How Anxiety Controls My Gaming

I have anxiety, and for me that means that sometimes it’s hard to pick up the phone and make the call. I have to rehearse what I’m going to say ten times over—or better yet, just write it all down, because forgetting my lines would be the death of me and I can’t risk that potential outcome. It also means that at other times, it’s almost impossible to ask the question. Do I ask it anyway? Yes. But the longer it takes for them to answer, the more the paranoia washes over me. “It was a stupid question, wasn’t it? God, I knew it. Why did I even ask? I could’ve figured it out if I’d tried hard enough. Am I stupid?…oh. False alarm, guys. They just answered.

My anxiety is a puppeteer and I am its puppet. It controls what I do and what I say. How my arms fall to my sides instead of reaching out. How my lips part, how my tongue twitches, and how my teeth clamp down before I can get the words out. But it doesn’t just reign on the social aspects of my life—no no, that wasn’t enough. It decided to get my gaming life too.

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Even simple dialogue options are hard for me.

Like many of us, I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember, and like it’s hard for me to remember the first few books I read, it’s pretty hard for me to remember the exact games I played during my childhood. I have a feeling that Pokémon might have been the first (and only) for a while, if the GameBoy cartridges I step on from time to time are anything to go by. But it was games like Cooking Mama and Nintendogs and Wii Sports (along with a bunch of other very random Wii games that I’m sure no one else has even heard of) that eventually dominated my life. Games where yes, I could fail at cooking, and yes, I could lose a disk-catching competition, but there were no immediate consequences to those losses. They were skill issues, and I had all the time and all the opportunities in the world to get better, to go back, and to try again. I didn’t realize back then that games weren’t going to stay that way forever.

I think my first encounter with “wrong choices,” or at least, the first encounter I can remember, was Harvest Moon: A New Beginning. I had finally started branching away from Pokémon and began exploring the genre that would soon become my favorite. I remember it clearly—getting the game when I was on my way back from visiting family in Maryland, playing it the entire car ride home, scrambling up the stairs to plug my dying Pokémon-themed 3DS into the wall, and feeling nothing but pure joy as I stayed up until at least 6 a.m. to continue playing.

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One of the first guides I ever looked up.

It was the relationship aspect that intrigued me the most. There’s romance in this game? That sounds fun! I went after Neil (I’m almost embarrassed to say my type has never changed after that man), and him being the “brooding” and “unfriendly” kind, I found myself struggling when it came to his dialogue options. I hadn’t realized just yet that I could look up which choice would be the better one, so I would sometimes spend five to ten minutes worrying over what would happen if I picked an option that might upset him. Any time I did pick an option he didn’t seem to like, I had to start my day over and make things “right,” whatever that even meant. I didn’t want to start over, but I had to. I couldn’t make this fictional character unhappy. That was what my brain kept telling me, and this was only the beginning.

Looking back at this memory now, it’s almost funny to think about how I pretty much grew up playing games this way. How my anxiety has been conditioning me from the very beginning. A more embarrassing example is with The Witcher 3. I wasn’t familiar with this series so I hadn’t played the first or second game, but when I saw the third one on sale, and then saw how popular the series was, I caved and quickly bought it. I could tell right away that the game would be huge, so I had my phone at my side to look up any difficult decisions I might need help making. I had made it out of White Orchard and into the next area, and it wasn’t until then that I realized romance was an option. I was obsessed with Yennefer from the moment I first saw her, so of course I went to look up how to end up with her…and then I saw that there had been a ring collectible. Yes, the ring she’d dropped in the very beginning, that was a mere two feet away from where I could first take control of Geralt after the tutorial was over. I tried going back for it, but alas, it was too late, and I was devastated. It wasn’t an important ring, per se, but it was one that I could have gotten and one that I wouldn’t have missed if I’d looked at Yennefer’s guide earlier. So I did what any sane person would do: I started over. Yes, all to get one measly ring that would get me one extra cutscene in the end. But I knew I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the rest of the game unless I did.

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“Dragon Age: Origins” is full of terrifying choices.

Then there are games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. I found myself looking up guides for both of them every two seconds thanks to the massive number of side quests they possessed. Sometimes I try to do something on my own but if, for some reason, I can’t save first, I don’t make it very far. And even if I do save beforehand, I still find myself looking up a guide because what if the other answer is better? And at that point, there’s just an overwhelming number of filled save slots staring back at me. This isn’t just a case of curiosity and cats, no, this is so much bigger. It’s my palms sweating and my breath getting ragged. It’s my stomach aching and voices knocking at the door to tell me I have to look this up, I have to, I have to, or else I’ll never make it through the game. So I look it up and get instant relief because now there’s nothing to get wrong.

Even Stardew Valley, a game that’s supposed to be fun and cozy and calming, freaks me out just as much as it doesn’t. I know many people say that the time restraints and stamina bar is what makes Stardew less cozy for them, but that’s not the reason it alerts my anxiety. It’s the dialogue choices, the heart events, the gift giving. It’s the constant “what ifs.” What if I miss their birthday? What if I pick the wrong ingredient for the Luau? What if? These are only a few examples that I’ve shared with you out of so many. But the real question is: doesn’t all of this ruin my experience?

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A guide for “Trails Of Cold Steel”—one I have open constantly.

Well, I mean…sometimes it does, yeah. There were plenty of moments where I went to look up certain outcomes for certain decisions in certain games, and I would sigh because “wow, that would have been so fun to experience on my own.” It’s exactly like getting accidental spoilers for a show you wanted to watch, and then you find yourself thinking, “well, is there any point in watching anymore?” Sometimes, I find myself asking if there’s any point in still playing.

And you may be wondering, are things really so bad that I’m willing to ruin an entire game, an entire experience, all because I can’t suck it up and risk one bad ending? Or one bad quest? Well, I mean…sometimes they are that bad, yeah. It’s absolutely exhausting putting tens of hours into a game, only to suddenly realized that I’d missed something that either effects the ending completely, or doesn’t effect the ending at all, because either way, no matter what, I will start over. So, at the end of the day, it’s the guides that keep my sanity. Guide makers, I thank you.

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Don’t even get me started on “Divinity: Original Sin 2.”

Gamers with anxiety: you are not alone. I know that my gaming anxiety may not look like yours, but if I can bring you any comfort at all by letting you know that I completely understand, then I feel like my work here is done. I really can’t tell you how to stop the constant and crushing fear of getting things wrong, because I don’t know how to do it either. I can’t stop you from looking up the guide no matter how much you might beg and plead yourself not to do it just this once, just to see if you can make it through without the help. And I’m sorry about that.

Yes, we may be wired differently and we may be judged for it, but as long as, at the end of the day, we continue to enjoy what we’ve played no matter how we have to play it, then I think that means that all is right in the world. And to those of you who haven’t found how you have to play just yet, I have complete confidence that one day, you will. It’s Mental Health Awareness Month…please take care of yourselves, and go enjoy your games in whatever way you know how!

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