Video games mean something special to me. Some of my earliest childhood memories come from playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES with my parents. We stayed up way past my bedtime, taking turns trying to conquer each level, and bonded as a family in ways I can't even describe. It's amazing to me how something often viewed as a toy, a distraction for the chronically immature, can have so much power.
As I find myself shipping out for overseas duty again, I've thought back to my last deployment to Iraq. I spent six grueling months there in 2010 that changed me for the better…and for the worse. When I came home, I found that my wife had left me, taking off with most of my stuff. What she left behind was mostly destroyed. My cat, Baxter, had been locked up in my bedroom without food or water, barely alive when I found him. My entire world caved in.
Struggling with my experiences in Iraq on top of walking into that situation, I didn't know what to do. I just wanted to lay down and let life pass me by. I did something else instead.
Picking through the remains, I found that somehow my soon-to-be ex-wife left my video games intact. She loathed them with every fiber of her being, but they managed to escape as she tore our home apart.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I hooked up my SNES and — with Baxter in my lap, being nursed back to health on a special formula from the vet — started playing Super Mario All-Stars.
Through Mario and his adventures, I managed to find myself again…that drive to pick myself up and push forward instead of calling it quits. All night long, I played. I paused every so often to feed Baxter and then plowed through another stage. For the longest time, I felt foolish for having so deep a connection to a video game and believing Super Mario All-Stars saved my life that first night. I thought I was the only one who thought like this.
I was wrong.
Ashly Burch from Hey Ash Whatcha Playin'? started a blog several months ago talking about on this exact topic. How Games Saved My Life collects stories from people all over the world talking about their experiences with video games and how gaming impacted their lives in meaningful ways. Ash has her own tale posted, and my story can be found there as well, but we're just the tip of a very big iceberg.
You can find stories on Ash's blog talking about a wide variety of issues people faced and how a certain video game helped them deal with it. From bonding with siblings, dealing with death, overcoming depression, moving past abuse, beating anxiety, coming out to friends/family about their sexuality, improving their marriage, curing insomnia, or even developing the patience to do an extremely difficult job, each story tells how much impact a video game can have.
You can find similar stories right here on Bitmob. Tristan Damen talked about how Gears of War saved his life, and Brian Shirk discusses how video games potentially saved his life. Both are amazing reads, and I applaud them for sharing their experiences.
Clearly, video games have become something more than just entertainment, more than a way to merely kill an afternoon when you've got nothing better to do. We identify with the characters on screen. We can relate to their struggles, lose ourselves in their incredible experiences, or simply escape the harsh realities of our lives for a few short hours.
Unlike books and movies, video games give us control. Whether we simply maneuver a character through a series of events like Resident Evil 4 or play a much bigger role in like Mass Effect, we put a piece of ourselves into these games.
Through these outlets, we find ways to work through issues that almost seem insurmountable. When I came home from that deployment, remembering how much I'd been through and knowing how much more I'd face, I wondered why I should care anymore. Life had beaten me. I didn't know how or why I'd get through it, but I gamed all through that first night — eventually shifting over to Super Mario Bros. 3 – and by morning, I had my answers.
I found my love for video games again…that excitement I'd felt when I got past a difficult section or pulled off some crazy trick I didn't think would work. Between that and caring for Baxter, I realized that everything would pass. Soon enough, life would right itself again, and video games were something I could always look forward to. They became an outlet for all my frustrations, an escape from stress, and even a way for me to re-bond with my cat. When I game now, he almost always curls up in my lap or sits nearby, as if to watch what I'm doing. I can spend hours online not doing much of anything, but the moment I fire up a game, Baxter settles in.
Video games have come a long ways over the years. They've impacted lives and left a positive impression on so many people who just needed something when they were at their lowest ebb. You see a lot of people pointing a finger at games as the reason when something terrible happens, but I know that so much good can come from them. I've felt it firsthand.
Maybe one day, you will, too.