Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Killing Trolls and Spirochetes

I have enjoyed computer and video games since I was very small, but they have taken a far more significant role in my life since I became sick. While in the past they were merely a pleasurable pastime, they are now a powerful coping mechanism.

Much like a good book, many games allow the player to mentally slip into another world and ignore reality for a period of time. If the player's attention is focused intently enough, he or she can lose track of everything from the time to their troubles.

When I'm feeling at my worst, there is precious little that I am physically capable of. Because of this, I end up in a foul mood, so there is even less that I want to do. Television and movies don't provide enough stimulation to distract me, but trying to do writing or research feels like work. Often I also have too much brain fog to keep my train of thought.

Video games provide the perfect refuge for me. Certain ones can keep me engaged for hours. It's not as passive as television; I am actively participating in the game. There is also the tactile component of the controls, which helps to cement focus.

Some puzzle and strategy games like Lumosity and sudoku or Civilization and Age of Empires force me to exercise my brain in a way that's still entertaining. Even though I may not be gaining new information or skills in the process, I am still problem-solving and keeping my neurological pathways open and active.

On my worst days, I tend to lean toward simulation and role-playing games. They allow me to play pretend, in a sense. For example, rather than sulking because I can't snowboard, I can bust out a game like SSX. It's not the same thing; I don't feel the wind on my face, but it's much closer than lying in bed and moping.

I've been playing the Sims games (NOT Sim City, the other ones) since its original release in 2000. At first, it was fun to just "play God." as the game grew, it was cool that I could make a digital version of myself who actually got paid to write for a living, or paint, or train horses. Some of my friends and family say the game seems boring or pointless to them, claiming that because they work and then clean the house all day, they don't want to then repeat the process for fun.

On the other hand, I can't accomplish these tasks so easily. To me, these tasks are not routine and tedious. Every time I wipe down the kitchen counter, I feel a surge of pride at my pivotal victory! I should also mention that I tend to work in management and coordination positions when I can work. There is a part of me that really enjoys bossing people around, and digital people complain about it far less.

There are, of course, other times when I'd really rather not be reminded of what I can't do. Sometimes I'll fixate on what I don't get out of the game - the breeze with the snowboarding game, for instance. No matter how hard my Sim works cleaning, my kitchen is still a mess at the end. That's when I turn to more fantastical games.

Role-playing games (RPGs) like Fallout or Oblivion allow me to become someone else entirely, and enter another world where Lyme Disease doesn't even exist. Truthfully, any illness in any of these types of games either only lasts a matter of minutes, or it simply can't happen to you - only non-player characters (NPCs).

Because there is usually a very large monster-killing component, it's an excellent outlet for any aggression I may have as well. Anyone with a chronic illness is going to get angry at their situation. Rather than verbally reaming out some innocent family member passing by when this happens, I'd rather whip the virtual stuffing out of some troll or giant, irradiated mutant insect.

Massively multiplayer online (MMO) RPGs like Lord of the Rings Online also add a social aspect as well. Granted, I am far from the most social kind of player. Typically, I choose to carry out quests and go hunting on my own, but illness can be a very lonely thing, and sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is reach out to someone. Other players can't see me, so they don't know I'm in a wheelchair or even that I'm sick. For all they know, I could have just finished a ten-hour shift at a demanding job. I don't lie, but there are things they don't need to know.

There is one side note that I would like to insert here. Right now, I am essentially advocating the use of video games as an anesthetic. I cannot do this in good conscience without addressing gaming and internet addiction. While I am no expert on this disorder, the general consensus seems to be that this is not a problem inherent to the games. Rather, it is an impulse-control disorder much like a gambling addiction.

It becomes a question of moderation, but this is subjective. For example, if someone gambles away $5,000 in a night, if they only make $18,000 a year, that's a pretty darn good indicator of a problem. If that person is a multi-billionaire instead, the scenario is quite different. Video games don't take time away from my goals, work, or social life. The time I spend playing would be otherwise unoccupied, or possibly filled with less constructive activities like moping.

As my condition improves, I will have to pay attention to my computer usage to make sure I'm starting to acclimate back into my "normal" life. However, I have made a personal decision to not make use of pharmaceutical painkillers during my treatment. For me, video games are an effective substitute with less worrisome potential side effects.

I would love to know how many others out there are also using games to get through the day, and which games they find most beneficial. If you also play one of the games I mentioned that has a social aspect (LOTRO, Sims 3, etc.) feel free to send me an email and let me know your username.

If you happen to be on the Vilya server of LOTRO and you'd like to chat with myself and others dealing with chronic illness (whether it's personally or a loved one) feel free to come and join us in the Chronic chat room. Just go to your chat window and type in "/joinchannel chronic" hit enter, then "/1" and say hi!

Meanwhile, I'll be off killing trolls... and spirochetes!

Update 9/23/2012: Also, check out this graphic on the benefits of playing video games.

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