I’m sat on a wooden bench in a misty seaside town on the south coast watching the lights shimmer out across the sea, pondering the journey that has led me to this spot again whilst the December air bites at my face. I used to come here as a young teen when my head was full of girls, confusion, football, video games, and American films from the 80s. Not much has changed apart from now it’s late at night and I’ve come here to smoke a cigar as I feel I can justify one every now and then, having quit smoking years ago. I have come to a local pub to write this article to get out of my dad's spare room where I reside at present due to various different circumstances. I am 37 and play video games.
This last year has been the darkest of my life and I’m not sure if this article is meant to be cathartic, an ego trip wanting attention, a want to help other people in my situation, or something else I’m not sure of. My therapist would probably tell me its a bit of all of them! The ego is very difficult to remove from anything you put out there in the name of art or media. Unfortunately my time being heavily involved in the retro gaming scene unearthed some big issues I saw in myself and a lot of the friends I had made.
Hold your horses….I’m not about to lambaste you for your gaming hobbies or stop you spending £400 on Panzer Dragoon. But I am going to challenge some ideas and talk about some things that are difficult to address and might make people feel uncomfortable.
Before I do that, I feel I need to give you some context on my journey, albeit very briefly as like all breakdowns it’s extremely complicated with a cobweb of intricate dark nuances.
A year ago I lost everything. It was my own fault through doing everything in my power to dislocate myself from society and live in a fantasy land. Luckily I have family to take the strain and I have stayed there since whilst I take medication and therapy for issues I’ve always struggled against, and I’m still trying to work those out now.
I've been a travelling acoustic songwriter for many years with relative success. I pursued my music career until the wheels fells off and in the process became disillusioned, spiky, and very, very depressed. I didn’t really understand the extent until I lost my partner and had to move back home and go on the dole whilst trying to get to the bottom of the process I have repeated all my life. The constant feeling that I’m swimming against the tide, fear, dislocation, and depression. I’ve always suffered with it and it chased me down like a dog in a graffiti-strewn street-lit alleyway and clamped onto my leg bringing me to the floor. I did warn you…. A cutsey Kirby's Dreamland this ain’t!
The year previous I became heavily involved in the retro scene. I was a host on RGDS (retro gaming discussion show). I wrote articles for Games You Loved.com, I wrote a small book that you could and can still order from Amazon and Blurb. I attended some events and listened to countless gaming podcasts such as Retro Hour, Retro Domination, Maximum Power Up, Retro Asylum, Back In My Play, Retro Game Squad, Retro Collect, Sega Talk, and Dreamcast Junkyard. I set up a gaming Twitter and gained a few thousand followers through the help of Games You Loved.com and some social media content tips I had developed from my music. I collected for my Saturn my partner had got for me the Xmas previous and edited podcasts at home with music and SFX. Along with music, coming to terms with my failure to earn, and graphic design jobs on the side...I was starting to run out of head space.
I had this notion I could be involved in the gaming world in some way and earn a bit of cash on the side maybe. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but it was consuming me. It was both exhilarating and asphyxiating. What was a geeky little hobby became a huge weight around my neck which along with my music plunged me deeper into the darkness and put huge strain on my relationship and world view. After the fallout from my breakdown I disappeared off social media completely and I can tell you it was quite liberating.
I fear I may be losing a few of you, so let me just say I still listen to podcasts, I do the odd Twitter post, and more importantly, I still play games. So please... stay with me!
Having been in the business of selling myself for years I know too well how obsessions can often hide a problem underneath. A lot of the time it's validation and what better way to be validated than be involved in a community that likes what you do and is fun and friendly? After all, that’s what we all strive for isn’t it...acceptance? The gaming community was accepting and lovely but I did notice some dark traits. A large amount of people I had met at Expos or talking to online suffered from mental health problems and meeting them in the fles,m it became all the more apparent as I recognised them having the same aura of treading water that I possess. Misfits, disillusioned, and the bewildered all met under a hanger filled with treasures of gaming past and present. This, for me, was both beautiful and worrying.
The obsessive collecting to the point of putting your family in jeopardy, the need to scratch the itch of getting that game to look at the box….once…. Just substitute games for casinos, drugs or drink and it all comes from the same place. Now...please don’t think I am putting my head above the precipice to be included in the age old argument of play or display….I really couldn’t care either way. I am merely saying that there are some people running. Running away from things that scare them so they put themselves in suspended animation, arrested development, obsessive behaviour, and a need to escape.
This is not necessarily a bad thing at all. The man and his shed is a cliché for a reason and without our little goals, quests, and obsessions, the social framework we have to adhere to here would be a dull place. But that’s just it...we mustn’t lose the fact that it is escapism and we cant let ourselves get too lost in it. Before you know it, what once used to fill you with childlike wonder now becomes an expectation of yourself you blindly pursue.
