Console consolation: Gaming as self-care

Pressing Restart


I was standing in the bread aisle of Target, hunting for the illusive sourdough species. The fluorescent lights hovered above like a nagging parent. I blinked several times at the shelves in front of me, half-blinded, half-asleep. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t even want to be awake.

My stomach was sick with unease. I heard my heart pounding in the earbuds I wore, out of rhythm with whatever song Spotify’s algorithms had deemed fitting. In a moment, I forgot where I was or my purpose. Despite fluently speaking the English language for over a decade, the labels on the bread loaves were practically hieroglyphs. I stared blearily at the display in front of me and tried moving to gauge my surroundings. But I was frozen. Something felt utterly wrong to me, yet I could not pinpoint what.

After a minute or so, I somehow managed to comprehend words again. I grabbed a loaf and made my way towards the registers. Stepping out, I finally noticed how smoky Berkeley looked that day. I shrugged it off as a dense afternoon fog or something I was hallucinating and made my way home. I had been so immersed in the amalgam of problems that had been mounting that week to check the news, so I didn’t know about the North Bay fires.

As you can probably guess, I had a panic attack at Target. I had another as I walked through Lower Sproul Plaza, calmly noting the flakes of ash drifting down from the sky. As if my immobile body had internally run a marathon, I was sweating and heard my heartbeat in my ears, yet I felt completely numb. Alarm bells continued to blare in my head when I entered class.

Apart from taking positive steps for self-care, such as going to see a psychiatrist at the Tang Center or seeking out friends, I needed to get away yet stay in the present. I needed a break. Naturally, I turned to playing a video game.

My friend owned “Just Cause 3” and invited me to try it out. It’s not a game I would have picked up on my own, yet I enjoyed it immensely. In “Just Cause 3,” you are a mercenary named Rico, who finds his Mediterranean country taken over by a dictator. To make progress, you hop from island to island, liberating villages and destroying military bases. Bafflingly, the villagers love you no matter how much destruction you create in your wake.

If I were trying to sound cultured or snobbish, I’d harp on the cliche storyline. But with all the wild, creative ways the game gives the player to blow up oil tanks or kill enemies, the game needed just this kind of shallow narrative. The point of “Just Cause 3” is not to pluck at heartstrings nor to insightfully debate the morals of violent rebellions, but to make your own hilarious action-adventure movie — just what I needed to brighten my day.

I’ve always been one of those people who played games by acting as I would in real life. But “Just Cause 3” had other ideas.

During one mission, I was tasked with blowing up mines in the ocean. The ally soldiers pointed me to a boat, with a female soldier at the helm. Being a logical human being, I assumed I’d stand next to her and blow up the mines as she drove. I clicked the “E” button labelled “Get in vehicle.” But the developers had decided that if a boat already had a helmsman, “getting in” meant Rico grabs the person and throws them into the ocean, killing them instantly. I just casually drowned one of my soldiers! I was horrified, yet my mistake made me laugh.

The strength of video games is the very fact that they can be tools for us to manipulate something not of our world. In “Just Cause 3,” I got to act as an action movie star, swinging in on ropes, blowing up enemies, skydiving into villages, and throwing people out of moving vehicles. This is nothing close to who I am in real life, yet for a moment, it was “me” who controlled Rico’s actions. It was chaotic. It was hilarious. It was risk-free. It was an escape.

I cannot actually escape my real life, however. That’s a mistake I made last year: relying on video games to cope, rather than facing my academic failures head on. Gaming is by no means a replacement for mental health treatment, which is why I did seek treatment at Tang. Removing myself mentally from my situation did not mean that those problems ceased to exist. It did, however, help bring normalcy back to my week. I had fun. I was in the moment. I wasn’t numb, confused or panicking.

Now that’s a just cause.

Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living life through video games. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @spacelass.