I Was Homeless And Video Games Saved My Life

I Was Homeless And Video Games Saved My Life

It’s getting dark. The few people left on the street are either actively ignoring you, or warily staring at you, half expecting you to jump up and mug them. You’re hungry, you’re tired, your legs are numb from sitting on the concrete. The six dollars in your pocket will get you something from McDonalds, but you were hoping to save it until you could find a few extra dollars for a hostel for the night. You sigh, and look down at your DS – battery low. Only a few more hours and then you’ll have to face reality again.

Image: Shutterstock

This story originally appeared in March 2016.

Looking at me, you would never be able to guess my humble beginnings — I am a Marketing Manager for a successful tech company, I’ve worked on big brands. I have a young family and all the trappings of a young middle-class professional. But I hold a secret relatively close to me — a few years ago, I was homeless. On the spectrum of park bench to couch surfing, I moved around depending on the friends I could find and the money I could scrounge together.

There’s not much point in going into the sordid details of how I got into the situation, or how I got myself out. I want to instead focus on how I got through — and a lot of that, believe it or not, has to do with video games.

One of the worst parts of being homeless (apart from being in constant physical danger and discomfort) is being invisible. Around 90% of the day people’s eyes automatically skim past you as if you’re a part of the furniture, and the few that do connect simply have a look of pity in their eyes. Human connection is few and far between, and often the feeling of isolation is compounded by the knowledge that there are people who know you are in the situation you’re in, but do nothing to help you. It’s shameful, its degrading, and life is a constant decision between basic necessities like eating or a warm bed that night.

I credit games as being one of the few things that kept me sane during what was one of the worst periods of my life.

On any given night in Australia, one in 200 people are homeless. That leaves a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of people, with varied backgrounds and interests. A lot of people that I know tend to focus on the stereotypes: “hobo man” or “crazy cat lady” but in actual fact the 2011 census calculated that 60% of all homeless people were under the age of 25. Homelessness presents in lots of different ways, and you’d be surprised how many people without stable accommodation consider themselves gamers or at least keep themselves occupied with geeky hobbies.

Homeless pic via Shutterstock

Until my phone got disconnected, I heavily played an iPhone game called Tap Tap Revenge. You may have heard of it — it was kind of like DDR except using your fingers. To be completely honest, it was terrible as far as games go, but it was the only thing that kept my mind entertained while I was sitting on a park bench waiting for it to be dark enough for me to comfortably sleep without having to worry about being spotted by cops or creeps. If you’re reading this you’re most likely very aware of how a game can suck you in and erase everything else on your mind – imagine how powerful that is to someone who has nothing except a hard bench and their own thoughts. To this day I still can’t listen to Vida la Viva by Coldplay without my fingers tapping involuntarily.

Once things improved for me somewhat, I lived at a backpacker’s hostel and met a bunch of Canadians who took me under their wing. Our time was spent playing Geometry Wars, as their NTSC console wouldn’t take any Australian discs. When you’re playing a game your sense of self disappears in the most positive possible way. Those backpackers didn’t really know or care that I had $3 to my name, a disconnected phone and was paying for my accommodation by doing housekeeping for the hostel. They just saw a chick that kept smashing their high score, and someone who would talk to them about gameplay strategy until two o’clock in the morning. There are a lot of organisations that take care of necessities like food and sanitary items for people in need (thankfully), but not as many that help out with passing the time – which for me at least was why the temptation to turn to alcohol and drugs was all too strong.

We’re a long way from being able to eradicate homelessness, and with funding being consistently cut across the board to outreach programs this is an issue that is only going to get harder and harder to unpack. But there’s a real gap in providing something that helps sustain a person’s existence, and something that helps them cope mentally. I’m aware that this would rate low on the priorities of agencies just trying to get a meal to people, but as someone who has experienced the absolute lows of homelessness it would be amazing if there were programs that involved making games accessible to people who just need a break from tough times but may not have the capability to play an app on their iphone.

Homeless pic via Shutterstock
These days I have a well paying job. I work in the CBD every day. Now games are a fun past-time that distract me from mundane things like housework instead of hunger and a concrete floor. I frequently have breakfast with a local homeless man – let’s call him David – who hangs out in the laneways near my office building. I still feel conflicted as to whether I do it to pay homage to the past that I left behind, or from solidarity — or because I feel guilty that as a result of my relative privilege I now have a career and a home, while his statistical changes of breaking the cycle are very slim. The other week David and I stood for half an hour on the side of the road eating bagels and discussing in depth the merits of Attack on Titan. I wonder whether David has ever played Geometry Wars.