Having touched on some of the darker sides of gaming and obsession I’d like to discuss what gaming has given me this year. One evening when I was particularly having dark thoughts I took myself off to a local gaming club in the hope of finding physical people with a like mind to feel human for a night. I met a guy called Ben and we have become very close friends that meet up regularly to play retro and current games. He is the opposite of me, a family man with a heart of gold and a business that he works hard in. It's a nice environment for me to go round and play games and I forgot how much I missed sitting next to someone giggling for 3 hours straight.
Broforce (PS4), Rocket League (PS4), Wave Race (N64), Need For Speed (Gamecube), Mario Kart (N64), Goldeneye (N64), the laughs we have had this year! Anyone suffering from mental health issues and depression I suggest getting a good multi-player game and sitting next to a mate to play rather than online. There’s nothing quite like a sarcastic wise crack and its subsequent explosion of laughter after a head-shot to escape from your thoughts. So thank you, Ben.
On a more personal level, gaming has been a godsend this year in the maintenance of my mental health. When I settled into getting minimum wage for a few months I decided to treat myself to an XBOX One S; having been a 360 user I thought I’d stay loyal and besides...I’d already bought Daytona USA! I have always been a late comer to the generations as I've never had any money to spend on things like that but this year my recovery has meant I have had minimum rent and money in my pocket. I have delved into what the current generation has to offer and with the advent of XBOX live I have acquired HD Sega remakes, cheap indie games and titles that have immersed myself from my inner turmoil.
I have really got into story driven games about the human condition. Oxenfree, Dear Esther, RIME, Life Is Strange, and most notably, Firewatch. Firewatch for good and bad will always remind me of this period of my life. The plot of a man putting himself in exile to seek some kind of redemption drew many parallels with myself and its beautiful style, flow, and script is a work of art. Art...this year I have been exploring art through the mediums of acrylic, spray, and oil based abstract expression. I have been using it as another form of therapy but the average person will never experience or have the patience to sit with a game like Dear Esther and regard it as Art. It truly is and I urge anyone who is on a journey of discovery to not forget the calming meditative effect that video games can have on the soul. Games that are very highbrow that feed the human spirit all the way through to simple arcade games that have a zen-like quality. I cant tell you how many laps of Daytona I have done in the last two years. It calms me down and takes me to a safe place.
But this brings me back to the dark. It’s fun exploring our childhoods and going back to that point where everything was simpler and innocent. The trouble is I suspect I was using games in an obsessive manner even then to block out something far more sinister.
I’m not saying sell all your Mutant Turtles, burn your Galvatrons and Mask figures; I, for one, will one day have them out again, as I once did when I lived with my partner and it made me very happy. I’m not convinced that it made her that happy in the end but she did try for a while! Just make sure and be open to the fact that too much can lead you into literally living in a cartoon world. It sounds lovely but can if not managed lead to a dark trip much akin to Disney’s Fantasia. I guess the fact I have used a reference from a children’s animation is telling. The irony will not be lost on most people reading this.
I fear I may lose some of my gaming buddies with this article and there was a time that I would have cared. But I feel all this needed to be said, for me, for maybe some of you and just to add to the melting pot of conversation that is mental health at present. This stuff is important and I have spent my life running and using anything I can to dislocate myself from the real world and play a character. There are some updates and memes that quite frankly make light of depression by highlighting normal anxieties the modern world throws up, which in itself is a separate conversation. It can definitely be argued that people in the western world are disillusioned and waking up to the possibility that struggling to stay afloat in a very privileged worldly position... but screaming inside... maybe isn’t the best way to spend our time on this earth.
Until we find some peace there is always art. Video games can educate, relieve, meditate, relax, and act as a very good form of escapism. They can also, like any obsession or hobby, lead you down a rabbit hole that is actually plastering over another underlying issue you are battling.
Video games have also saved my life countless times...quite literally. I used a Game Boy Advance SP to battle high levels of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression whilst living and working in London. Using emulation on my Uni PC in the early 2000’s to take me out of my head, isolated me to my room where I lived in a nightmare student scenario. Waiting 50 minutes for a ROM to download on my dial-up AOL was exciting and a distraction. In 2006 the Nintendo Wii was a godsend in the wake of a downward spiral in my mental health. Looking back now I see the C64, original Gameboy and Megadrive as all tools to battle my reality and to give me peace away from my sensitivities and phobias.
My XBOX One this year has held my hand and been a reliable and trusty companion. I look at its beautifully designed white shell and wonder If machines will ever realise how important they can be in influencing and helping people in need.
Everything in moderation.
TALK TO EACH OTHER.
Please. You will not be alone.
Keep on gaming, as I believe some people don’t just enjoy it, they need it. Just make sure we don’t lose you to fantasy.
Andy Foster — on Twitter @retrogamingandy