Buffing Mental Fortitude: Gamifying Anxiety

Buffing Mental Fortitude: Gamifying Anxiety


Back in the very beginning when Start 2 Continue was but a newborn, one of the first regular columns I wrote was entitled “A Life of Gaming.” While I cannot seem to find the articles anymore — having abandoned that project for more SEO-friendly pursuits — I wanted to touch upon the core topic of why I started that segment to begin with: how video games have helped me with anxiety.

Gaming and coping with anxiety go hand-in-hand for me; the more anxious I was in my waking life, the more inclined I was to retreat to my virtual ones. While escapism to the point of physical neglect isn’t healthy, video games, in part, helped me to survive a lot of life’s bullshit and to appreciate existence when it’s not being as shitty.

With that in mind, I’d like to talk about how gamification can be a boon in one’s battle against anxiety and mental illness, my own personal struggles, and how people like us can move forward in the real world just as we progress in the realms of our favorite games.

The Hand We’re Dealt

No matter who you are, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, both internally (one’s physical, emotional, and mental limitations) and externally (one’s environmental constraints). Much like XCOM‘sNot Created Equally” option, no one has the same stats right out of the gate. Some people are good at sports. Others are good at mathematics or science. And others still are gifted in the arts such as music, painting, or theatre. Where one thrives, another might struggle and vice versa. Some improve at faster rates than others based on natural and trained affinities to something.

For instance, a taller person might have an easier time playing basketball than someone who’s shorter, but if the tall guy is gangly as fuck and can’t coordinate his limb movements (teenaged me on most days), height isn’t much of an advantage for him. Conversely, someone who’s shorter than the average b-baller can still beat taller opponents by training and shaping in on what works for them on the court.

But when it comes to illness or disability, these barriers are much more difficult to overcome. Though having long legs helps, being bound to a wheelchair makes excelling in basketball an entirely different animal. It isn’t impossible, but it definitely would be challenging.

While this is just one example, everyone has things they’re great at and things they struggle with; they have things that they learn pretty quickly and others where they are easily overwhelmed or unable to improve at a noticeable rate. However, it’s often the hardships we face — whether dealt to us at birth, by external circumstances, or self-inflicted — that provide the most growth when we finally do overcome them. Like in any of your favorite RPGs, you’re not going to gain much XP by grinding easy enemies and quests, and failure is almost guaranteed if you rush into an area that’s much higher level than your own.

Real growth is found by consistently taking on challenges that lie somewhere in between your comfort zone and the realm of crushing defeat. Depending on your tolerance and ambition for surmounting the odds will determine your sweet spot for worthwhile XP grinding, but it’s always moving forward every day that’ll help you become a master in whatever you put your mind to.

To help explain this point, let me share some of my own life story with you. I grew up in Small Town, Wisconsin and I had a relatively standard suburban childhood: I made decent grades in school, did extracurricular activities, played video games, hung out with friends. You know, kid stuff. Physically, I was (and still am) very healthy. I haven’t had any significant diseases to deal with; no broken bones or lost limbs or organs. The only genuine physical quirks I have are poor circulation due to Reynaud’s phenomenon (TL;DR my hands and toes change to a bunch of weird colors when they’re cold, and I get hot or cold easily) and being lactose intolerant — God’s sick joke of putting me in American cow country and then making most of my favorite foods have some form of dairy in them. But through the power of science, there are lactase tablets to help neutralize what would otherwise feel like ridiculous food poisoning after eating ice cream and gloves for my red, white, and blue hands in the winter. My mental health, however, is another story entirely.

Right around middle school, the powers that be saw fit that puberty wasn’t enough of a sledgehammer to take to young Metzge’s existence. Amid my parents’ messy divorce I began developing depression and telltale anxiety symptoms. I constantly felt sad and powerless in my life as my parents argued. My paternal grandmother even insisted that my parents’ divorce was my fault (I was about 11 or 12 throughout the whole separation process), piling onto the slew of emotional abuse that came with it all. I felt like I was never good enough, not wanted, powerless, and insignificant without much positive reinforcement otherwise. Today, I still struggle to look at my reflection or myself in photos as I cannot shake the thought that “I’m not worthy of being seen.”

