My publication in Mapping the Impossible is a recent edit of the dissertation I completed for my Fantasy MLitt. The original title was Of Heroes and Heartbreak: The Therapeutic Function of Fantasy in Video Games. The premise included an argument which advocated for video games as a therapeutic experience. My new article makes no such claims, instead focusing on how one particular game (Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch) deploys literalised psychoanalytic metaphor in the form of Fantasy, in a way that makes emotional processing easier to understand (if you’d like more information, find the article here).
When I was a vice-editor for Press Start I always used to tell people who submitted to us (in nicer terms) that you can’t just recycle your coursework for publication, you have to actually DO SHIT to it. And, like the icon, the mentor, the PARAGON of the academic community wot I am (jk jk) I practised what I preach and DID SHIT to my own paper before submitting it to the journal. This post revisits the academic and personal processes that led to my original argument, before explaining why I have since changed it.
Editing the article, which included extensive studying of my prior draft, made me consider whether video games are therapeutic, which raised further questions as to what the term ‘therapeutic’ actually means and how I arrived at describing video games in this manner.
Are Video Games Therapeutic?
To answer this question, first we need a functional definition to work from. The term therapeutic means something different depending on who is using it. I’m going to keep it simple and include a couple of common functional definitions, then compare these with a working definition I used in my original dissertation.
The colloquial definition, as written in the Cambridge Dictionary is ‘causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy’ with the example: ‘I find gardening very therapeutic’. By this definition then, anything, including video games, can be therapeutic.
According to the most reliable and academic source on the internet, Google, therapeutic also means ‘relating to the healing of disease’ and a ‘treatment, therapy, or drug’.
There are arguments that games are therapeutic in relation to both understandings of this word. People find that games might chill them out and have escapist qualities that help them cope with challenging situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or they may provide parasocial interaction which can help cope with loneliness.
Furthermore, there have also been advancements regarding the use of both serious and entertainment video games for therapy with practitioners such as Kourosh Dini (amongst others) using them as a means to talk through emotional problems with patients, and even simple games such as Tetris have been used to prevent post-traumatic stress symptoms.
In my dissertation, I took a psychoanalytic approach. I looked at Fantasy imagery using writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, who describes Fantasy as ‘the ‘language of the inner self’. I argued that video games give us direct access to these unconscious processes by literalising them (as magic, monsters etc) which presents them in a form that allows players to interact with them. I argued that playing video games could offer players catharsis without abreaction via the metaphorical processing of similar emotions as a part of gameplay. I wondered if literally mending broken hearts in a video game might help heal players’ own broken hearts figuratively.
What I proposed was that by allowing interaction with literalised metaphors of affect, video games could allow for the same release of emotion as therapy (catharsis), without the requirement of reliving the traumatic memory attached to it (abreaction). I think what I was suggesting was that video games could do psychological therapy on players, in a way that felt therapeutic in the colloquial sense.
The dissertation did pretty well, so maybe some of my ideas have legs, but they were so intricately woven from the fuckery I was experiencing at the time, that my argumentation was rather tainted by my personal perspective.
Editing your writing is editing your perception
The change in my argument signals a progression in both my academic and personal journey. I didn’t realise it until I started typing this very sentence, but my new argument – that analysing Fantasy imagery in video games can help us better understand emotional processing – was exactly what I was doing during my MLitt dissertation without knowing it.
You see, that was the year I realised I had dissociative amnesia and started to experience the symptoms that accompany the resurfacing of repressed memories. I had no idea what was going on. I had experienced flashbacks and nightmares before, without knowing what they were, but during my research they amped up. At the time, I hadn’t quite realised what had triggered this; I didn’t properly connect my personal experiences to my research until well after I had submitted my work – describing the experience in a blog I wrote a little while after. It’s obvious now that reading about psychoanalysis and trauma theory had triggered partial abreaction, meaning that I had to navigate reliving my trauma and writing a dissertation at the same time.
LOVE THAT FOR ME 🙃.
I only figured out what was going on after reading @thalstral’s thread about dissociative amnesia on academic twitter, which gave me insight into both what was happening to me and how my research was connected. Looking back, I’ve realised that playing video games, and analysing them, did the opposite of what I’d claimed: it caused me to experience partial abreaction without any catharsis attached to it. Video games were therapeutic for me, but not the good, thorough kind of therapy that helps you cope with things – what happened to me was like going to a crappy therapist who gets you to rip your heart out and show it to them, without taking the time to sew you up again.
So, are video games therapeutic???
Well, it depends.
