Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Power of Video Games: How Pikmin 2 Helped Me Fight Depression

This is going to be a much more personal one. In my last "The Power of Video Games" post, I talked about how Ecco the Dolphin for Sega Genesis instilled a sense of fascinating terror in me that has followed me into adulthood. This time, I'd like to talk about a much different video game and quite a different experience.

I've been struggling with various anxiety conditions for as long as I can remember and as I've been told, anxiety can often open the door for depression to sneak in. Unfortunately, for the past two years, this sort of situation has been exactly what I've been dealing with. It got pretty bad last year, after my dog and best friend, Max, fell suddenly and rapidly ill over the course of a few weeks and then was diagnosed with severe, terminal cancer and consequently put to sleep all in the time of a single day. After this, coupled with a post-college stagnation in my life and a worsening resurgence of many of my anxious hang-ups, I began to get depressed.


Now, depression isn't "feeling sad". It's not lying in bed for a few days after a break-up or crying all the time. I've heard and read about the symptoms of clinical depression, but really I can only describe my own experience and "sad" isn't the way to put it. Activities and situations that would normally make me happy and bring me joy began to bring me nothing at all. I began to have trouble getting out of bed and mustering the energy to do much of anything at all. I would try to go out with friends, but I would feel isolated in social situations. I don't think most people really noticed because I'm naturally quiet a lot of the time anyway, but there's a big difference between being my normal quiet and introversive self and feeling depressed. I would feel exhausted by social activities and feel like I had nothing to offer or to say at all. Afterwards, I would go home feeling lonely and worthless.

Likewise, activities that would normally bring me enjoyment during my personal time started to fall flat. This includes reading, writing, and of course, video games. I tried playing a lot of games, but I found myself struggling to really find that "sweet spot", that rich sense of immersion I normally get from the medium. There were moments of enjoyment here and there, sure, but it wasn't like before. There was just this sense of emptiness in me that seemed to be swallowing any and all positive vibes.

Late summer of last year, I decided to play three GameCube classics in anticipation of their upcoming sequels the following year. First up was the original Luigi's Mansion, and following that I decided to tackle the Pikmin series. I've owned the original Pikmin since its release, but never finished it. I started anew in the game and after finishing it, I picked up its sequel, Pikmin 2, which I'd never experienced on GameCube and which had conveniently just been re-released with enhanced pointer controls on the Wii.

I was able to get through Luigi's Mansion and Pikmin without much trouble since they are both relatively short experiences, but Pikmin 2 was another story.

I remember starting the game and enjoying what I initially played quite a bit. The improvements and new features compared to the original game caught my attention and this updated interface, lack of the 30-day time limit that made the first Pikmin feel rushed, and gigantic, real-world objects like a Duracell battery and a crushed soda can charmed me so much that I remember scolding myself for never having played the game before.

"Why have I never played this before?"

But then things hit a wall. Pikmin 2 is a much longer experience than the first game and try as hard as I might, I began to struggle to play to play the game for any lengthy period of time. As depression tugged at my ankles more and more and I began to sink deeper and deeper, I found it hard to do much more than sleep. I had to force myself to try to play Pikmin 2, but I began becoming overwhelmed and having to turn the game off after about half an hour of play. Real-time strategy games have never been my expertise, but Pikmin's unique premise and charming world attracted me. I wanted to get into the game, but its strategic nature and high-risk style of challenge began to make me stressed and overwhelmed. I just didn't feel up to managing these hundreds of tiny creatures and conquering the game's many challenges. I knew there was something about the game that I liked, loved even, but I just could not muster the energy.

So to give a broader picture of my life at this point, I was basically just waking up, going to work, coming home, trying to find enjoyment in something, usually failing, and going to sleep. On days off, I would sleep most of the day, wake up, eat something, and then sleep some more. I tried spending time with friends, I trried gaming, I tried doing other thing I enjoy, but everything just "fell flat". That seems to be the best way to describe it because that's how it felt, and how I felt. Just flat, empty. I didn't really have anything to look forward to and I just felt like nothing.

But then something happened.

One night, I was lying in bed around 9 o'clock at night. If you know me at all, you know that this is nowhere near my normal bedtime and is very unnatural. Like many other days, I didn't feel like doing anything and I simply just gave up, crawled into bed, and shut the lights off. But I knew this was wrong. I wasn't really tired. I didn't want to do this. I knew I was doing exactly what I shouldn't be doing. I was angry at myself. I wanted to fight this.

Reluctantly, I opened my eyes, dragged myself out of bed, and I decided to try. To try to overcome this. I turned on the TV and booted up Pikmin 2. I just wanted to try to play it, if only for an hour. To try to get some enjoyment out of an activity that has typically brought me so much fulfillment.

I don't know if it was the particular part of the game that I was in, or if my mood was just right, or maybe it had something to do with Pikmin being unlike any other game I'd ever played and thus it ignited something lost within me; it was probably some miraculous combination of all of these things. Whatever the case, that night I finally broke the barrier and got into something. I forgot about being depressed, forgot about anxiety, forgot about everything wrong in my life, and I simply lost myself in the weird and wonderful world of Pikmin. Everything suddenly clicked and the game didn't seem so difficult anymore, playing it didn't seem like an insurmountable task. As I journeyed deeper and deeper into one of the game's multi-leveled cavernous dungeons, I began to feel something again.

For the first time in months, I really felt something. A hole being filled in. Accomplishment. Joy.

Working together

By the time I had finished playing that night, after about a five hour session, it was well into the early hours of the morning. I hadn't looked back once while playing. I just played. For me, at the time, to find myself having been deeply involved with something while feeling no nagging feelings or no fatigue, felt like a miracle.

And honest to God, it was all uphill from there. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't magically cured of all my anxiety and depression. I didn't open my window shouting about Christmas morning and go running through the flower fields smiling and laughing. Oh, I still had issues; oh I still do have issues. But after that night, after Pikmin 2 dragged me up and pulled me in, I began to feel better. No, not to feel better, but to feel more normal. I was enjoying a video game again, and I realized that I had only just scratched the surface of Pikmin 2, a lengthy, atmospheric, and challenging experience. When I finally finished the game towards the end of the year, I felt exhilarated. After conquering the game's terrifying final creature, rescuing my partner, Louie, and salvaging every last piece of treasure in the game, I felt a massive feeling of accomplishment. Not because I'd finished a video game, I've finished many of them, but because I felt like I had dealt a serious blow to depression, that I had spit in its face and fought back, that I had cut through all of its shackles and conquered something (and not only that, but legimately enjoyed something) that depression told me I could not.

After that, I began to enjoy playing games again. And after being able to enjoy myself when I was alone, I began to enjoy spending time with friends again. I began to look forward to things again, become excited about things that I'm passionate about again, and to feel some hope again. And there are no words that can accurately describe how good that felt and how thankful I am for these kinds of feelings that so many take for granted.

I am far from being in the perfect place in my life today, I'm still wrestling with depression and discontent, and I will always be fighting a war with anxiety. But I am far better at this present moment right now than I was one year ago. And although at the end of the day, it's because of my own perseverance and determination that I've been able to fight back against depression, it was Pikmin 2 that helped pull me back, and it's this strange, wondrous video game, this fresh, unique experience that was unlike anything I'd ever played before, that I ultimately want to thank today.

Thanks Miyamoto and Co.