When Gaming Is Like A Hot Bath

[This article was originally published to our Supporter Program on 22nd February.]

I’ve had a really shitty couple of weeks. I’ve written before about anxiety disorder, and after a really quite astonishingly awful start to 2016 I had quite the collapse. I share this information for one reason: I know there are many other people out there suffering with anxiety, panic and low mood, and I know how often it’s not talked about, and from brutal personal experience, what it’s like to think it’s just you, to think you’re going mad, to think there’s no way out of the hole. If that’s you, I strongly recommend that you leap over to the post from last year, and look into some of the resources listed. You deserve it. You deserve to feel better. There are ways you can feel better.

Today I want to briefly talk instead about that hot bath feeling a perfect game can give you when things are low.

I need to be honest, too. This recent bout left me so crippled that for a short while I struggled to do anything, let alone sit in front of a game. With support, medication, and counselling, I’ve improved enormously, and am thankfully sat back at work, and even more thankfully, tasked with reviewing a game I’d already loved playing for an earlier preview. I’m not pretending that when things are bad, you can just dump yourself in front of the PC and wish away all your woes. Curled into a ball in a bed you can’t get out of somewhat prevents that. But that time comes again, when you can uncurl, and gosh, video games offer a magical place by then.

I really cannot think of a better metaphor than sliding into a bath. Baths are indulgent, but good indulgent. They represent space, time, and comfort. Things that are absolutely essential if you’re going to allow yourself to start to feel better. You close your eyes, covered by the water, a slight weightlessness from the buoyancy, and just for a moment there’s an embrace. (This is, I should add, pure fantasy on my part at the moment – at nearly 6ft, overweight, and in a house that only has a three-quarter-length bath, the idea of actually being able to get wet is pure delusion just now – stop adblocking the site so I can afford a new bath!) And when I’m low, a favourite type of game offers something oddly similar.

It’s genre, I think, rather than a specific game for me. I have games I love to go back to when given rare moments of spare time to do so – Burnout Paradise is perhaps the most frequent, but also Hexcells, and the Just Cause series. But for times like these, for me it’s point-and-click adventures. Yeah, I’m old.

The format, the conversations (that allow me to play a puzzle game on my phone while I’m listening), the puzzles to solve, the gentle, careful pacing, exploring new locations for items, making new discoveries and advancing an interesting plot – mmmm, just add bubbles. When it’s a good one, it absorbs me, takes my mind away from its irrational fears and panics, and replaces it with story and challenge.

For someone else, that game is going to be XCOM. Or Skyrim. Or Civilisation. The game that soaks around you, uses the right parts of your brain, and rewards you in a way that’s fulfilling – not just distracting. And for me, it’s something about games that achieves this. When my brain is askew, it’s a real challenge to maintain the focus to read a book. TV shows and movies feel too removed, too distant. But games enfold, reach around the sides of me, offer that moment of embrace. And right now, that’s just what I need.

If you’re struggling, you are not alone. Again, please, if you need support then plunder the links in this post. And get yourself to a GP, whatever it takes, and ask them for help. I literally did that – I went in, sat down, and mumbled, “I need help.” If you know someone who’s struggling, text them, email them, call them, offering support, love, lifts, shopping or company. Don’t be offended by a lack of a reply, just keep on checking on them.

And when you can, find that game that’s a hot bath for you to sink into. Allow yourself that.

Top image by D Sharon Pruitt.

From this site

42 Comments

  1. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Hope you’re feeling better, John.

    I’ve been dealing with some issues myself, but with help I hope to find my way back to normal. Well, normal for me, at least. ;o)

  2. Premium User Badge

    moms says:

    This!
    “If you know someone who’s struggling, text them, email them, call them, offering support, love, lifts, shopping or company. Don’t be offended by a lack of a reply, just keep on checking on them.”

    Hang in there, John.
    You, too, Hmm-Hmm.

  3. Minglefingler says:

    Glad to hear that you’re on the way back John, I had a bit of a shitty time with depression for a few years, after having come out on the other side I can say that it’s changed me, in some ways for the better, in other ways for the worse. I know I’ll never be the person I was before it took hold but I’m happy with where my recovery left me and I’m no longer frightened of it coming back, which is a lot more than I could have hoped for when things were at their worst.

