How to use video games to overcome anxiety, while avoiding the addiction trap

For many people, anxiety is a difficult challenge to overcome. You feel lonely and wish you had more friends, or that you were able to make phone calls as easily as your peers seem to be able to.

The common advice is to just “put yourself out there”, go on and find a group that shares your interest. “They’re just strangers, if it doesn’t work out, you’ll never have to see them again”, they say. But the little gremlin in your brain yells back “but what if you do something really embarrassing, and then you stumble upon those people again, say at a job or in a future friends group?”. You rationally know that it’s unlikely you’ll do something that embarrassing, and even if you do, most people will just ignore it, or not notice/care. But it’s hard to soothe the gremlin, as it bombards you with new things to worry about whenever you try to counter it rationally.

The advice isn’t wrong, though, but if your anxiety is that bad, video games can be a good intermediary step. Playing MMORPGs has helped me overcome a lot of my social anxiety, and they may be useful for you too, particularly if you’re a gamer. There is a good reason why so many people play games such as World of Warcraft, and it’s not just because they’re fun.

The benefits of games

Why does it feel “safer” to play a game with strangers, than to go meet strangers in real life? There are quite a few benefits that come with online gaming:

  1. You can always quit/change servers. Anonymity is a huge benefit. If you do screw up somehow (however unlikely), you are anonymous, so there are no consequences (other than hindering your progress in-game). You can always start over on another server, or just quit the game entirely. Nobody knows who you are, and, even if you meet those people in real life later on, unlikely as it is, they won’t know it was you (and you won’t know it’s them).
  2. You can bond by doing things together. As you’re going on a dungeon run, or on a raid, you’re working together towards a goal, and that is enough to create a bond between people. You don’t have to have exceptional social skills, or even talk all that much at all about yourself and your personal life. It’s all about playing, and that’s much easier to learn.
  3. People are more tolerant of social awkwardness or poor skills. Many people who play these games are introverted, and often a bit awkward, so chances are, if you have anxiety, you’ll feel right at home with them. They’ll care more about playing with you, and less about you making a bad joke or saying some other slightly embarrassing thing. The same goes for not being the best player ever, as long as you’re nice about it and try to learn, most will be happy to teach you. The only things regularly frowned upon are being mean to other players, being extremely selfish or inconsiderate (e.g. taking all the items from the guild bank and selling them for a bit of extra profit), making “pranks” that impede progress (e.g. getting the party killed as a “joke”), etc.
  4. You can ignore people. There will inevitably be some mean people out there, who try to put you down to “make themselves look better”. It’s a good chance to practice conflict resolution and not taking things personally. And, if it becomes too much, you can just stop playing with them, and you can put them on your ignore list to stop receiving messages from them entirely!
  5. You can take it in small bursts. If you go to a meetup, you may feel awkward leaving mid-way if you only feel you have the energy to interact with people for one hour. However, in a game, “real life comes first”, as the saying goes . You can always excuse yourself and go do something else. You can also choose how much time you want to spend playing with other people, and how much you want to experience the game on your own (questing, exploring, etc.). This allows you to gradually increase the time you spend with people at a pace you’re comfortable with.
  6. You get used to making phone calls. Organizing various activities by talking using a voice program such as Discord is quite common. The anonymity remains, and you get to practice actually talking, rather than just typing! You don’t have to if you don’t want to, many people choose to never use their microphone (although you still have to connect and listen to others sometimes). But it’s a good opportunity to get comfortable with it, when you’re ready.
  7. You may end up choosing to meet these people in real life. So you have a group of people you’ve been playing with regularly. You really like them, and they really like you. As you chat with them more and more about real life too, you may find out a couple of them live nearby, or are visiting your area during their vacation. It may be a good opportunity to push that boundary further and see them in real life for a quick coffee. They’re people you’re already comfortable with in-game, so seeing them is only one small step, at this point. I met my boyfriend in one of these games, and we’ve been living together for 6 years now. We still keep in touch with other people we’ve played, even if we no longer play the same game.

The key is to take it as an opportunity to practice. To always push your boundaries in manageable bursts, until you feel comfortable doing them. You may surprise yourself by getting so confident, you end up leading a raid on Discord, explaining bosses to people and managing them!

Once you feel comfortable socializing in-game, you can take your newly found skills and confidence out in the real world, testing just how much of it applies to people in general (hint: a lot). You may even be able to go to that board game meetup and have a great time!

The risk

The problem is actually taking that step and using these new skills in real life too, instead of limiting yourself to just the game.

Once you feel comfortable with your fellow players, maybe even make a few close friends, it will be tempting to stop there. It feels great, after all. You have a space where you’re accepted and appreciated, whereas the real world still feels intimidating, so why risk it? So you start playing more and more, withdrawing from real-life friends and family, or even other obligations. If you could just play all day, life would be perfect! That’s where the addiction gremlin creeps in.

In those moments, remember how nervous you felt the first time you grouped up with real people to do a dungeon run. The anxiety you felt when you joined a guild and talked to your online friends for the first time. That amazing feeling you get from playing comes not only from the acceptance and companionship you get, but also from your efforts to overcome your limits.

I promise you that once you overcome anxiety in real life too, it will feel even better than the game. And you can do it, you have proven this to yourself! All that’s left is to take that one final step, and play the “real life” game as well.

8 thoughts on “How to use video games to overcome anxiety, while avoiding the addiction trap

  1. Nice post 🙂 I am not an avid vieo game player, but I used to like some shooters like most boys.
    The anxiolytic application is interesting….

    I will need to check if it works in learning a foreign language. There’s always this anxiety when you miss out a word or are not sure if you explain yourself well enough. Do you think there’s a good game community for that ?

    Also, how to not fall into addiction ? If people are so cool and you know the game well and you feel comfortable, how to stop wasting time on playing it all days ?

    1. Good idea about the foreign language. I don’t really know of any, I imagine it may be a bit frustrating to struggle to understand something in an MMO, where reaction time is important. If you find anything like this, please let me know 😊

      Regarding addiction, you have to be mindful of what you’re doing. To remind yourself that it will feel even nicer when you get the same in real life as well, and to push yourself a little bit every day. Ideally, the mindset should always be “how can I improve myself further?” rather than “how can I get rid of this anxiety?”.

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