister and my little brother and we just didn't have the vocabulary to talk about what was happening. the only thing we really could do was play together – we had a gamecube and n64 so it was pokemon stadium, zeldas, timesplitters, animal crossing, etc.

    some of my only happy memories growing up are from time spent playing video games, whether with others or by myself. i remember my mom getting her second DUI and getting locked up and my little brother was crying so hard, he was totally inconsolable for hours, until we booted up animal crossing and spent the rest of the night turning the town's theme song into the tune from megaman and making clothes that said "ASS" on them. looking back, i don't think there's anything my sis and i could've done that would have been more therapeutic than that.

    anyways, great article, brought up some warm feelings along with the tough ones. glad to see your sis is doing well.

  30. Andrew says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

    It reminds me of experiences with an old school friend. Unfortunately there was no such place to escape to, but the bit about there being music you can’t sit through any more is very familiar.

    I’m really glad to see your sister is doing well. I thought Doom 3 was quite good…

  31. TomxJ says:

    Thanks Adam. Posts like this really mean lot :)

  32. SlimShanks says:

    Well that was depressing. More please!
    Seriously though, excellent article. Thanks for sharing.

  33. Olaf the Merchant says:

    Really heartwarming stuff. Thanks for sharing. :)

  34. vegeta1998 says:

    Take this stuff to livejournal. This is my kickstarter review website. Cheers