  • I knew a person from highschool, way back when, that turned out homeless. I was pretty surprised to see him too, wandering around the streets of Brisbane, unwashed, unshaven, etc.

    Long story short, he never tried at education, or work, he just kept playing video games. Eventually his lone parent passed away, and with the house being a rental and him not being able to afford it, he ended up homeless.

    I can’t blame video games for his life now, addiction to anything that puts a strain between a person and living a well-structured life will surely screw you over one way or another.

  • The underground park near where I work at had a power outlet I assume so you can power water gerni’s etc but the homeless sometimes came out and charged their phones on it but the breaking point came when we noticed car batteries hooked onto it, still don’t know what was the point of that.

    Anyways we called body corp told them to organise someone to disable the outlet, dick move? perhaps. no one wants to fix the problem I guess, just shove it out of plain sight.

    • Sadly red that’s the same mentality just about everyone in the world has for any issue that doesn’t impact them directly. Our leaders moreso than most.

    • A car battery would let you run things like lights in whatever cardboard shelter or equivalent that you’d have.

  • A complete roller-coaster of emotions and a story. Well written and well worth the time taken to read this article. Well done Kelsey.

  • Being a bit of a devil’s advocate, wouldn’t access to games encourage people to keep doing nothing with their lives? If they can scrounge somehow or be helped with their basic necessities, once your mind’s quest for purpose and validation is quashed with games (or drugs, or alcohol) what motivation is there to break the cycle? I think the writer is a fortunate and rare case rather than representative of what would happen if homeless people were giving means to keep dithering.

    A much better idea, I think, would be creating board and card gaming spaces for the homeless. Both the human interaction aspect of it and the strategical thinking necessary to win at those games may encourage people to start looking for ways out of their situation, as opposed to give in to their status quo.

    • I don’t think the presence of being able to play Halo to pass the time would be the thing that prevents people experiencing homelessness from breaking the cycle. To be honest, having stronger mental health status and ties to the community (ie playing with other people etc) would serve as a stronger personal development than arguably spending time in shelters would. It isn’t willpower (or lack thereof) that is preventing a change in their lives, and a park bench is still bloody awful to fall asleep on regardless of how you’re able to spend the day.

      • I understand that for some homeless people, willpower or its absence have little to do against the way cards were dealt to them to place them in that situation. But /if/ there is ever a way for them to trump their circumstances, willpower will be one of the main causes. You still need to get a rare lucky break, but if your will is not ready for it, it will pass you by. That’s why I’m more in favour of entertainment and recreation options that keep people on their toes and actually increase their odds of that lucky break over those that simply quiet the mind’s cries for self-improvement and purpose.

  • Great reading.

    I feel pretty ignorant to this situation. What’s your (writer or readers) opinion on handing change to homeless folks? I tried a couple of times to write out exactly why I feel conflicted despite being sympathetic to the situation people have found themselves in, but couldn’t quite come up with something that made much in the way of sense. Maybe I’m just being swayed by negative stereotypes. I do it about half the time and then fret about it afterwards either way.

    • This, I think, is one of the biggest hurdles to reaching out to or wanting to help homeless people. On the one hand, giving out a few dollars is the one of the easiest things to do since it doesn’t require a lot of effort but can have a beneficial impact. The problem here is that one also wants that money to be used wisely and not spent on smokes, liquor, or worse… gambling or drugs. One would prefer that hard-earned money goes towards improving that person’s life, not further diminishing it.

      I’ve often invited homeless people to a good meal but most of the time they decline and are more interested in the money just comes off as suspect. When I’ve pressed the issue and have offered to just pay for their meal or accommodation for the night, some have responded with anger and even violence. So what then is one supposed to do? As much as I would like to help, I’m not about to throw money away. I have to take some responsibility for how my money is used, right?

      In essence, most people simply 1) can’t trust that their money is going to be spent well, or 2) won’t/can’t take the time to ensure that it is, and when they do 3) want to ensure that their efforts are worthwhile and effective.