  4. Vandelay says:

    You mean that isn’t your soapy foot at the top? How disappointing.

    Glad to hear you are on the way back to being yourself.

  5. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    Well, I’m glad things are looking a bit better for you. I’ve been a bit down recently myself but I don’t think I suffer any kind of disorder. I think friends, family and just time get me through most of all.

    I know what you mean by games providing a cuddle. I was so glad when I took your advice to pickup Firewatch. I was hooked from the start and really enjoyed it. So, thanks!

  6. Premium User Badge

    Spottswoode says:

    Really glad to see you back John.

    Hope things a bit better now, and thanks for all your honesty with this stuff. Mental health is enormously under-reported and still carries a huge stigma with it, but hopefully with articles like this (and the previous one) someone reading it will feel a bit more confident about speaking to someone else about their problems.

    The most important thing I was told when I first realised I had depression was that “you wouldn’t feel guilty or strange about going to a GP if you were worried about your body, so you shouldn’t feel any different talking to someone about your mind.”

    It still rings true today.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    It’s good that you are feeling better!

  8. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    I’m happy that you’re feeling better, John. It always brightens my day to read your words.

    And I know we can have our moments to the contrary, but by and large, I think the readers and posters of RPS are a lovely bunch, and I thank you all for the comfort you’ve unwittingly provided for me on more than one occasion.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    sorry. I know these days must have been hard, and I don’t want to go deeper. But yes, adventure games, with a proper narrator, exploration, text. Also, Robin Hobb cathartic fantasies. And 30 Rock. And the bunch of films and albums I have as an emergency of “please remember: this is you”: Singin’ in the Rain, The Firm, Winterschläfer, Rio Bravo. “The boy with the arab strap” album. Quantic’s “Misshaps Happening”, Nobukazu Yakemura’s “Child’s view”. It’s not a bath to me, it’s coming back to what you are and what defines you apart from what you seem unable to grab.

    • John Walker says:

      Hehe, I was skipping through Singin’ In The Rain yesterday.

      And occasionally joining my wife as she mainlines Parks & Rec was also super-helpful.

    • Bernardo says:

      I just confused the album with the band “Arab Strap”, to who I can only listen when I’m feeling good. Otherwise they actually give me anxiety.

  10. Premium User Badge

    chiroho says:

    So glad you’re feeling better, John. While I’ve not been there myself, my wife has struggled at times – though that still leaves me with only a second hand understanding at best. But this is why I’ve always loved games, reading, and certain movies and TV shows. They really do take you away from what’s going on around you and transport you to a different place.

    I see this becoming even more so as VR takes off and you’re not just looking at a screen any more, but feeling much more like you’re really in a different world. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but for those looking for that bath scenario, it really may be just the ticket.

  11. wu wei says:

    I have a tendency to pick up grindy F2P games when I’m feeling extremely stressed: I lost myself to Rift during a particularly nasty period at work, and to Warframe while looking for a new job. There’s something about the progression towards definable goals that definitely helps keep me a little more balanced during those times. Usually as soon as the stressor disappears or changes, the appeal drops almost immediately and I rarely return to that game again.

    It took me way too long to seek help for my depression, I was highly resistant to the idea of medication because “I wouldn’t be me”. (But that hasn’t been the case at all, if anything it let me crawl out of that inner cave I was trapped in for almost 10 years.) It was only when I discovered that chronic stress physically damages the brain that I was motivated enough to take action.

    Glad to hear you’re acting on it, John, and feeling the better for doing so. This place isn’t the same without you.

  12. Bernardo says:

    Funny. I just discovered the same thing after having a really shitty Friday – unstable professional future, not knowing if I’ll be able to stay in the country as my residence/work permit is connected to that and other stuff. Cuddling up in my comfy wing chair, playing Gabriel Knight on a tablet while watching Star Trek on my Laptop greatly comforted me.

    Strangely enough, my other go-to game right now is Dark Souls 3. Mainly because it gives me other problems to focus on.