Even after their separation and remarriage, my parents still fought throughout high school. Of course, if dealing with that wasn’t bad enough, I just had to realize I was gay by the time my sophomore year rolled around… something that conservative Wisconsin didn’t seem too keen on. While things are better with my parents, there are still branches of my family that do not accept me. I’ve even been told by some of them that they would rather I kill myself than be alive gay — a challenge I attempted to rectify numerous times, but obviously never succeeded at.

I pushed myself to graduate early (I did so when I was 17) and moved to Minnesota to go to university. There, it was much easier to come out to others, and while my depression peeled away, anxiety began to fill in, manifesting itself in a variety of fun flavors, namely hypochondria (remember how I said I’m very physically healthy? Apparently no one told my brain that) and crippling self-doubt. When I was depressed, I didn’t really care about living or dying. Strangely enough, when I started appreciating life and cultivating a circle of people who loved me unconditionally, I also began to fear to lose what I built. I became terrified of it all being stripped from me, especially by forces beyond my control. Life had already cast me through my own personal Hell. Despite escaping, there was a set precedence that my life could collapse again at any time.

But it’s that fear of having no control since I was a child that’s driven me to succeed. I didn’t have control over my family’s division nor my sexuality in a town that shunned me for who I was — though there are still friends from back home whose opinions of me never wavered despite my perceived orientation. Still, how strange it is to have people who like you before coming out then turn around and abandon you soon after with such ease. It was this consistent heartbreak that taught me to focus on what I did have control over. I could concentrate on my work, my schooling, and little projects like writing poetry, songs, and certain video game-related websites.

Regardless of whether or not you identify your problems with my own, it’s by first accepting and understanding the existence of these problems that we’re then able to move forward. And again, it’s consistently practicing and seeking to improve that catalyzes growth and healing.

Identifying the Problem

Having been bounced around between many different therapists and psychologists, I’ve gotten very good at talking about what’s bothering me. One thing I wasn’t taught in my formative years, however, was how to actually do something about the issue at hand. After graduation, I went from studying German History and Literature to studying character development. I began reading various self-help books that focused on this form of development as opposed to personality development.

The distinction between character development and personality development is that the former focuses on improving who we are whereas the latter merely focuses on improving how we’re perceived by others. That said, manipulating the perception of others only masks the problems, but manipulating our thoughts and our perception of self helps to address our issues directly.

Some of these books ranged from actual self-help literature such as The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen R. Covey to transcendentalist and Sturm und Drang pieces like Civil Disobedience and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Still, it wasn’t until I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson earlier this summer that really drove a lot of points home. It talked about how most people (that is, 99.99% of us) aren’t special — and that’s okay. If we’re average, that also means exceptional things such as succumbing to brain-eating amoebae or dying in a plane crash are very rare occurrences that most likely won’t happen to us. We don’t have to place the weight of the world on our shoulders. We can just be.

One excerpt really stuck out to me that I’ve dedicated to memory and, in doing so, I’ve conquered the majority of my anxiousness: “Don’t hope for a life without problems. Instead, hope for a life with good problems.” One example Manson used was that both a homeless person and Warren Buffett have money problems, but whose would you rather have? As solving one problem often leads to a set of new ones, it’s best to then find problems you don’t mind having.

That said, to truly heal, we must be willing to introspect and identify the problems we have and how they’re affecting our lives while envisioning what our lives would be like if they were addressed. Remember what I said earlier about finding quests that provide a decent amount of XP, that aren’t too difficult but not too easy either? Same thing. You can’t escape having problems, but you can strive to have better ones.

After all, without a struggle, we’ll end up stagnating. And if we are just stagnating, are we truly living?

An Open-Ended Quest

Of all the conversations I’ve had with my father, it was one a few weeks before my graduation that really stuck with me. He and I were sitting together at a local restaurant eating dinner and talking. Given the impending milestone I was about to achieve, he imparted some coming-of-age wisdom that has encouraged my continual education, both in class and on my own: “Life is constant on-the-job training. Always be learning and doing something and explore the unknown. Even if you get lost or fail, you’ll still learn from it and find your way again. Sometimes, it’s getting lost that helps put what we were looking for all along into perspective.”

