There are a very few number of games that have stood the test of time. Some games had all the hype in the world and are now nowhere to be seen (can I see a show of hands for the Fable fans out there?). Many have promised to change the gaming industry forever, disrupting age-old paradigms. Certainly, many games have done this. Many have not.
Everquest is an MMORPG. That’s a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. These are games where a person can login to a virtual world as an avatar (a virtual representation of yourself, although most likely as an elf, dwarf, goblin, troll, orc, etc., rather than a human) and play alongside literally thousands of other people, just like you (and by “just like you”, I mean other complete nerds who may or may not be embarrassed by their favorite hobby).
Released in 1999, Everquest was the first MMORPG to use a 3D gaming engine to drive it’s graphical interface. It was one of the biggest commercial successes for a video game ever at the time. In fact, over two decades later (that’s nearly ancient history for a video game these days), Everquest and its servers are still running – and, believe it or not, new expansions are still being released on a regular basis. In its heyday, the game enjoyed over a half-million active players.
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For me, I wasn’t one of the first to play the game. I came a few years later. I was working at (you guessed it) Stop N Save Software (which was actually an EB Games store, but for an outlet mall). My friend and I had only recently gotten into this thing called online gaming. We were playing Phantasy Star Online for good old Sega Dreamcast, and we were properly hooked. I’m talking just-one-more-level hooked. I’m talking we’ll-sleep-when-we’re-dead hooked (honestly, we probably should have gotten some help). But with Phantasy Star Online, you could only join a game with up to four other players. It was pretty much a dungeon-crawling game with only a few different biomes to explore. And we had beaten the final boss many times. That’s when we started hearing about this other game that dwarfed Phantasy Star Online with it’s massive open world, where anyone can go anywhere, where thousands could be in the same area at any time, all playing together (yes, that game was Everquest).
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Now, here’s the thing. The title of the game is called Everquest. Let’s break that down a little bit.
- Ever: forever, i.e. neverending
- Quest: a mission you are assigned to do
Are you getting the picture? Good, I’m glad you are. For me, as a naïve teenager, I don’t think I bothered to think about it. And I suppose that another half-million people similar to me didn’t bother to ponder the title of the game either.
However, Everquest also had that intangible thing that gamers (and everyone else, for that matter) long for. And honestly, after much thought, there really is only one name I can give that thing – magic. I’m not talking about spells and flashing lights, although there was plenty of that. I’m talking about that feeling of being hopelessly captivated by something – when something that is not real somehow becomes more real than reality itself. I’m talking about the feeling when, somehow, the virtual world that you are occupying becomes almost as important (or even more important) then your own. Whatever that thing is, Everquest had it. Maybe it was the massive open world. Maybe it was the challenge of it (and believe me, it was brutally difficult). Maybe it was because, for many people, it was the first time they had donned a virtual persona of themselves and entered a realistic world where they could be anyone, and share a space with others who could do the same.
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Of course, it’s possible that I’m wrong about all of this. It’s entirely possible that I’ve missed the whole point of why I sought (and found) that thing that I call magic in this game and others like it. Is it at all possible that instead of enjoying the grand story-telling and immersion of these virtual worlds, I was instead just attempting to escape from the problems of my day-to-day, dull, dreary life?
I think it’s worth looking into. For one, I certainly met the criteria of someone who wanted to escape from their lives. I was a pretty miserable teenager who was bad with girls and wasn’t very good at making friends. I had a problem turning my brain off (I still do), and couldn’t help but think the worst of most situations. Did I tell you about the year that I intentionally didn’t speak to anyone unless spoken to? Or about all the times where I tried to become the hero in the latest movie I watched, because I thought they were super cool?
If video games are a coping mechanism, I probably used them as such.
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When considering the question, “Are video games a coping mechanism?”, I think we first need a better definition of what we’re trying to answer. Consider the following questions:
- Are video games a coping mechanism in any way whatsoever?
- Are video games only a coping mechanism and nothing more?
Now we’re getting somewhere!
Of course, these questions have drastically different implications than the original one, but I think that we now have something to work with.
To answer the former (“Are video games a coping mechanism in any way whatsoever”?), I think there’s a very simply answer, which is a resounding “probably”. But, when I freely admit that this is the case, let’s consider what a coping mechanism actually is. According to goodtherapy.com:
Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions.
No surprises there. A coping mechanism is a way people deal with stress and/or trauma. Of course, what we shouldn’t miss in this definition is the wide-open possibilities it presents. If we take the definition as liberally as possible, almost any activity under the sun could be considered a coping mechanism. From sports to painting to hiking to fishing to drawing to writing, even working, yes, these things could all be considered coping mechanisms. In fact, I would be willing to argue that any activity a person is doing besides the one that is causing them stress could be considered a coping mechanism. I dare to say that even something that others might consider stressful could still be used as coping mechanisms for others. Under this definition, there is no doubt that the answer to the question “Are video games a coping mechanism in any way whatsoever?” is (unsurprisingly) yes, at least probably to some people.
