Video Games Helped Me Heal from PTSD — Yes, Really
You’ve heard the stories. You’ve read the headlines. “Video games make people violent. Aggressive. Gaming is a waste of time.” And for the vast majority of my life, I would have agreed with you — not with the former, that has been disproven, but the latter. Halo, after all, is a silly shooting game. Fortnite is facetious. Frivolous. It is pointless, through and through. But after undergoing a series of traumas in late 2019 and early 2020, I have a newfound appreciation for them. Video games, in many ways, saved my life.
Of course, I was (and am) not new to gaming. I got my first system in Kindergarten — a boxy baby known as Nintendo. I played Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt for hours on end. Until my hands hurt. Until my thumbs calloused and eyes burned. I turned to puzzle games in my teens and tweens. Tetris was (and still is) my jam. And I had other games, too. Pokemon. Kirby’s Dream Land. Mario Kart, and Sonic the freakin’ Hedgehog. But as I grew, I aged up and out of this lifestyle. I put the controller down and the games away. And while the reasons are numerous — work and school became a priority; my attention shifted from Tetris to term papers — the “why” doesn’t matter. Not really. What matters is the here and now. What matters is today. And today, I am a 37-year-old gamer, one who uses video games to cope with PTSD.
“[PTSD or] post traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury,” an article by the American Psychiatric Association explains. “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people.” And this was the case with me. I experienced severe and complex symptoms after the death of my mother. After finding her, face down and clinging to consciousness, in a pile of bile and blood.
My sleep was immediately disrupted. I experienced nightmares and terrors and had extreme insomnia. I was paralyzed, a victim of circumstance and consequence — and an abusive past. My emotional regulation was non-existent. I vacillated between feelings of anger and apathy. Sadness, shame, and fear. And I couldn’t focus. Being present was (damn near) impossible.
I had frequent suicidal ideations, meaning I regularly experienced suicidal thoughts. I considered taking my life on numerous occasions. I had both the means and a plan. And living was a struggle. Being still and playing with my kids was hard. But when my husband bought Animal Crossing for me — and the family — in the spring of 2020, things changed. My mood shifted. The reason? Isabelle and the inhabitants of Asokatowno (my island) distracted me from the pain and my past. These colorful, anthropomorphic characters grounded me, keeping me focused and present, and Tom Nook was an anchor. Animal Crossing was (and remains) my “safe space.” It also motivated me to do something, anything — which I desperately needed. While gaming, I had the desire to push forward. To try.
My experience is not unique. A 2019 study found that video games can help Veterans overcome mental health problems, such as substance abuse disorder and PTSD. A similar study found a correlation between puzzle games, like Tetris, and trauma work. Playing the former has the potential to reduce the amount of intrusive thoughts one experiences after a traumatic event, particularly when said games are played within 24 hours. And another 2019 study found Tetris may alleviate flashbacks associated with PTSD.
“Tetris could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to alleviate involuntarily recurring visual memories of traumatic experiences,” the study stated. It could be used as a treatment tool for those with PTSD. In short, my experience isn’t just circumstantial. It is science-based.
That said, Animal Crossing — and other video games — are not my only outlet. I see a therapist every week, and we talk through both the present and my past. With her help, I am doing some serious trauma work. I see my psychiatrist a couple of times a month, to check-in. To check on my moods and meds. And I have several friends and family members I can turn to for ear. For a hug. For support. But were it not for the timely release of Animal Crossing (and my return to video games) I don’t know that I would have survived the last year or few seasons. I don’t know that I would have made it through the long, painful summer of 2020.
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