“Why do you play video games?” is a question that I got a lot growing up, and one I still get even now. It’s funny, because despite the phrasing being different, the real question that no one directly asked was always the same: “Why do you waste your time playing video games?” It was a common view when I was little that video games were good-for-nothing, and that anyone that spent their waking hours playing them must be a “loser,” and a person with nothing better to do than to just burn their hours away with meaningless pictures on a screen. My parents would press this issue a lot when I was younger, as did many of my friends and classmates, because video games were just a pastime like television. It wasn’t cool to say that you did it, it wasn’t useful to anyone, it wouldn’t lead to a job, and so therefore what was it good for? I just accepted as a fact of life that as long as I would want to play them I would get nowhere in life. That was the “truth” that was burned into me over years of people telling me to quit them.
In reality, the truth is that video games saved my life. Were it not for my obsessive habit of pouring endless amount of hours into something that people considered meaningless, I would have killed myself years ago. My teenage years were a version of hell that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and sometimes I look back and still wonder how it was that I came out of it as an okay person.
To get you up to speed without having to relive my whole childhood, I am a gay man born to a Hispanic, homophobic family, and I attended religious schools until college. I came out to my parents in the eighth grade, after they received a horrendously bad report card despite me always being a straight “A” student previously (I wasn’t handling the stress of keeping it a secret very well). It ended up being one of the worst decisions I have ever made in my life. On that night, my mother broke down crying in front of me, begging and asking God why he had done this to her. My dad, on the other hand, got incredibly angry. He asked me really uncomfortable and angry questions about why I liked guys, why I didn’t like girls, what was “wrong” with me. Needless to say, I didn’t handle this well. At the time I was also an incredibly overweight person who had no real friends to speak of in school. This lead to me spending a lot of time online and making long distance friends who wouldn’t judge me based on my “ugly” appearance. Since I would come home every day and spend all of my waking hours in front of a computer, my parents concluded that it was the computer’s fault that I had “turned” gay. My father was convinced that there were people on the other side of the screen talking me into being gay. He said he knew that I wasn’t really gay because I never played with dolls as a child and I used to like watching women dance, so there was no way I was into men. I was much too upset to argue how wrong all of these points were, so they ended up outright banning me from visiting all the websites and forums I frequented. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to my friends.
Of course, I didn’t listen and would sneak back onto those websites when I could. What I hadn’t known was that my father had installed an alarm on my computer that would alert him whenever I went back to those sites. After coming home late one evening from a martial arts lesson, I found my family gathered in front of my computer and I knew what was coming. After the worst hour of my life passed in which my father yelled at me, telling me that my decision to choose the gay lifestyle would end up in the destruction of the whole family, my parents decided that I needed help. From then on, every week for the next four years I would be sent to a Jewish therapist nearly two hours away by train. To my surprise, and relief, the therapist never tried to change me into being straight. Instead he tried to work with me on my depression, which I admittedly needed help with more than I knew.
By the time I had come to see my therapist, I was an angry, sad person. I hated people. I would go out of my way to try and find the things I didn’t like about everyone around me. I would talk down to myself all the time and shrink away from any activity I could. I kept to myself, while in my mind I would have dialogues yelling and screaming at everyone. I felt deserved it. Everything I did seemed like a hopeless endeavor. I had already considered myself a failure at things I didn’t even try. And to top it all off, I was still very religious. I believed in God, Heaven, and Hell. I would capitalize the word “god” and even the pronouns relating to him, because I felt it disrespectful not to do so. And I knew that as a gay person I was doomed to burn in Hell for all eternity once I died. I knew this, because I was told it was the case, and my father himself had me read aloud to him the verse in the Bible that said so. During these times, my father would sit me down sometimes and talk to me from hours on end. He wouldn’t allow me to leave my seat until I told him that deciding to be gay was wrong, that I was confused and needed help. That I was sick. By the time I had stepped through my therapist’s door I was ready to snap. No one wanted me, and no one would ever want me because I was useless as a person. Those were my thoughts on a daily basis. If I was going to burn in Hell anyway, and there was no way to redeem myself as I lived, why delay it?