I don’t want people to read this post and come to the conclusion that both games, and the study of them are ‘bad actually’. Like every game studies academic I have written numerous ‘apology paragraphs’ explaining that GAMES AREN’T BAD. So I must make it explicit that my PTSD symptoms are not the fault of video games.
Video games have the capability to provide a therapeutic experience in a colloquial sense – all us ‘gamers’ use them to change our moods or experience some kind of release. Entertainment video games have also been used by professionals to provide therapy in a psychological sense, and serious games such as Sparx and Apart of Me have been designed for this very purpose. Video games do have therapeutic potential.
The way my gameplay and analysis does benefit me, is by helping me to understand emotional processing in a way I hadn’t before, which facilitated a lot of growth. I’m doing SO much better than when I wrote that first unfortunate blog post, and I owe a small part of that to my research which has become a record of my journey.
Perhaps then, my contribution can provide insight into how games can be therapeutic, rather than labelling them as inherently being so. What I’d like to argue is that understanding games, like understanding any form of art, can aid in the cultivation of emotional literacy which can be used to benefit mental health.
Content warning: this blog discusses mental illness, trauma and mentions maladaptive coping mechanisms. It may be difficult to read for people who have experienced abuse.
When I finally got the consultation for the therapy I’d been waiting over a year for, the therapist was the first I’ve spoken to who actually seemed to understand me. She noticed things about me that no therapist has before.
“See that tattoo on your arm Gabe? If you’re going to do this kind of therapy, you’re going to need to take off your mask. Just like that. You have to be vulnerable and stop over intellectualising your feelings.”
Even though I knew this therapist could help me, I refused the treatment.
When I say I refused treatment, what I mean to say is that after extending a one session consultation to four sessions, both the practitioner and I came to a consensus that psychodynamic therapy is not right for me at this time. You’d think that after such a battle to get treatment I’d be angry or upset; I was referred to the community mental health service, who sent me to the trauma team, who referred me back to the community team again – with months of waiting in between. Worse still, this is only my most recent therapy journey: it is the latest in a chain of therapeutic misadventures that started when I was around seventeen. I was, understandably I think, growing increasingly desperate and frustrated with the system.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that the wait could have killed me; it nearly did. I was referred to these teams because I was in crisis, but now I am not. As I write this, I’m approaching six months of being sober from alcohol, and free from self-harm. I discussed my progress with the consulting therapist, and we came to an agreement:
Could I benefit from therapy?
Is this the right time?
There’s so much discourse URGING people with destructive behaviours to ‘GO TO THERAPY’. In fact, it’s a bit of a meme. What we’re really saying when we ask people to ‘go to therapy’ is: please develop a modicum of self-awareness, and do some work on yourself rather than causing people grief with your fuckboyish ways, or rather, please take some responsibility for your actions by learning how to express your emotions in a more constructive manner. It’s not quite as funny when we put it like that, right?
These are all good and valid reasons to go to therapy, but the realities of therapy are vastly more complicated. There are different types for different things: some therapy is about coping with the day-to-day, and some therapy (especially trauma-based therapy) has the potential to make your day-to-day life infinitely worse during the process. The kind of therapy offered to me, the kind of therapy I may eventually need, is more likely to make my immediate life a living nightmare than help me cope with it.
Let me explain this using the story that my therapist and I told together.
In my head there is a box, and in that box there is a creature. We don’t know what the creature looks like, though we can hazard a guess from the shadows it casts. We do, however, know that it is there and if I speak its name, it will change me forever. When I first got my referral, I was in crisis because I had discovered the box by chance, and (because I, like Pandora, am a curious bitch) opened it. I slammed the lid shut as quickly as I could, but it was too late. The creature had awoken and wouldn’t let me close the box properly. Just catching a glimpse of it changed everything I thought I knew about myself. It made me feel and remember things I hadn’t dared admit, and still don’t entirely understand.
I tried to weigh the lid down. I stacked books on the box to keep it closed, but they weren’t heavy enough. I couldn’t banish the monster from my mind – I was both fascinated and disgusted by it.
I didn’t know what to do: to close the box properly, I would have to open it again, and I was already so fucking weak. The creature’s presence dominated my waking life, and invaded my dreams. It became all I could think about. I tried various ways of appeasing it: I hurt the creature, I tried to get it drunk, I tried to starve it, and if you know me, you’ve probably guessed by now that I tried to fuck it too. None of it worked. The more I tried to silence the creature, the louder it screamed, and it became more and more difficult to block out the noise. It was hard. I was afraid to be alone.
