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  • Writer's pictureAshton Rose

Video Games as Tools of Self-Discovery

I know that video games can be a cause of lots of controversy and debate, and people have wildly differing opinions on them. But as a gamer, I can’t help but notice all the beautiful sides of gaming, and I think that’s something worth talking about.

So today, I’m going to explore that topic some. I’ll talk about how we see gaming, my own history with it, and then how video games can be beneficial for mental health and used as tools of self-discovery. Let’s dive right in!

The video game debate

Video games have created rifts in society that many other forms of media simply haven’t. There are a vast number of differing opinions on games, and the debates can get very heated. I don’t have time to get into all of that, but it’s important to acknowledge that many people see them differently.

Some people think they’re making children much more violent (which science doesn’t really support) and thus are a scourge on humanity. Some people think gamers are all toxic and rude and thus gaming is a lost cause.

And within the gaming community, there are many different groups. Some gamers believe that you always have to be the best, and if you don’t play on the hardest difficulty, you’re not a “true gamer” (there are a lot of gatekeepers). Some people just want to enjoy games.

So, for the purpose of this post, let’s forget about all of that for a few minutes and just think about the benefits of video games. Let’s talk about self-exploration!

My own history

First, just to provide some framework for where I’m coming from, let’s talk about my history with games.

I’m not sure when I started playing video games, but they definitely became a big part of my life in sixth grade. Halo 1 and 2 were how I got through a lot of tough times, as well as Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, and some games on the N64.

Around the same time, I was first introduced to Minecraft, which has since become an incredibly important game for me.

For quite a few years after that, I didn’t game too much. Sure, I played them sometimes, but only cycling a few of the same games and not really being that into it. Until, that is, the end of my senior year of high school.

The pandemic hit, and like many others, I found myself with way too much free time. So, like many of you did, I turned to video games. I finally got a newer console (goodbye Xbox 360) and started experiencing more games.

And in the past two years since then, I have played dozens of games, and also explored myself more deeply than I have in quite a long time– perhaps ever. Playing video games has helped me grow and change and learn more about myself. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t gotten a lot more into gaming.

Video games for self-discovery

There are many, many ways video games and mental health can combine, along with self-discovery. I’ll talk about some of them, and this article also has a great exploration of certain parts of how video games affect us as people.

Questioning morality

One of the greatest facets of some video games is the opportunity to confront your own morals and reckon with who you are and who you want to be. Games like Prey, Mass Effect, and Tell Me Why are just a few examples.

In these games, your character will face choices about what to do next. This could be as small as which path to take, or as big as deciding whether or not to blow up an entire space station.

I remember getting to a certain point in Prey and having to pause the game, put the controller down, and really ask myself: am I willing to sacrifice all the friends I’ve made on this space station, even if I know it could protect the rest of humanity? And am I willing to die with them?

Decisions like these are helped along by the immersion: because we have been controlling the character, it feels more real than a book or movie, and making that decision feels truly difficult. They present us with an opportunity for self-discovery: deep down, what do we truly believe in? And what are we willing to do for those beliefs?

Exploring creativity

Creativity is such a massively important part of being human, and it’s a great tool of self-exploration. We can do that in so many ways: writing, painting, coloring, crocheting, sculpture. But we can also do that in video games.

Sandbox games like Minecraft give us massive worlds where we have free reign over what to do. Will you build a massive castle? Hollow out an entire mountain? Adventure in the deepest caves? The possibilities are endless.

And other games, too, provide opportunities to decorate how we want, interact with others in our own way, customize our looks, and more. Games like Animal Crossing and The Sims are great for this. Many RPGs– even if they can get “sweaty”– also have this option.

Getting this chance to explore our creative side can be so helpful as we try to figure out ourselves. The things you choose to build, the job you choose for your sim, the decorations you put on the wall: all of these are opportunities for you to explore what you enjoy, and maybe imagine how areas of your life could be different.

Creativity is such an innately human thing, and exploring that through video games is just one of the many ways that video games and mental health can intersect.

Roleplay and identity

One of the largest benefits I’ve experienced from using video games as a tool for self-discovery is the ability to roleplay. As anyone around me knows, I’m hopelessly obsessed with Skyrim, but there are certainly others out there, both big and small.

World of Warcraft, the entire Elder Scrolls series, Monster Hunter, Dragon Age. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of role-playing video games. From online to off, team to solo, there are options for everyone.

And in these games, we have the chance to explore parts of ourselves we might not otherwise. I know that many folks in the trans community love RPGs because they give them a chance to see what it might be like to live in a world where you’re perceived as a different gender, or even just have a different look.

Whether you want to try out playing as a woman, want to see what life would be like as a cruel mercenary, or want to explore your capacity to help others, video games provide an avenue to do that.

And that is so incredibly important. Many people might not have other ways to explore these parts of themselves, and thus can start with games. Then, when you’ve gotten a taste for it and feel better inside, you might be more willing to talk to others, or even do more self-exploration on your own.

Gaming for ourselves

I wish I could spend pages and pages more talking about this– I could probably fill a whole book with my ramblings. But I think you get the gist of it, so I’ll leave you with one more anecdote to ruminate on.

The first time I played Skyrim, a little over a year ago now, I played as a female dark elf named Skela. Now, I knew very little about RPGs, and even less about the Elder Scrolls universe, but I was excited regardless.

That experience was beautiful, and transformative, for two reasons. One, I got to experience being in a world where people perceived me as female. Now, that’s not necessarily what I want in my real-world life: I identify as non-binary, and I like being in the middle of the spectrum. But it was great to have a chance to navigate a world where I wasn’t constantly being labeled as a man.

And second, because I wasn’t being held down by the fear of being too masculine, I was able to truly enjoy exploring and interacting with others. The sense of wonder I felt at some of the parts of the game, some of the hidden things I found, and even just the conversations I had, will always stick with me.

So for a moment, forget about the deep divide our society has over video games. Instead, think about how helpful they can be for some people, and how you might be able to use that to help in your own self-discovery. Happy gaming!

Do you have other amazing anecdotes about gaming? Questions about any of this? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know by leaving a comment below or tagging us on social media (@llctherapeutic on Twitter and @therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram).

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