I’m crouching in a shadowy corner of the room, hidden between a stack of books and an old cardboard box. I can tell there’s something dangerous nearby. My heart beats in my fingertips and there’s a repetitive thud in my ears. But I have to move, or I’ll never get out of here.
I take the plunge, sprinting to the other side of the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a me-sized hole in the floor. I run for it. My heartbeat is getting faster, the thud is getting louder, and just as I reach the hole, a long, grayish arm with spindly fingers reaches from the next room, grabs me by the abdomen, and yanks me up to a face bandaged with dirty rags. Everything goes black.
And then, I save my progress, unclench my jaw, and make myself a cup of tea. I’ll go about the rest of my evening with a sense of calm, knowing nothing in the real world will frighten me as much as the endless monsters lurking in the darkness on my Nintendo Switch screen.
Since I was young, I’ve gravitated toward haunting and unsettling games like Little Nightmares, despite a lifelong fear of the dark—I slept with the light on until I was about 12—and a lifetime of anxiety. In high school, an afternoon home alone was pure torture if I’d spend it in the eerie quiet of my bedroom. Instead, I’d flick the TV on, power up my Xbox 360, and let the daylight fade unnoticed while I spent hours in the haunting world of Dead Space, borrowed from a friend who would become one of my greatest mental health advocates.
It isn’t just escapism, comfort, or feelings of control that push me toward playing video games to deal with my fears about reality. In fact, I think it’s closer to some version of exposure therapy, in which I seek out the games that depict some horrific extreme of my exact fears and give me an opportunity to practice my response to them. Often, I return to the real world calmer, more in tune with my breathing, and empowered to take control of my chronic depression and anxiety.
“What you’re often doing in exposure therapy is watching yourself watch the world, because most of us, when we’re feeling anxious, only attend to threatening cues in our environment,” Isabel Granic, director of Games for Emotional & Mental Health Lab at Radboud University, tells me. “So if you think about a video game, if you’re only looking at threatening contexts, you may lose out on strategic things you could be doing in the game if you were more relaxed, and your attention span would widen.”
At GEMH Lab, Granic develops and researches video games that use psychology principles to help children combat anxiety and depression. As a developmental psychology professor and a lover of video games, Granic says she noticed her own children gravitating toward challenging and often scary games, which inspired her to combine principles of exposure and cognitive behavioral therapies with the mechanics of video games.
So far, she’s worked on Mindlight, in which players don a brainwave sensor that controls the amount of light they have to explore a haunted house, and DEEP, a VR game in which a belt measuring the player’s diaphragmatic breathing controls their movements throughout an underwater world.
But it isn’t just games designed specifically to interact with your brainwaves or breathing habits that can help with anxiety. Granic says that when I choose to play scary video games, I’m training myself up for the anxiety I experience in real life, whether I’m conscious of it or not.
“Once you’ve had that embodied emotional experience of bringing yourself from a very highly anxious, heart rate up, shallow breathing to a really calm, diaphragmatic breathing, it’s hard for your body to forget that,” she says, speaking of players’ experiences with DEEP. “It’s that practice in a safe context … The fact that your body keeps the score in negative ways, it also keeps the score in positive ones.”
Take Thief Simulator, an RPG in which you’re a man with a crappy car who likes to burgle the suburbs. There’s not much to it, but when the homeowner spots me breaking their back window, or I hear footsteps behind me when I’m trying to shove a flat-screen TV into my trunk, that same feeling of anxiety returns. When I get away or hide in the shadows long enough to shirk the cops, I feel my heartbeat slow, I release a stifled breath, and I smirk in spite of the dumb cartoon officer that couldn’t sense me crouching behind a garbage can.
There’s also Oxenfree, the befuddling indie platformer where you’re a young woman grieving her brother’s death during an ill-advised camping trip to an island filled with wormholes and time warps. There’s a second of time in which the world starts shaking, my controllers rumble, and I have to decide whether to walk my character toward or away from the sparkling wormhole opening at the back of the screen. It’s not so different from the moment someone sits too close to me on public transit, and my brain starts firing on all cylinders, running through each possibility of harm and each potential decision I could make.
But in the game, whether I decide or not, the world moves on. Maybe I’ll be separated from my in-game friends. Maybe I’ll be transported to another moment in time where I don’t have my handy radio transmitter. Maybe I’ll die. No matter the outcome, I’ll prevail. Or, at least, I’ll start over.
After a 2020 filled with uncertainty and fear—living abroad during a pandemic comes with its own special anxieties—practicing this response in a safe and inconsequential environment is dire for people like me. It’s too often that my thoughts of fear and worst-case-scenarios take over, especially in an outdoors filled with murderers and viruses and sexists and food that could always be poisoned. I’m certainly not the only one using games to deal with anxiety and depression this year, and sometimes I’ll opt for phone games designed just for that purpose. I’m still an avid and lifelong Animal Crossing player, and I’ll never brush off the joy of a relaxing game like Let’s Create Pottery 2 or Candy Crush. My Stardew Valley farm is well-tended (except when it isn’t), and there’s no denying that these games are also a healthy outlet for me.
My obsession with scary video games, though, helps me remember that the absolute worst-case scenario is still not that bad, and it empowers me to deal with issues head-on, even if that invites some instance of anxiety.
“If you’re training yourself up in a game to do that over and over,” Granic says, “you start feeling like you can do this out in your real life.”
It’s not as if I picture myself shooting real-life “bad guys” with my plasma gun (Bioshock) or pretend I have a Sheikah slate that can transport me to safety (Breath of the Wild) when I’m walking home at night. Rather, it’s a practiced comfortability with the experience of anxiety and a reminder that my fight-or-flight response, which fires up even in totally safe situations, is simply a biological reaction that will end. If a video game can get my heart rate up and make my palms sweat, how bad could the guy squishing next to me on the bus bench really be—and aren’t I equipped to handle it?
I don’t mean to say that the real world is no more dangerous than the worlds I see on-screen. Of course it is, and I haven’t forgotten that for a single second of my existence. But as someone with intense anxiety that, more often than I’d hope, leads me to opt out of activities I’d really like to do, the horror of the feigned worlds takes me out of my experience of stress and reminds me that no matter what, my body knows what to do. And hey, I can always just try again.
"Create the metaphor for yourself," Granic says. "Create the story of your identity that connects to the game, that you can then access outside of the game."
Maybe I’m in the doctor’s office and I hear my name called, but the nurse calls me “Hannah” and not “Zoë.” I’ve resolved not to let this go anymore—anyone with a first name as a last name understands—but I have anxiety, and correcting a nurse in front of the whole waiting room terrifies me. That rushed heartbeat and held breath returns, but this time, I’ve practiced. I remember how it feels to have my heartbeat return to normal, breathe through it, end the anxiety response with a smile that will send some endorphins to my brain, and re-regulate my nervous system.
Perhaps more poignantly, the nights where I spend an hour playing a video game that really takes me out of my body—like the feeling of reading a great book—are the nights where I sleep the best. Horror films and scary novels often reach into my dreams, but haunting video games leave me invigorated and maybe a little tired. I can prepare for rest having already spent my anxious energy for the day, in hopes that my brain won’t wake me up at 3 am to remind me that I left a typo in that article I was editing.
I’ll continue to hide in the shadows of my video games so that, with my trove of creepy characters and uncanny monsters in tow, I can move through the world with a little less fear and anxiety about how truly, deeply terrifying it can be.