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Die, Anxiety, Die! How Violent Video Games Aid My Mental Health

Ah, the soothing joy of a well-executed headshot.

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At a young age I knew I was different, but always just hid behind a theatre kid exterior and chalked all my anxiety up to “budding creativity” that just needed an outlet. Surprise! Turns out my anxiety is actually a chemical imbalance in my brain that kept escalating until it exploded. I was nearly 21, living at college, and having a full-on anxiety attack every day. After dropping about 10 pounds (I’m very small to begin with) and not being able to handle it anymore, I left college, moved home and got on medication. Turns out medication is super helpful and really cleared my brain up. But just because you’re on medication doesn’t mean the anxiety is 1000% gone. There is still residual anxiety that hangs out and likes to rear its ugly head. That’s where I discovered the joys and pleasures of the violent video game.

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I loved computer games growing up. Personally, I adored Roller Coaster Tycoon, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and The Sims (who didn’t?). Then my brother and I got our first gaming system (the PS2) in 2000, and I fell in love. We weren’t allowed to have violent games, but I played everything else; Sly Cooper was always my favorite.

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Portrait of the author as a young fangirl.

 

As I got older I continued playing. I tried to hide it from my friends because it “wasn’t cool.” Girls weren’t supposed to play video games. Other things I hid included a love of fantasy books, Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings movies and emo music, but I digress. In hiding all of this from everyone, I didn’t play much of anything new until I hit college. It was then that I discovered Assassin’s Creed.

This was the most violent video game I’d owned to date, and I instantly fell in love with zooming across rooftops and stabbing unsuspecting Templars. Depending on my mood I would either ambush a large group and just gut all of them with my scimitar (my favorite sword), or I would sneak up behind them (since video game villains have no peripheral vision) and silently stab them in the back with my dagger. It relaxed me in a weird way. My anxious thoughts diminished.

The most exciting development in Cassie’s World of Video Games was when I met the man who is now my husband, mainly because he used to work at GameStop and therefore knew everything about video games ever. Yes, I married a total nerd. Not only was I able to be completely myself around him, but he LOVED that I played video games. I found more people I liked when I started being myself, letting my geek flag fly. It was so relaxing, not having to put up a front. I was genuinely happy. But I still hadn’t found my niche in the gaming world.

Suddenly, and without warning, my style of video game came up and slapped me across the face: plot-driven shooters. Dave (the aforementioned nerd/husband) pre-ordered Dishonored and I went to pick it up when he was out one day. I thought I’d give it a shot, why not? The next thing I knew he was walking in the door hours later. It was like nothing I’d ever played before. It was similar to Assassin’s Creed in its sneaking abilities, but this one had magic, teleportation, a fantastic plot…plus guns, crossbows and explosives. I took all my anxiety from the day and channeled it into Corvo and his mission to get back the kidnapped princess and clear his name. I beat that game so fast.

I didn’t want to stop there. The calm feeling I had when playing video games and the release I felt was intoxicating. The weird worries I had in my brain weren’t there anymore. I focused on the mission at hand and not on the fear of being sick, or people not liking me, or people talking behind my back, or the world judging me. I was just a person trying to do the right thing, and that happened to be violently killing all the bad guys.

From there, I was shown the Mass Effect series and played through all of those (Garrus 4ever). Then I discovered Far Cry and met the love of my life (sorry, honey): sniper rifles. There was something so cathartic and anxiety-reducing about hiding in a bush, hundreds of feet away from the enemy, lining up, and taking a leisurely kill shot. Or clearing an outpost with a silenced rifle by knocking out all the alarms first so that by the time they realize you’re attacking them, they are completely helpless and then you can bomb the hell out of them with your grenade launcher. Most recently, I spent about 6 months on Fallout 4. I took a break from it to go back and play through Far Cry 4 with a different outcome, but I still have so much more to do!

Video games are so much more to me than simple games. They are a way of calming myself down, releasing my anxious thoughts, and becoming a sneaky ninja. What’s really funny is that in reality, I am one of the biggest pacifists out there, but in the world of the video game, I’m a gun-toting bad-ass bitch.

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After learning to be myself, I started Breaking the Stigmas and began writing about my nerdy life and my lifelong battles with anxiety and depression. I then began doing speaking engagements to help promote mental health awareness and show that just because you have a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re “a crazy.” Sometimes you just need a video game.

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Cassie De Almo is a mental health advocate who founded the website Breaking the Stigmas in early 2016. As someone who actively lives with anxiety and depression, Cassie decided to create a space were people could share their stories with mental illness and learn about the experiences of others. She has since become an active speaker visiting high schools and colleges to speak out about her story and the stigmas associated with mental illness. She hopes to reach as many young people as possible to help foster a more inclusive and supportive generation.

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