As to the latter question, I also don’t think it’s a difficult thing to answer. I think the answer is clearly “no”. Let’s think about the question for a minute. I think one interpretation is, if something is a coping mechanism (and nothing more), then there would be zero value added to a person’s life besides the fact that it is a way to escape from the thing that is causing them stress. But I think you can argue pretty strongly that there are plenty of beneficial things that someone can get from playing a video games. For one, video games can be a way of challenging oneself. There are plenty of people who compete for world records on video games, and this requires patience, diligence, determination, and a strong will. There are also plenty of very challenging games that require those same traits, although probably slightly less so. Some games also provide us with incredible storytelling, which stimulates our imagination. Video games also sometimes challenge our perceptions and biases. There are also several games that teach us – or at least cause some of us to be interested in – history, and even philosphy.
So, to answer the latter question, the answer, I think, is pretty clear. It’s a “no” from me.
So, we can now think of video games (and most other activities, as we’ve discussed) as a potential coping mechanism, if the person is going through a stressful time. However, to think of video games as a coping mechanism only is a pretty far leap (not to mention you would be making a lot of enemies out of us angry video game nerds).
Well, that about wraps it up.
Wait, what’s that? There’s one more thing to consider, you say? Well why didn’t you say so!?
Let’s look at one last question, maybe more important than the other questions we already addressed. And that question is:
- Are video games a good coping mechanism?
If we’ve determined that almost anything could be considered a coping mechanism, it stands to reason that we should try to answer the question of whether it is a good one.
Of course, there is plenty of research on this topic, but I have the lucky circumstance of not having to rely on research (no, I’m not saying we should ignore it). I say, if you can go right to the source, then you should do that. And the source – or at least one source – is me. A gamer. And not only am I a gamer, but I believe myself to be at least a fairly impartial gamer. When I say impartial, I mean that I’m not a subjective video game fanboy, willing to defend them at all costs. As I’ve said before in my About Me page, the best way to describe my stance on video games is that “I’m a gamer, whether I like it or not”. Sometimes, to be honest, I kind of wish I liked sports or something more mainstream instead. That kind of thinking certainly leaves me in the minority. A gamer who has come to accept that he likes games! (What will they think of next?) Given that, I think I can be at least reasonably objective in this topic.
In my own life, I can conclude the following: In general, when I am feeling very miserable, I actually don’t get much enjoyment out of video games (I don’t get any enjoyment out of anything, really, but that’s another story). Therefore, I don’t think I could use video games as a coping mechanism – at least not when I am, what you might call, extremely miserable. In those times, I’d much rather just lay in bed and binge some goofy TV comedy (Seinfeld, anyone?). It requires just enough of my brain to stay engaged and keep my mind off of what’s really bothering me, but not so much that I feel like I’m thinking too hard.
No, when I’m completely miserable or stressed, games are out of the question. It’s only in the times when I feel as though things are (semi) under control (because, let’s be honest, nothing is ever completely under control) – those are the times when I feel like I can indulge, take a break, relax, and enjoy the latest of many great titles that will challenge, puzzle, and delight.
However, if someone were to go to video games when they were completely miserable or stressed, I’m pretty sure that it’s better than many other things that they could do instead (smoking, drinking, and using illegal substances, to name a few). Even just watching TV, I think, is probably slightly worse than playing video games, since when you’re playing a game, it requires action and thought on the player’s part. And action almost certainly requires more thought than just watching a screen.
It would be dishonest of me, however, not to mention the many times that I’ve heard of video games becoming an addiction for some people. In fact, with the very same title that I’m discussing (Everquest), there was a story about a boy who took his own life after losing many of his in-game items – things that most likely took him hundreds or even thousands of hours to get. His mother started a group to help others cope with their addictions.
If some people wanted to make this the silver bullet as to why video games are addictive and should be avoided at all costs, I won’t stop them. However, I would hesitate to use so much force when pushing that opinion. The unfortunate state of humanity is that anything, whether good or bad, whether valuable or invaluable, whether pure or perverse, has the potential to become an addiction, if we remove our restraints, forsake all other things, and pledge ourselves to it.
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Of course, as with all things, let’s not give up on challenging ourselves on how we spend our time. I find that the older I get, the less I have of it. Therefore, it seems even more critical to me that we consider wisely how to spend it. In the upcoming world of Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, and the like, it seems to me that the precious currency called time is still the most valuable one of all.
Until next time,
Game On, friends.