  13. Hobbes says:

    For me the hot bath has been Grim Dawn. It’s a game where I can turn my brain off, activate the mouse clicky finger, and just settle into this comfortable loop of “Kill random mob, get loot, sell loot, occasionally upgrade toon, kill boss, rinse, repeat”, several hours pass, and whilst I haven’t done anything -productive- with my life, I do feel a whole lot better about the world. It’s a bit like my version of a hot cocoa (which I make up especially to go with Grim Dawn gaming sessions) and a big fuzzy jumper.

    Bliss.

    I can very much appreciate the concept of gaming as a hot bath, and if you can find a game or games that do it for you, go for it. Oh, and make a hot cocoa to go with the gaming session, it’s a good way to unwind.

  14. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    This was a nice read John. I read your article last year and while I had been in one end and thankfully came out the other, it was so refreshing to see resources on this criminally misunderstood illness.

    I suffered from depression, and crippling social anxiety for about 2 years. My anxiety levels would get so high that I would get what can only be described as pins and needles times a thousand, and the only way to alleviate it was to be alone. Unfortunately though, being alone is also a good way to fuck yourself up even further as I soon found out when I started losing touch with friends, family, and more significantly my partner. She very nearly left me over everything I put her through, and thank Christ she didn’t because if she had I would be fucked, and possibly dead.

    It’s a funny old thing, suffering from a mental illness, especially when, like me, you’re normally very rational, level headed, and approach life fairly logically. The thoughts I used to have run away were so ridiculous and I knew they were, yet my mind would run with them so much I’d end up in a panicked frenzy. “What’s that? A slight ache on my left shoulder? HOLY FUCK I’M HAVING A HEART ATTACK I MUST BE DYING”.

    In the end I went through something called cognitive behavioural therapy, which basically teaches you how to get yourself out of those thought processes, and it also taught me some little ‘mantras’ to follow which are vital for me functioning in day to day life.

    One thing that makes this illness hard to deal with, and especially hard to talk about, is how people just don’t (and can’t) get it. There are so many other things in life which occur, that are tangible in some way. The support you receive from friends if you or a family member were to suffer from something common like cancer is amazing, because people either see what is happening, or they have been through it themselves so can provide a level of empathy which is wonderfully helpful.

    Not so with anxiety though. Many just don’t get it. So many people when I tried to talk to them about it would nod their heads and I’d get the odd ‘me too lol’ when describing my feelings and sensations while going through it. Not that I’d ever begrudge them of that, but having a distinct lack of a support structure with something that needs so much support is crippling and makes you feel so fucking alone.

    Gah.

    Thanks for keeping a highlight on this is what I’m trying to say, I guess. You and I both know that I don’t agree with you on matters sometimes, and, vocal as I am, maybe sometimes I can be a bit of a dick about it, but this is one fight that needs to be fought, and I appreciate it immensely.

    Stay well mate.

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      Cognitive behavioural therapy, not genitive. Damned autocorrect.

      • BathroomCitizen says:

        Could you elaborate on those mental processes and mantras?

        • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

          it’s just a kind of behavioural therapy, that can help you to rethink how you see things. A big for example for me was that whenever I had to do something, I’d feel dread at the possibility of doing the thing. This made me unable to face the thing, therefore I wouldn’t do it. Then I’d get ridiculously down on myself for not doing the thing in the first place, and feel even worse. Very negative thoughts that help no one.

          What I learned to do with CBT was to look at myself objectively and without judgement or hating myself, so I could open a dialog with my anxiety: “Ok, the thing didn’t happen. Why didn’t you do the thing? Ok so you couldn’t face the thing. What actions could you take to be able to do the thing? If you can’t take that action, then why not try a smaller action? etc etc etc’

          Once I started shrinking my goals in this way, into actions the were achievable, I gained confidence to do bigger goals.

          I noticed that below you have serious issues with OCD. I’m afraid I can’t relate to that, but I’m certain that trying CBT wouldn’t hurt, and splitting your life into small and achievable goals may help you to overcome your compulsions.

          • BathroomCitizen says:

            Thanks for the reply.

            Maybe I could try to apply this to my OCD in some way. Small achievable goals and not to be too hard on oneself – that sounds pretty good!