Eventually I realised that living this way was killing me. Instead of giving up, I changed my strategy. I gave the monster a stern telling off, and scared it into stillness and silence long enough to give me time. I practised kindness as praxis and worked on becoming strong. Sometimes the monster tried to creep further out of the box, but this time, I’d recovered enough to drive it back. Eventually, after a lot of trying and failing, I managed to close the lid properly, this time, trapping the creature inside. It’s a victory, if a tentative and temporary one.
The box will always be there. Sometimes it oozes, and sometimes the creature whispers it will escape, take my sleep, and rob me of my sanity. I know that, one day, I will need to open the box and face the creature inside, but now is not the time. Right now the monster is manageable: when it makes a mess, I clean it, when it growls, I feed it snacks, and when it whispers to me, I tell it a story until it falls asleep. I’m still afraid of naming the monster, and afraid of what kind of person this monster has made me. However, most importantly, I’m not afraid to sit with it now – and sit with it, I must. It’s a lonely thing. The monster is open to polyamory, but it has to be my primary, or it gets jealous. It keeps its own schedule: google calendar is no good here. When it calls, I have to listen. I have to commit to it; I have to commit to myself.
My therapist said that I seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality sometimes, and that I use fantasy to make myself feel better about the bad things that have happened to me. She said it’s important to use fantasies to cope, but we can’t let fantasies undermine or invalidate the difficult realities of our lived experiences. The reality of therapy is that it’s like any treatment: you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. My reality is that I’m away from my support network to do a PhD. I’ve just managed to claw my way out of perpetual crisis, and doing this therapy would pull me right back in. Right now, if I want to finish this project, all I can do is damage control.
I’d like to open the box and face my monster. I’d like to sort through my issues, and get to the hope at the bottom of the box. The truth is, it’s not safe, and I’m not ready.
My therapist told me that one day, that to do therapy, I will have to take off my mask and learn to be vulnerable. The thing is, that mask is doing something – it’s protecting my face.
Content warning: this blog contains themes including mental illness, trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideationand death. Please engage with this content responsibly. Also bear in mind that although I have a diagnosis, this in no way qualifies me to speak on behalf of others who share it. The only experiences I can speak to are my own.
When people ask me what I’m researching, I tell them that I’m studying single-player, narrative driven Fantasy video games, but that’s not entirely true. It’s roughly the type of content I’m investigating, but like most PhD researchers, I didn’t figure out my actual topic until well into my second year. Or more accurately, I didn’t realise it: the name of my blog ‘Digital Fantastic’, which I chose at the start of my PhD journey, should have been a tip-off.
To quote my own literature review:
“The Digital Fantastic is a state of hesitation that elides the binary between the digital and non-digital world via affective experiences in which the player treats digital characters (NPCs), as if they were people.” (Elvery, 2024)
It is a concept I’m developing which resituates a much contested piece of ‘Fantasy’ theory by scholar Tzvetan Todorov. I won’t go into a full explanation of my theory here – that’s what my thesis is for. This post, as usual, dear reader, is all about me. This blog is situated in the place where my research and personal life meet, more specifically, it details how my experiences have unconsciously informed my research interests.
I have been fascinated by Todorov’s theory of the fantastic ever since I first encountered it during my Fantasy MLitt. It’s lucky that our lecturer, Rob Maslen, included the text on the syllabus, as this theory’s connection to the genre of Fantasy and its content is tenuous at best. In fact, it is often argued that it’s only lumped in with Fantasy theory because the term fantastic and Fantasy are so often conflated.
