The Zen of Video Games – Leveling Up

I’ve always been an introspective person. I’m probably the most confusing thing in my life. I constantly question myself and my actions, wondering what makes me the way I am. So when I decided to start writing an article series on gaming, it seemed a natural fit to marry the two concepts. After all, there are a great many things that video games have taught me about myself over the years, and they continue to do so to this day.

So, The Zen of Video Games is all about self-exploration through gaming. Enlightenment by way of an analog stick and the X button, if you will. It will sometimes be goofy and absurd, and it will sometimes be serious and personal. But it will always be relevant to games, and there will always be something to take away from it, even if it’s only, “Wow, that Aaron guy is a moron.”

On a whim, I decided to send some of those articles to the gang here at Leviathyn, and they must have access to the really good hardcore narcotics, because they really liked them, so here we are. This is the first essay I ever wrote on the subject, and it’s about self-improvement. Let’s get to it.

Despite how far they’ve come, there’s still a negative view of video games by non-gamers. Whenever I tell a non-gamer that I’m a gamer, no matter how proudly I say it, there’s a look they all get screaming louder than words that they’ve lost some small amount of respect for me, like I just spilled grape juice on their carpet.

Why? Why don’t I get the same look when I tell them I read books, or watch movies?

I can’t say I understand it, not anymore. Back when it was a niche thing, something only quote-unquote ‘nerds’ would partake in, it might’ve made sense, but some of these people looking down their noses at me are the same people who’ll go home and play Angry Birds on their phone or Just Dance on their Wii.

I think it comes down to why people game. If they’re playing Angry Birds, they’re just killing time. If they’re playing Just Dance, they’re trying to stay fit and have fun, mostly by flailing around like they’re having a seizure and an orgasm at the same time. But according to them, if I’m playing Call of Duty, then I must have gun fantasies or serious emotional problems. Or at least it feels like they think that.

A year ago, or even just a month ago, I would’ve said that games provide an experience that most of its players can’t have in real life. Thanks to my friend Brian in Syracuse, I can play three chords on a guitar. But in video games, I’m a veritable rock GOD, getting through blistering solos on Expert difficulty.

While the fact that I play games to have new experiences is at least partially true, I HAVE had serious emotional problems in my life. For a period of at least ten years (might be closer to fifteen), I was extremely depressed. Video games were, to me, one of the few joys the world allowed me to have. And to a degree, gaming was less about getting to do something I couldn’t, and more about being someone I wasn’t.

You see, there’s an incredible moment in video games I just haven’t found anywhere else. Some people call it immersion, or suspension of disbelief, but if a game pulls me in just right – for a few seconds, at least – I AM the character I’m playing. I am Tex Murphy, desperately trying to sneak up on a serial killer, knowing that if he spots me, I’m dead. I am Samus Aran, rushing to find my ship before the planet explodes as the sirens blare and the timer counts down to zero. I am Jack Wade, filled with horror as I realize Liberty is forcing me to fight and kill my own son. Their emotions are mine, and mine are theirs.

The danger lies in using this as a crutch – it’s extremely easy to get hooked on being someone else when you hate what you are. Make no mistake, I’m in no way advocating that gaming destroys lives, but when a pre-existing condition is there, gaming addiction can be a very real, and very scary thing.

I’ve often said that the one thing I wanted more than anything was to be someone’s hero, and video games gave me an outlet to be exactly that, and I’m forever grateful, but what got me out of the cycle of depression and games as relief from depression, was being MY OWN hero.

Bolstered by confidence from a play I’d done with cast members I loved (my first non-gaming hobby in YEARS), I made the extremely brave decision to quit smoking. I’d smoked incessantly for twelve years, and I was smoking a pack and a half a day when I decided to quit. And I did so using strategies I’d learned from video games – if you have a big problem, break it into smaller, manageable pieces, pick your spots, and give yourself every advantage possible – and if you are afraid, don’t run away. Face your fear and stand your ground.

I did exactly that. On January 3rd, 2011, I deliberately timed it so the last cigarette in my last pack would be smoked early in my work shift, so I would be facing at least five or six hours without one, which was a scary-as-hell proposition. Before that day came, I bought nicotine patches and regular chewing gum. My timing was also perfect, as I’d just moved into a new house, and bought a new truck, so most of the triggers that made me want to smoke were gone.

I made it through that first night, and it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. In the intervening time, I’ve come to realize that these things usually aren’t. They just seem like they’re impossible monsters – but every boss has a weak point and CAN be beaten.

I’ve been smoke free for over a year and a half now.

A few months ago, I took a long hard look at myself and realized I still had room for improvement. I decided it was time to try and lose weight, something I’d never done intentionally before. At the time, I weighed just over three hundred pounds. Again, I broke it down into manageable pieces, and gave myself every advantage.

I did research. I talked to my friends and family, and sought out people who had or were trying to lose weight to learn from them. I started by drinking diet soda and water with Mio instead of the regular sugary stuff. A couple weeks after that, I reduced my food intake by about 25%. A few weeks later, I joined a local gym. Now I go a minimum of twice a week, and my food intake has been reduced by 33% from what it was.

I’ve lost 35 pounds since then.

And I want it clear that I’m not saying these things for kudos, but because I know for a genuine fact that there are tons of gamers out there who are as unhappy with their lives as I was with mine. I’m writing this article to blunt-force inform you that if you really want to, you CAN change.

I still play video games, but not as much as I used to. I don’t need them as much as I did, no crutches necessary here. But I still love them. I still get excited when I hear about a good idea, I still watch and read video game reviews and take part in video game discussions online, and I can still get sucked into that transcendent moment when I become the hero (I’m still playing Skyrim).

I love video games for a lot of reasons. I think I might not be alive today if they hadn’t been around at the darkest parts of my depression. And they make me feel like I can be anything I want to be. They’ve already taught me how to make myself a better man. Who knows what’s next? Maybe I’ll finally get myself a girlfriend. Or find a way to support myself doing what I love, perhaps in the game industry? I think I might be off to a good start at that.

I can’t say what’s next for me. What I can say is, thanks to video games, you’re better off betting on me than against me.

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  1. Neil Gilham

    Ok wow… This article is hilarious and spot on…I felt transcendence, enlightenment and spiritual awaking…. All summed up through gaming…. Which i love…
    Please post more soon!!!

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