The only thing that gave me any remote sense of happiness was video games. Inside video games I could totally escape from life. I could become any person I wanted. I could be a hero, a savior. Respected, popular, and admired. I could play the role of a person who was integral to a story, whose importance was unquestioned. My love for video games on consoles eventually spread to computer games and inevitably, MMOs. Throughout three of my four years in high school and two of my years in college I was a World of Warcraft addict. I found out that I had a talent for playing the role of a Healer. I spent four years on WoW playing as a Holy Paladin, and getting praise from all my friends and guildmates on my ability to heal well. People would pick me over other healers for fights they found too hard to do without me (something that I never experienced in real life: I was always the “last picked in gym” guy). For the first time ever I was praised for being able to do something well. I wasn’t actually a total failure at everything! It was a complete relief, which only sucked me in further into WoW.
Of course, escaping real life doesn’t solve any of your actual problems. When I would log off and turn away from my screen I was still the same old failure everyone in real life knew me as. My situation with my family grew worse for a time: my parents would argue over seemingly stupid stuff and I didn’t even knew how to talk to them anymore without feeling like they saw me as broken. Then came a day when they had left the house with my little brother for some reason and I was alone. I had walked over to the kitchen to get myself a snack when I looked towards the knife rack and stopped. I walked towards it, grabbed one, and held it in my hand for a while before pointing it back at myself. It was a weird feeling. I felt somehow outside myself, wondering what was I doing?
But part of me also wanted to know what it would feel like. Was this my chance? Would I die with no one around to rush me to the hospital if I plunged this knife into my chest? Would my parents feel bad, coming home and seeing me on the floor, blood every where? Would they feel sorry? For a long, strange minute I thought it over and I wanted it to happen. I wanted them to be sorry, I wanted them to feel pain, and I wanted my pain to be over. I knew this could do it. It would only take a second.
But then there was another thought: “This is stupid.” That’s all the thought was. Over and over it kept repeating, “This is really stupid, this is not a good idea.” For the first time in my life I was able to look at myself objectively and found myself totally lame in a different light. I was reminded of the women in those Lifetime Network movies my mother used to watch that portrayed themselves as helpless, alone, and pathetic. Women I hated because all their problems and worries were all self-inflicted. But wasn’t this kind of the same? I thought, you know… If I could be good at one thing, even if it was just healing in a video game, I could probably get good at doing other things, too. Even if I was a failure now, I could change. If I lived I could probably become cool some day. I didn’t have to end it here as a teenager.
I actually laughed because the idea was funny. Me? Actually becoming a cool person? Yeah, that’s totally ridiculous. I put the knife away, got my snack from the fridge, and went back to my computer. I acted like nothing happened at all. It would only be years later when I would acknowledge that this was the turning point in my life.
Nothing got better right away, in fact things got worse.
I would go on to lose almost all of my friends online because they got tired of trying to reassure me that I was a good player (people with low self-confidence are incredibly hard to put up with, as you can imagine). I would even get kicked out of the guild I had helped form. I was angry at them for years, but the truth was that I was an incredibly hard person to put up with and I really don’t blame them for their backlash now. A person can only build you up for so long before they themselves get tired and just want you gone. I don’t really hold that against them now.
After several years of identifying as a Christian, the week before my graduation from high school I decided that religion wasn’t for me and became Agnostic. I’ll spare you the details and just say that despite the decision having been made in a dramatic moment, I’ve been a lot happier for it and haven’t regretted it at all.
But the real change came when I went up to my parents and, having made the decision to go back into the closet, flat out told them that after four years of therapy I was finally fixed. I liked girls now and so I could stop going out to see my therapist. My parents were absolutely thrilled. Seeing their reaction flared up my hate for a while longer, but it was needed. I was tired of therapy. I wanted to move on. It would take nearly a decade before I could finally put into practice what I had learned in therapy and kick my habit of hating people. It would be even longer before I could actually go a full day without feeling like a loser. I started enjoying things outside of games, I made real friends, I became much more social, and now when I tell people that I used to be suicidal, I’m met with shock and surprise. “But you seem so happy!” is the usual response. The truth is I am happy. My parents still don’t know I’m gay and I’m not living out on my own yet, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
But I still love playing video games. In fact I plan to become a video game developer in the future thanks to my passion for playing them. I also can honestly say that now that I’m not so dependent on them I can enjoy them in a way that I couldn’t before. If I fail at a dungeon or a level I don’t get as upset as I used to and I don’t feel so hard pressed to be good at them. They can finally act like the real life break I need them to be without having a hold on me like they used to. It’s a freedom that I love. My life isn’t perfect, I still have a long way to go. But I’m happy to be alive. And that’s a change I’m happy with.