For Todorov, in its most simple form, the fantastic is hesitation. It’s a state of uncertainty experienced by readers (often mirroring a character in the novel) that arises when neither the character, nor the reader, can explain the events occurring by attributing them to supernatural forces which disrupt the textual reality, or accept them as explained by the natural laws of the built world. Todorov’s fantastic is situated in liminality: for readers to experience it they have to read in a receptive manner which simultaneously accepts multiple textual meanings and be open to the notion that these meanings are shaped by the interaction of their subjectivity with an uncertain textual reality. The fantastic refuses to set discrete boundaries: the line between fantasy and reality is blurry, and the only truth perhaps, is an emotional truth, rather than an objective one. This is why it’s observed so frequently in literature oft categorised as horror – are the ghosts real, or are they a result of characters’ distorted perceptions of reality? If the events are not real, does that make the characters’ experiences of them any less so? By refusing to give answers, the fantastic denies anyone the authority to determine which interpretation of reality is more valid than another. If you’re interested in notable textual examples, two of my favourites are The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
I understand where Fantasy theorists are coming from when they say they consider the fantastic to be separate from Fantasy. Much of the literature we think about when asked to name works of Fantasy rely on us to buy into worlds which have been built according to a set of logical rules. World-building requires a level of certainty to work, which makes Fantasy literature more similar to mimetic literature than we may realise (for more on Fantasy and mimesis, see Kathryn Hume). The fantastic asks us to retreat from that certainty and consider a world where we cannot count on things being as they appear. The fantastic is, by nature, unsettling. It illuminates quite how tenuous the line between fantasy and reality is and asks us to consider that the way we experience reality is a matter of perspective. When we hesitate, however briefly, we make space, in that moment, for a multiplicity of realities to exist and it is only when we act that we choose one over another. Hesitation is the dialectic between fantasy and reality: it’s how we negotiate our emotional truths with the realities presented to us, which helps us consider how to best reconcile the two. If Fantasy, as my teacher Dr Maslen, often says, is ‘the literature of the impossible’, then the fantastic is the literature of possibility. But, it is more that. The fantastic is a mode of being, one which illuminates both the uncertainties of lived experience and acknowledges its potentiality.
Really then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I finally realised what the topic of my thesis is when I started to understand my situation with regard to my mental health. In part, it’s a result of my improved cognitive capacity facilitated by an intense regime of medication, self-care, and the understanding of those close to me. Perhaps it’s also because I have finally gotten a little closer to understanding what causes me so many problems. The answer, of course, dear reader, as you may have guessed, is hesitation. I realised that, at times, I occupy my own little realm of the fantastic: the dialectic between myself and my emotions is very much one of uncertainty. I cannot trust my feelings, which makes me hesitate about who I am, what I value and whether what I experience is reality. The fantastic is a space that I occupy, not just in my research, but in my daily life.
So about those feels…
I’ve heard that some people don’t think about their emotions much – they’re just something that’s there, something they feel. Maybe they question them from time to time, but often they’re just a fact of life, a function of being. Feelings do things.
A post on mental health blog Verywell Mind gives a brief overview of what feelings are for. Emotions are signals, they’re supposed to tell us something. Emotions can inform us about our environment, motivate us to take action, help us avoid danger, make decisions, enable others to understand us, and us to understand others. Though emotions are subjective and individual to the person feeling them, being able to understand and label our own feelings can inform us about where we are positioned in relation to the reality presented to us. Much of what we feel about things can inform us about who we are.
So, can emotions be wrong?
Of course they can, but by analysing them and checking our realities with other people, we may be able to come to some sort of compromise about how to reconcile the way we feel with the reality we’re presented with, and by doing so, form a judgement about where we stand on a given issue, which helps us understand who we are. When we consider this in relation to our interactions with other people, there may even be no objective facts, just the negotiation of different emotional truths as we all experience situations and relationships, differently. Even if we find out that we have been misinformed, it does not make the emotional experience of that situation any less real for the person experiencing it.
For example: if someone were to leave a message you’ve sent them on read without replying, you may feel slighted: what if they’re upset with you? What if they don’t like you anymore? Much of this can be solved by stepping back, curbing your emotional empathy (feels) and using cognitive empathy to try and understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Perhaps they’re tired, maybe they’re just busy or maybe they read the message mid-task and forgot to reply to you. The feeling of rejection you experience is just a reminder that you care about the person and what they think of you, or in the case that you actually have done something wrong (like sent an unsolicited dik pic) it’s there as a warning that tells you that you should, perhaps, adjust your mode of social interaction and consider boundaries. As feminist Sara Ahmad explains, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion: “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others”. By telling us how we feel in relation to external stimuli, emotions help inform who we are, figure out what we believe and adjust our values in response to the feedback they give us. Listening to our feelings and observing how they change when we interact with each other, brings us closer to understanding our own emotional truths.
Some people (*neurotypicals*) find it easier to listen to this feedback than others, it’s learned behaviour, automatic. For others, such as myself, understanding our emotions is a little more challenging. As I mentioned above, my whole life has been characterised by uncertainty. I have spent much of it being told that I was ‘too sensitive’, wrong to feel the way that I felt about things or to feel things AS LOUDLY and INTENSELY as I do, so instead of feeling my feelings I learned to avoid them in some of the worst ways possible. When I feel something, I don’t trust that feeling, I assume it’s not appropriate and push it away to the point of disassociation, which leaves me feeling numb and empty, which makes me panic and causes me to look for something, anything that will make me feel something and as soon as I do, I push that feeling away too because I don’t know how to deal with it – rinse and repeat. I have struggled so much to force my emotions to conform to what I perceive to be the ‘norm’ or an objective reality, that I have denied myself the experience of emotional truth. What I am coming to terms with is that I was never wrong to experience emotions – it was wrong that I felt I had to push them away. The more I ignore my feelings, the more loudly they scream for my attention, and the more severe they become, which makes me want to feel and express them even less. Eventually the screaming gets too loud to ignore and manifests as an emotional extreme.