  15. Mr Ogs says:

    I struggle with depression too, and it cost me my marriage and time with my Son.
    I do feel though that when you filter out the toxic image that gaming has been associated with for so long, you actually see that most of the people who are willing to actually talk about their mental illness are avid gamers. I think there is something associated with being able to escape into a good game; or even a bad one, that helps so many people.
    It’s not something you would ever wish on someone, but it does make it all seem a bit more manageable when you realise just how many people suffer in the same way.
    As for a hot bath game, it can vary greatly but mostly its about being allowed to feel in control again. Something like Diablo 3 where you can walk through swathes of demons and emerge unscathed is good. I also used to spend a lot of time fishing in vanilla WOW just to get away.
    Well done for highlighting it again John, well written and insightful.

  16. BathroomCitizen says:

    I suffer from different types of OCDs and it’s getting frustrating losing so much time and stressing my relationship with my wife over this irrational illness.

    I’m becoming a father soon, and I’m be scared that I won’t be a good one, with this broken mind of mine.

    • kergguz says:

      Hey man. My wife suffers from contamination OCD. We have two kids aged 1 and 3 and let me tell you she’s the best mother the kids could ever wish for. The thing about OCD is that it usually affects those who have a tender disposition… Those who are prone to worrying about others. Well that also makes them very caring. She definitely has down days but she is always there for the kids, always putting them first. Honestly she needs to put herself first more often. Not sure what I’m trying to say really, but OCD doesn’t = bad parent. You’re not alone pal, feel free to PM me if you want to talk it out. All the best.

    • John Walker says:

      I was terrified to become a dad because of my anxiety, but I’m pleased to report that eighteen months in I seem to be a pretty decent one.

      If you can arrange it, I really endorse finding some CBT or regular talking therapy, because just being aware of your own feelings going into it is super helpful. You can do this, and you will likely be a fantastic parent, simply because you care enough to worry that you might not!

      • BathroomCitizen says:

        Thank you kergguz and John, just writing and talking to you about this makes me feel a lot better and a lot less wrong person.

        I care about my family and I would give up my life for it, and that’s what counts. All my other compulsions and thoughts – they’re just that.

        Maybe it’s time to seek some talking therapy. The more I try to hide my behaviours, the more I feel a monster.

        • John Walker says:

          If you’re talking about intrusive thoughts, then yes, talking therapy is amazing. A trained expert looking you in the eyes and saying, “This is perfectly common, and I know they’re not thoughts you want,” is an incredible moment.

  17. Sleepery says:

    I didn’t realise you hadn’t been well John, glad you’re feeling better. I’ve lived with anxiety and depression on and off for about three years now, and I’ve started to realise that there are certain games I absolutely shouldn’t go anywhere near when I’m not feeling well. The worst offender was Dear Esther, which I went into blind, expecting a..well, a relaxing walking simulator. Finding a game about loss, despair and suicide really didn’t do me any good at the time. I make bloody sure I know what a game’s themes are now before I jump in.

    Strangely enough, XCom 2 was another culprit. The unlucky RNG that would cost me a mission and the relentless march of the Advent timer became unwelcome reflections of the personal pressures and perceived bad luck in real life. I would come out of a session feeling worse than when I went in.

  18. The Bitcher III says:

    Hey John. Yeah, I can relate to some of what you’re talking about. The ‘not-just-stuck-in-bed-but-stuck-in-bed-unable-to-move-a-milimetre’. The use of the adjective ‘brutal’. This shit really sucks. Last year I unhappily learned that there is not only the nervous, edgy, short-breath anxiety… it has a counterpart, a pitch-black, toxic, deathly, ‘so this is mortal fear’ counterpart that approaches stealthily and wreaks utter destruction on you. One episode can leave you weakened for days, and also reduce the threshold for the next. A couple of episodes can make you physically unwell, systems can’t cope with the effort. It’s hard to explain this to doctors. The only upside is that the exquisite pain is a good motivation to be honest, open and true – to yourself.

    Of course, everyone’s experience of MH problems is different.

    But when dealing with any sort of physiological and psychological exhaustion, gaming can seem like way to much. Certainly anything involving rapid movement or reactions, explosions or gunfire or violence can be utterly unthinkable.