      • Could it be that you are taking away whatever self respect they have by insinuating that they are not capable of making their own decisions? I think you are looking at this from an unintentionally patronising point of view. I too once thought as you do but I have revised my thoughts after reading some articles from the homeless persons perspective. It’s your money but if in giving it you take away the only thing they really have a choice on then it probably better that you don’t even offer it.

      • I seem to recall either a study or just a rich person’s whimsy (I may or may not have read it in one of the freakonomics books) where cash was given (something like $200) to homeless individuals and when they looked at what was bought with the money, it was actually done rather responsibly (like clothing to look more presentable at a job interview). I think sometimes it’s just a matter of faith/trust.

  • Good read indeed, but I must say I was slightly disappointed.
    First glance I thought the article was from Kelsey Grammer, and I thought to myself ‘wow, this is a different Fraiser angle’ lol

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Kelsey. With all sincerity, I’m truly glad you were able to get out of that lifestyle. I also think it’s commendable that you are able to spend time with “David,” even if it the effort may seem may seem insignificant to you, your seemingly small efforts do make a difference. If not to David, then perhaps to those around you, or those with whom you share your story. Thanks for being a decent human being.

    Overall, I find it fascinating how homeless people can afford to have and keep electronic devices running while they go hungry and sleep on cold concrete. I do understand that it does indeed help to pass the time and even aid in escaping the difficulties of their lives and I don’t begrudge them that at all, but without any judgement, it does make one wonder if that time and money could not be better spent trying to improve one’s circumstances. Of course I say that from the perspective of one who has had a roof over his head his entire life—which is not to say that I’ve never experienced poverty, but that thankfully I’ve never been poor enough to be homeless or hopeless. Perhaps at those depths the way up seems so completely unattainable that all the energy one can muster is spent on surviving to the next day.

  • A great story. Well written and well done.

    To answer a few comments people have made here:

    I cook food on a Sunday in my own kitchen and walk around the city handing it out with my fiance. We generally feed 15-20, more if some mates help out.

    From doing this I can tell you:

    1) Helping is the most rewarding thing. And if you have scruples about giving money, this should prevent that.
    2) A significant percentage of homeless suffer some form of debilitating mental illness. This is why they don’t ‘better themselves’. They simply can’t. And for those who don’t, getting out of the cycle can be near impossible. They often have no support network of friends and family, no home address for bank accounts, no nice answers for interview questions like ‘so what have you been doing for the last two years?’ and no self confidence.
    3) Electronic devices can be a primary means of staying sane for these people. A phone can be the one gateway they have to speaking to the only people in the world who care about them or who can help. Next time a conservative relative of yours bitches about homeless people with mobiles, you have my permission to bitchslap them.

      • Perth City. Doesn’t matter where we start – park the car, unload the food, 20+ meals handed out within 30-45 minutes. 3 years ago you’d have to walk around for 2 or more hours to find that many people. The result of a conservative government pouring a mining boom down the drain and refusing to make their mining mates pay their dues.

  • I missed this article first time around so thank you very much for giving it another run. Fantastic insight to a complex and pressing problem. For all the negative mostly mainstream press gaming gets, its ability to help people through difficult situations is all too often overlooked. Thanks for writing, Kelsey, and thanks for re-publishing Alex.

    • I missed this comment, but I’m glad I caught up with it.

      Thanks. Good stories deserve to be read by everyone, and some people assume that if they’ve seen something, everyone has also seen it. That’s not always the case.

  • Reading this article, my mind immediately thought of my local internet/gaming cafe. I went in there for the first time the other day to buy a board game and got chatting with the manager. He told me that anyone is welcome to come in and grab a number of board games they have on display in the front to try out and head upstairs to play on one of their many tables.

    On top of that, from what I could tell from my 10 minutes in the store, there appeared to be a great little community and plenty of people playing board games & PC games. I walked out thinking what a great place to come and escape the reality of life for an hour or 2.

  • Homelessness is a problem. Especially now with the cost of living in Sydney. But if you have energy and time to play games, you can go an find some manual work to get you into a hostel and some food.

    • Angry it guy- if only it were so simple to just wander up to work sites or businesses to get manual work. If you were a landscaper, site foreman, cafe owner, etc would you feel confident entrusting work, even menial work, to someone who sleeps rough? Someone who probably doesn’t have training or competencies or maybe even enclosed shoes?
      If you would, then congratulations. You certainly deserve to use that vaguely smug, superior tone while discussing a very complicated topic in very simple terms.

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