I spill my coffee, I miss a train, I want to kill myself.
Of course, those things aren’t really what I’m upset about. The extreme emotions I experience about trivial things stem from an emotional truth, but through repression and avoidance have become divorced from their context and arise as perceptual distortions. Experiencing these distortions makes me trust my emotions even less. The dysregulation of my emotions means that they don’t always give me accurate feedback, which makes it hard to identify the ones that do. It’s not something within my control: I try my best, but my brain just works a little differently and I don’t yet have access to treatment that would help me. Whenever I manage to identify that I may be experiencing a disproportionate emotion I try and remind myself that I might be angry, or upset, about something that has already happened. Maybe it’s something I have not processed, do not understand, or I am experiencing a reaction that was once accurate to a past situation, but does not apply to the current scenario – except when it does. It is also important for me to try and learn when I am allowed to feel upset. I try and observe situations from the outside, test my reality and treat myself as I would treat a friend.
Still… It’s difficult to understand what I’m feeling about anything most of the time, but little by little, through a lot of hard work and failure, I am starting to listen to myself, create boundaries and police them a little better. My recent diagnosis has proved a useful tool to help me better understand why I might feel the way I do sometimes.
If I am triggered by something specific like a scene from a movie, or a situation I perceive as threatening, then what I’m upset about is probably in relation to my PTSD, as unfortunately, I have experienced trauma.
If I am triggered by a seemingly innocuous interaction with another person, it is likely that I am struggling with an aspect of my Borderline Personality Disorder which makes me doubt them, doubt myself and doubt the interactions between us. I experience emotion as a constant state of hesitation. Sometimes, experiencing hardship seems easier than living through a ‘normal’ day because at least then I have a reason to feel as loudly as I do – but it doesn’t work like that. More often than not, when something bad happens I feel numb; I push those feelings away because I am scared of what feeling them will do to me. They always, however, come back to haunt me.
Having emotional dysregulation makes it difficult to know who I am and what I believe. I spent many years silencing myself. I never allowed myself to have an opinion or express a feeling in public for fear of saying something incorrect or behaving in a way that was inappropriate – the shame I experienced (often disproportionate to the action) was so painful that it wasn’t worth the risk. I also tend to isolate myself, because getting to know people that I might hurt, or might hurt me, is a risk. I have reinvented myself numerous times, worn countless faces and taken many names. I allowed myself to be treated in ways I would now consider unacceptable, because I had no way of judging my emotional boundaries. It’s also easy not to care about how people treat you, when you don’t feel like a person yourself. I hid myself away in a place where I didn’t have to feel anything or be anyone.
Then I found Glasgow, returned to my studies and by studying Fantasy I finally started to come to terms with my reality. I gained recognition for my work and my sense of humour. I started to feel like I had something to say, to contribute. I started to talk to new people honestly, for the first time in years, and started posting on social media. Interacting with others allowed me to test my reality, and the reality is, that despite my difficulties, a lot of what I think, and feel, is valid and does matter. Over the past year I have gradually stopped the majority of my avoidant coping mechanisms to improve my physical and mental health so that I can focus on my research. I also knew that the things I was doing were increasing the chances that I would die a premature death. I had a moment of hesitation, and in that moment of hesitation I asked myself a question: is life really worth all this pain? In the middle of all my uncertainty, I had a moment of absolute clarity and I answered myself: Yes. My emotional truth is that I want to live. Little by little, I stopped avoiding life and I started living. I stopped running away from myself and turned to face all of my feelings. I started to feel them.
I am still uncertain about who I am and how to deal with my emotions, but I do know that I love to work and I love to write. I don’t know whether it’s apt, or ironic, that the only thing I’m certain about is my research on hesitation and The Digital Fantastic.
Thank you to my editor Marita Arvaniti for her continued hard work, support and honesty.
Thank you to my partner Ollie, who helps me to feel brave enough to feel my feelings.
Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Second edition). Edinburgh University Press.
Gilman, C. P. ( 2017). The Yellow Wallpaper. Wisehouse Classics.
Hume, K. (2014). Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. Routledge.
Jackson, S. ( 2009). The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics.