I crouch down a dark corner of the room, hidden between a stack of books and an old cardboard box. I can tell there is something dangerous nearby. My heart is beating at my fingertips and there is a repetitive thud in my ears. But I have to move, or I’ll never get out of here.
I take the plunge, sprint across the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a hole the size of me in the ground. I’m running for it. My heartbeat quickens, the thud gets louder, and just as I reach the hole, a long grayish arm with slender fingers reaching from the next room grabs me by the abdomen and pulls me over a face bandaged with rags. Everything turns black.
And then I save my progress, loosen my jaw and make myself a cup of tea. I’ll spend the rest of my evening with a sense of calm, knowing that nothing in the real world will scare me more than the endless monsters lurking in the dark on my Nintendo Switch screen.
Since I was young I have turned to haunting and disturbing games like Little nightmares, despite a lifelong fear of the dark – I slept with the light on until I was 12 – and a lifetime of anxiety. In high school, an afternoon home alone was sheer torture if I spent it in the eerie stillness of my bedroom. Instead, I turned on the TV, turned on my Xbox 360, and let the daylight go unnoticed while I spent hours in the haunting world of Dead space, borrowed from a friend who would become one of my greatest advocates for mental health.
It is not fair escape, comfort or a sense of control that lead me to play video games to face my fears about reality. In fact, I think it’s closer to a version of exposure therapy, where I look for games that describe a horrific extreme of my exact fears and give me the opportunity to practice responding to them. Often times, 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 often do in exposure therapy is watch yourself look at the world, because most of us, when we feel anxious, only deal with threatening signals in our environment”, Isabel Granic, director of Games for Emotional & Mental Health Lab at Radboud University, tells me. “So if you think of a video game, if you only watch threatening contexts, you might lose strategic things that you could do in the game if you were more relaxed, and your attention span would expand. “
At the GEMH Lab, Granic develops and researches video games that use the principles of psychology to help children fight anxiety and depression. As a teacher of developmental psychology and passionate about video games, Granic says she noticed that her own children were drawn to stimulating and often scary games, which inspired her to combine the principles of the exhibition and cognitive behavioral therapies with video game mechanics.
So far she has worked on Mindlight, in which players don a brain wave sensor that controls the amount of light they have to explore a haunted house, and DEEP, a virtual reality game in which a belt measuring the player’s diaphragmatic breathing controls his movements in an underwater world.
But it’s not just games designed specifically to interact with your brain waves or breathing patterns that can help fight anxiety. Granic says that when I choose to play scary video games, I train for the anxiety I feel in real life whether I realize it or not.