    I sought some recommendations on another forum.

    Some seemed on the money – South Park Stick Of Truth, Besiege, Jazzpunk, Machinarium, Psychonauts, Thirty Flights of Loving, Saturday Morning RPG, Octodad, Dropsy, Beyond Good and Evil, Goat Simulator, all the Ratchet and Clank games.

    Some less so – it’s hard to explain how the prospect of The Binding Of Isaac’s pitch-black sensibilities seemed designed to insidiously pick at the cracks in my fragile self.

    I have a friend who talked me down from a panic attack once. I still love him for it. He got me talking about childhood things. Simple pleasures. Old toys, TV shows. It’s obvious when you think about it. I don’t think it’s an accident that the day hospital I once attended, was structured in the same way a day at primary school might have been. Even the activities offered where the same. Cooking, talking, creative/craft time, and a few ‘lessons’ on how to understand MH concepts and care for yourself whilst unwell.

    I think there’s something in that. Innocence and tranquillity are the salves to heal the fragile. So beyond adventure games and walking simulators (btw, after my last rough period, Everyone’s gone to the Rapture was the first time I was able to sit through something for more than 20 minutes)…. I’d look at Mario and Zelda games… silly stuff like Marble madness, Rainbow Islands, Pang… whatever engenders the simple times and simple pleasures before the world and our pathologies started to rub against each other. Maybe Shadow Of The Colossus, Journey… Okami.

    There will be days where even these ask too much. when that happens, I turn to glossy, warm films… Spielberg’s quieter stuff, anything with Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart, musicals, Disney and Pixar.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear you’re doing well, and thanks for talking about this. It’s done me some good.

    • John Walker says:

      A very good friend not only managed to get me to leave the house back in Feb when it was at its worst, but then when I was literally curled up on the table in the coffee shop, unfurled me by having me explain the plot of Firewatch to her. It was the combination of talking about something completely other, and something about which I felt positive passion, that had this amazingly positive effect in that moment. I found that interesting. Of course, the grossness of the mental illness is that she had to fight hard to have me even try to do it, so determined was I to stay in the fear – it’s so perverse. But it really helped that afternoon.

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      I can 100% feel what you’re saying about the mortal fear thing. The very first panic attack I had was fucking epic. As I described in my above post, ‘pins and needles times a thousand’ and extreme panic. I had this hideous sensation that my (this is honestly the only way I think to explain it) sanity was being detached from the rest of me. I wanted to pass out, but I thought I might die. I though if I stayed awake that I would simply lose my mind. All in all this experience lasted about seven hours and by the end of it I was well and truly jiggered. To be perfectly honest I suffered after that in some form or another for a further 2 years (this all happened about 2 1/2 years ago). The whole thing was a nightmare that I am glad is over.

      With that said though, there remains a funny feeling under my skin which I struggle to describe. I feel like there is a slight numbness at the end of my fingers and on my forearms just like the feeling I had before I had my big bastard attack. It never gets any worse, it’s just… there. And to be honest I don’t see it as a bad feeling any more; just weird. And always present.

  19. Premium User Badge

    magogjack says:

    I will just leave a Rimmer salute here for you John, &o7

  20. Aeru says:

    John, I just want to say thank you for posting about your experience with AD. I’ve had issues my whole life and never knew what exactly was wrong. I was sitting in the Doctors surgery yesterday after a difficult couple of weeks and thinking enough is enough. Due to my appointment being late I opened up RPS to kill some time and stumbled across this and your other article and links. I identify with a lot of what you’d said, and I finally feel I understand what’s been wrong all along. The Doctor agreed that I almost certainly have AD of some kind and recommended counselling/therapy and medication. All of which I will consider. So thanks again, you’re posts have already helped me a lot.
    Oh and as for games that have helped, for me its mainly strategy games like Civ, Xcom, but also fallout, skyrim, that seem to occupy my over active brain.

  21. celticdr says:

    Thanks again for sharing John, I too once suffered from AD, though now I self-medicate with Buddhist meditation recently being out of work has gotten me a bit down but I know I will find something soon, but it can be tough when you are naturally prone to anxiety.