Though I was estranged from most of my family while figuring myself out in Minnesota, it’s this quote that prompted me to flip a coin to decide on where I should go after I graduated. My choices were either Pennsylvania on the East Coast (heads) or Washington on the West Coast (tails). Given how much I talk about the Pacific Northwest, my fate’s a little obvious with the random city I found myself in turning out far better than anticipated.

As of now, I still cope with anxiety but to a much lesser extent. I still struggle with my reflection and feeling at ease with who I am and what I look like. Mind you, it’s less about self-esteem and more along the lines of depersonalization — the sensation of feeling ripped from your physical body and left adrift or that your body, itself, feels unfamiliar or not meant to be yours.

However, I have an Instagram account that has a few pictures of me actually making eye contact with the camera and smiling, interspersed with all my landscape photos which is a big step for me. I actually just finished a three-week project where I’d take random selfies and post them without thinking too deeply to desensitize myself to the depersonalization to significant effect. And while I still have instances of hypochondria, I can at least tell myself, “Hey, calm down. You’re not special enough to be struck down by neuron-eating parasites,” or whatever else I’m wont to worry about.

But no matter what we’re coping with, know that things do get better with consistent work. Since this post is meant to talk about gamifying anxiety, here’s a few ways I’ve done that in my own life that you’re welcome to try:

  • Make a list of things you want to accomplish each day throughout the week. You can do three things or ten things or even just one thing. Just make sure you do something and keep yourself busy. I have a whiteboard hanging above my desk that tracks all these things and keeps my ideas and to-do list all in one place like my own quest journal or HUD. Even on days where you struggle to find motivation, make sure you do at least something; the goal is to have no zero days rather than all 100% days anyway. You’re human after all.
  • If you’re overwhelmed by something big, break it down into smaller parts. The brain is programmed to reward itself with dopamine after feeling accomplished. In that same vein, sometimes the little victories can build momentum into bigger ones. For instance, if you fail to motivate yourself to clean your house, break it up into smaller tasks, take before and after pictures, and give yourself a reference of progression. We want to feel like we make a difference; if you can’t get that validation or appreciation from others as you’d like, learn to give it to yourself.
  • Find a means of escape from stress (but know how to bring yourself back). For me, I love hiking and taking pictures of nature. I read fiction such as The Witcher series and a few novelizations of the Shadowrun universe. I lose myself in the moment of cooking, focusing on the smells and sensations and being present in the moment. And, naturally, I play video games. If you don’t already, find a hobby or activity that you can just zone out to and feel refreshed coming back from.
  • Surround yourself with people who celebrate your success as you’d celebrate theirs. Even if you’re not an extrovert, keeping the circle of those closest to you free of toxic or terrible people is a wise social investment. These people should love you as you love them. Conversely, if you feel you’re not being loved as you ought to be, reflect too whether or not you’re doing enough to show these people the appreciation they deserve from you. Life is too short to be surrounded by assholes; purging yourself of them is never a bad idea and sometimes letting go of toxic “friends” who take more than they are willing to give back is all that you need to get back on your feet. The Sims taught me that one early.

If you need someone to talk to, feel free to reach out to me, either in the comments or my own email at anthony[dot]m[at]start2continue[dot]com. And if you’re in the U.S. and are feeling extremely depressed, you can always reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or, for those just needing help in other crises like anxiety or crippling life stresses, there’s also a 24-hour crisis hotline you can use. Though I’m all about helping others, sometimes professionals are the absolute best option when it comes to this kinda stuff.

But whatever it is you’re dealing with, know that you can succeed and get through it. It might not be in the way you had in mind, but life is weird in that through all the bullshit it dishes out, it helps propel us to where we ought to be. We just have to have faith and work at consistently improving and learning, biding and preparing ourselves for a better future. Whether that future is tomorrow or even now is up to you.

What are some ways you’ve adapted gaming concepts to help your anxiety? What constructive ways have you surmounted the challenges life’s given you? Let me know in the comments below if you wanna share your story. Who knows? It might help someone who’s struggling with what you’re going/have gone through.

Also, I’d like to give a shout out to the friends and family that have never given up on me, whether it was my coming out or the ups and downs of my depression and anxiety. I’m grateful for your patience, love, and support, and I hope that I can one day repay that kindness with interest, somehow, some way. Without you, I don’t know if I’d still be here. All things considered, I’m glad I am.

About author


Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.