Today, at a Games for Change conference in New York, Jane McGonigal — video game designer and thinker — took the stage to talk about pain. And trauma. She talked about her own struggle through brain damage. She shared similar stories from cancer patients. She explained how sometimes games can actually help ease those difficulties.
In order to deal with painful experiences, McGonigal expanded, those affected have to go through a period of post-traumatic growth. They have to build resilience in four quadrants: Emotional, Physical, Mental, Social.
But what can playing games do to boost resilience? Would playing games help people heal, maybe even by spending more time socialszing in group-oriented games? As a gamer, it’s difficult for me to answer with anything other than, “Yes, of course.” And as someone who has had to struggle through her own physically taxing medical situation, it’s even more difficult for me to think otherwise.
In my first year of high school, my doctor, an orthopaedic surgeon, told me it was time. My scoliosis — a curvature of the spine — had finally gotten out of hand, at a whopping 50-degree curve, and it was time for spinal surgery. I’d been expecting him to say that for some time, so I felt ready. Unphased. Excited, even, at the prospect of having a straight back.
What I wasn’t ready for, though, was waking up in the surgery room, watching through a haze as nurses collected the surgical tools to put away, and only being able to muster enough energy to mutter something about morphine. I didn’t expect such a powerful wash of pain, or the disembodied feeling I couldn’t escape.
After hospital residents struggled repeatedly to give me a proper IV, my mum decided to pull me out of the hospital early. My dad had dragged my bed down to the living room, as I wouldn’t be able to move up and down the stairs much. I would spend the next 3 months bedridden there.
Several times during her talk, McGonigal mentioned the concept of surviving “the trip to the underworld.” I hadn’t thought about my recovery in that way at the time. Actually, I don’t think I thought about much except for the various pains I was experiencing, and my dread once I was able to walk up the stairs to take a saran-wrapped shower (can’t get those stitches wet).
But I did feel bored most of the time, which quickly turns into a sullen feeling. I spent most of my days in front of the TV, watching idly with my cat nuzzled up on my protective plastic back brace that covered nearly every inch of my torso. Occasionally family members would come to visit, sitting by my bedside for a while, my tiniest cousin poking at my brace curiously. I was probably a bit of a spectacle to her at the time. And then they’d wander off to the dining room, where I’d hear them chatter as I lay alone in the living room, flipping through channels.
I spent my days concerned about conserving as many percocet tablets as I could. I would feel weak and useless. My mother had to do everything, from helping me shower to supporting me on daily walks to, simply, feeding me. I didn’t have a whole lot going on. It wasn’t like I could get up and hang out with friends. Listening to music wasn’t the same when I knew I was confined to a place, and using it to pass the time. Books were often hard to focus on in my drugged-up state. My eyes glazed over the TV, watching idly at best. But this was before Final Fantasy X.
At the time, I wasn’t allowed to have my own consoles, or even a computer. I was raised off of my cousins’ systems and, eventually, the fruits of my brothers’ scam artist ways when they managed to smuggle in a few of their own. But it was theirs, not mine. All that changed after surgery, though. Sympathizing with my long recovery, my aunt got me a $US100 gift certificate to be used on, presumably, books. My middle brother had a better idea. He got me a PS2 and a copy of Final Fantasy X. He thought I’d have more fun that way.
And he was right. I played the hell out of Final Fantasy X. My brother eventually got me a few other games, too, but I clung onto FFX like it was the only game I had. I played it several times over. It made sitting in one place, afraid to move in fear of pain, manageable. All I needed to move were my thumbs, and I could do a lot with them. I could explore villages or battle beasts by summoning great magical powers and awe-inspiring aeons. I played blitzball and partook in chocobo races. I spent long lengths of time studying each party member’s sphere grids to map out my levelling plan for them. I hunted down their hidden legendary weapons. There was so much to do, and so much time to do it in.
Having something more active to do changed what I centred my day on. I moved Tidus where I wanted him to go. I fled battles if I felt like it. I had control over this virtual universe, unlike the status of my temporarily bedridden one. It was exciting and dynamic. I could be adventurous there, whereas back in reality I could only rest.
Playing a game during an otherwise boring, yet painful recovery changed my perspective and my mood. It’s why, when people ask me what my favourite game is, I tell them, “Final Fantasy X.” It’s not because it’s the greatest game I’ve ever played. It’s because it was probably the most impactful, life-changing game for me. And that’s what Game for Change, and Jane McGonigal’s speech was all about. That games can change your life, and help you grow. Help you gain perspective. Help you heal.
Life, to many, is about the pursuit of happiness. But when you’re trying to survive a trip to the underworld and back, and struggling to find that happiness, or to even begin to concern yourself with it, sometimes a game can provide you with “the happiness of pursuit,” a concept that seemed a focal point in Jane McGonigal’s speech. I pursued lots of things in Final Fantasy X. On its own, the game would have been enjoyable to do so. But given the circumstances under which I grabbed my own copy, it helped me take my mind off of an otherwise glum lifestyle.
After a brutal, 10-hour ordeal of surgeons cutting into my ribs, moving my spine, and drilling metal rods into it to hold it in its new place, I had a long, gruelling recovery to go. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t sad. I was just coping, experiencing my new standard of life like an observer and not a partaker. Final Fantasy X turned my day into something I had control over. If I wanted to spend the entire day grinding in the fields of Calm Lands, or replaying cinematic cut scenes in the Sphere theatre in Luca, that was my choice. And I didn’t need my mum to help me get there.