    Anyway I just wanted to thank RPS as a whole for being somewhere I can go during the good times and bad times, cheers guys!

    PS: My comfort games include the Elder Scrolls games, the Fallout series, Witcher 3, Euro Truck Sim 2 and Dirt Rally.

  22. Sleepery says:

    I’d strongly recommend mindfulness too for anyone suffering from anxiety. It’s not spiritual, it’s backed by a ton of studies, and it’s not about emptying your mind, but about training it to see thoughts from a distance, so you can just let them be rather than getting tied up in them and following them down the rabbit hole.

    It initially helped me to calm the **** down, and eventually to realise I needed a complete career change, and most importantly to see that I could actually do it – that I didn’t have to engage with all the fears and insecurities about changing that filled every waking moment.

    • Paul B says:

      I can also recommend mindfulness – however it can take time to have effect – and it should not be seen as a cure-all (at least this is how I’ve learnt to view it) but rather as another tool to keep your mind healthy.

      As far as games go, when my mental health problems flare up (I suffer from schizophrenia) there’s nothing I like more than immersing myself in a Bethsda open-world style RPG. I spent over 150 hrs in Skyrim and I’m currently clocking up the hours in Fallout 4. I know exactly what John means by that Hot Bath feeling, and when I’m too ill to venture outside the house, I like that I can still immerse myself in a game.

  23. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Nope; Actually many games feel like work lately. I still play a lot, since it’s not like there’s anything better to do, but now I skip madly from game to game to game. Perhaps ADD is rotting my brain and I’ll never be able to enjoy anything for long again.

  24. Unicycles says:

    I didn’t expect to find such a…comforting(?) article here on RPS. I’ve been dealing with anxiety disorder in my own way, and would always describe gaming time as “recharging my social battery”. I think a nice hot bath is a more apt analogy :)

    I just really wanted to say how much I appreciate this and the article linked. Awareness is so important, and to know there are other people out there (just like me!) who feel similar is very healing in it’s own.

    So thankyou, John. You’ve made a loyal reader out of me with this one.

  25. Haplo says:

    Thank you for the lovely post, John.

    A moment of self-disclosure: I’m about a year away from becoming a fully accredited therapist (not a path I’d imagined I’d be doing when I finished school, but so it goes), so I have a few things to say for some of the folks who might be reading along who’re feeling helpless, threatened and hoping beyond hope for something better.

    There will be some folks who will manage to take the courageous step of seeing a therapist and risking themselves in asking for help, only to find after a few sessions that they feel like they’ve wasted their time, and don’t feel any better or even feel worse, like they’re beyond helping or the therapy has only stabbed the wounds. To these folks I’d like to say this: it’s okay to feel like that, and it doesn’t mean that you’re beyond help. So much hinges on the relationship between yourself and the therapist in these things; if things didn’t work out, that’s okay. When you feel you can, go see someone else. You need to feel comfortable with your therapist, and if you don’t, it’s okay to say that to yourself and to seek a different therapist. Things will get better.

    Maybe not immediately. Maybe things will get better and get worse. But all I can say is that there’ll be exceptions, days when your challenges don’t rule you, when you beat them. For most folks, there already are. Think of those times that were just a little better than usual. Think of those successes, which prove you can succeed again in the future. Whatever you did on those days, whatever happened, you can do again and keep going. You have resources and abilities tied up in your own story, things that make you competent and the future hopeful. Just so long as you remember that you are not hopeless, and you are worth helping, no matter what.

  26. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    I have an actual hot bath every morning immediately after waking up. Massively helps get rid of the dark cobwebs lurking in the recesses.
    And an alarm clock. Sounds weird, but an alarm that can’t easily be ignored is an underappreciated and simple solution to getting me out of bed. I’m so trained now after years of use, if my alarm goes off, I physically can’t go back to sleep.

    But then, I’ve never been diagnosed as having anything quite so crippling as anxiety disorder, and know I’m in danger of offering advice from a standpoint of complete ignorance.

    I know of your love for Burnout Paradise John, and I love it too. However, given the choice, I would rather play the delightful Driver: San Francisco. Have you played it? It’s wonderfully playful, especially in the voice acting of the various passengers. Soundtrack’s also better :)