So Lulu Blue, a friend and game dev I truly admire, made this post today about their relationship with games and mental illness, particularly borderline personality disorder. It’s an illness I share with them, and I found myself deeply relating to a lot of what they wrote. So I wanted to share some of my own experiences.
I deal with depression and anxiety, physical disability due to chronic pain, all on top of borderline (hereafter referred to at BPD). My BPD makes my relationships and sense of self really unstable, with horrid bouts of paranoia, sudden mood swings, and no idea of who or where I am or how I relate to others.
Critically, a lot of things that I would normally detest in video games offer me a sense of comfort, control, and most importantly–stability. In Mass Effect or Dragon Age, I can pretend that I have choices, some modicum of agency, that what I do matters in this world and deeply impacts others. I can build relationships with these characters that are predictable and don’t feed into my paranoia. I can form a sense of self through Shepard, through the Inquisitor, even if only a temporary one.
One thing especially that I wanted to emphasize is the difference between embodying someone in the first-person as opposed to third-person. I find myself more grounded in the latter. Perhaps first-person is still too close, or the odd perspective, the ‘floatyness’ of these abstract bodies resembles too much the feelings of disassociation. I get overwhelmed, I fling the camera around, often get lost in my environment in ways I never do when playing a third-person game such as, say, Tomb Raider.
The kineaesthetics (er, ‘game feel’) of these games, which have solid shooting or a pleasant, ‘real’ weight to their motion and pacing offer a point in time and space that I can attach myself to and stay grounded within. I have a defined body I can place relative to an environment, and the importance of that can’t be understated. Saints Row 4 is a game I adore simply for its character customization. It’s a silly game, but it’s all about embodiment and power in a relatively safe arena of exploration.
And look, sorry, I can’t not bring up Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 and their intense levels of micromanagement. It’s a magical, beautiful thing for a messy, erratic brain like my own. Lulu brings up ‘identityless’ games, those that focus more on management and abstract ideas. These are fantastic, and while Fallout is very much not one of them, the series ends up producing the same results for me.
Immersion, a trance state, the zone, whatever you wish to call it–losing yourself positively rather than negatively like in an episode of mania or disassociation is some great self-care. Similarly to ASMR, these kinds of games are repetitive, but ask enough engagement that they end up being therapeutic. It’s in this context that, while traditional Gamers might praise FO4’s ‘hardcore’ness, I instead indulge its gentle qualities, its quieter moments of exploration and settlement building.
These are all singular experiences, which is crucial for a person with BPD–at least for me. I’m pretty isolated, my need for attention and approval require some kind of fulfillment, but online interaction, counterintuively to what many other people experience, only stresses me out and worsens my anxiety. So having these worlds to myself, that I can express myself in at my own pace, are critical. I have to echo Lulu in saying I couldn’t survive without these works, however clumsy they may be.