Dungeons, Dragons and Anxiety, by Joey Laguio

How a virtual quest led to real-world rewards

From "Problem Gambling and Video Gaming" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (2), p. 16

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with video games. Ever since I was a child, I loved immersing myself in games that took me to different times, dimensions and places. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of playing the first Age of Empires game when I was still in kindergarten. My father would sit beside me, advising me which building to construct next or which soldier to train in order to complete the next mission. The journal entries I wrote in elementary school were about which military general I had overcome in combat the night before and the strategies I had used to defeat him.

In high school, my relationship with video games became more and more of a crutch that I depended on when I didn’t want to deal with whatever else was going on in my life. Whether it was being afraid to connect with other people or my fear of making mistakes at school, it was always so nice to go home and just get lost in a different world. I started playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs for those of us in the know). These games, like World of Warcraft, simulate an entire fantasy world in which you can spend many hours, designing and improving the character you play.

During university, the frequency and duration of my play sessions in these online worlds escalated. For most young people, university is a tough time—there are tons of projects, labs and exams. You’re constantly meeting new people. You can spend long hours doing work that is often stressful. Getting lost in my MMORPG of choice—Guild Wars—was the easiest way for me to numb myself. I could forget everything else that was going on, forget all my fears and anxieties, even just for a short time.

How the virtual world became my real world

Soon, I started to become over-invested in my characters, relating to them on a level that was, I know now, excessive and unhealthy. I thought so much about their back story, about who they were, about their abilities and about what their goals were. As a result, I found myself being much less present in the real world; even if I was just hanging out with my friends, I was stuck in my head thinking about what I would do next in the game when I got home. In hindsight, I think on some level I was trying to live out the life that I had always wanted for myself in the real world but couldn’t seem to realize. My own life was just too depressing and anxiety-ridden.

And so I played. I played and I played and I played.

Because of the anxiety I was experiencing, keeping up with my studies and sticking with jobs was a challenge. And whenever I had to take a break from schooling or work, I would game. Gaming distracted me. If I didn’t have to think about a job, for example, or about feeling anxious, then I could convince myself that the issue didn’t exist. I would wake up in the morning, head straight to the computer and play for the entire day until I went to bed. The next day, I would repeat the whole thing again. And the more I played, the less desire I had to change things.

But despite my early conviction that gaming was helping my anxiety, my symptoms actually got worse the longer I used gaming as a way to avoid other things. By avoiding my anxieties and my fears—by not actually facing them and working through them—I was silently telling myself that I lacked the strength to tackle them. They continued to grow, looming larger and larger in my mind.

What was even more distressing to me at the time was that the anxiety I felt in the real world started to seep into my gaming life as well. I never wanted to use voice chat (the feature of multiplayer online games that allows you to talk to your teammates and coordinate more complex, cooperative manouevres)—I was too scared that people would judge my voice (which is ironic, considering that I belong to an a cappella singing group) or my skills and capabilities. I never wanted to take on challenging missions—I was too scared that other people would deem me to be a failure.

Essentially, I started to fear that my life in the virtual world was just as limited as my life in the real world. I stopped challenging my online characters—I chose not to advance in the game. I just repeated the same trivial tasks again and again, killing the same creatures in the same areas of the online world, avoiding opportunities to level up or challenge myself.

Using the virtual world to practise real-world skills

Things began changing for the better when I began seeing a psychologist for my anxiety, soon after I graduated, and started applying some of the principles I learned in our cognitive-behavioural therapy sessions to my daily life.

In the beginning, applying those principles to my daily life in the real world was too overwhelming, so I used them in my daily life in the virtual world instead—where the stakes were lower and I typically wasn’t as anxious. I began to practise principles of gradual exposure. For example, I would start with things that made me slightly anxious and slowly progress towards accomplishing things that made me more and more anxious in the online gaming environment. Even if I spent most of my gaming day doing relatively trivial things, I made a point to do just one thing each day that challenged me. I would step into a dungeon for five minutes, and then resume easier tasks. Or I would challenge myself to take part in a voice chat for a few minutes.

At times, I failed missions and embarrassed myself. And I took it personally. I beat myself up. I would think, “Wow, Joey, you can’t even succeed in a virtual game? No wonder you’re a failure in the real world.” It was tough—the negative self-talk continued, even when I did things right. Sometimes I had to stop playing. Sometimes I had to stop progressing because I just couldn’t do it.

But I always forced myself to try again. The gaming world is set up so that you can try a task again and again until you accomplish it. In some ways, it was actually a good place for me to start building my confidence. Over time, I was able to tackle more and more challenges and take more risks in the virtual world. I was able to get in-game rewards that were once completely unobtainable—like that fancy legendary sword I had always wanted. The process of overcoming my own reluctance to challenge myself, and of permitting myself to take on some semblance of agency in my life, was extremely empowering for me—even though it was just a virtual experience. And as I discovered, there was nothing “virtual” about the very real self-confidence I was building.

Over time, I became much more adept at breaking the negative thought and behaviour cycles. I experienced fear, identified what was feasible to attempt, overcame my fear and felt the feeling of victory that was oh-so-sweet. What was even sweeter was that I began to see the value of these virtual-world experiences for my real-world life. The quests and the battles were virtual, but the skills I was learning were applicable to the real world, too.

Escaping the virtual world with real-world magic

As I became more confident overcoming challenges in my online world, this new attitude slowly started to permeate the rest of my life—yes, my life in the real world! I had always been afraid of many things: driving, cooking, working, socializing, exercising—the list goes on.

By analyzing my online gaming experiences and taking specific, conscious actions in the gaming world in combination with the help I was receiving in therapy, I learned the true value of doing things gradually. I didn’t have to do things perfectly on the first try. I gave myself permission to make mistakes and learn from them. I was kinder to myself, and I learned how to show my vulnerability—to myself and to others. The small victories I experienced in these virtual fantasy worlds gradually trained me to believe that I was capable of doing things in the real world that I had been afraid to do my whole life. I just wish I could show my younger self how much progress I’ve made—using the same online games that inspired both of us.

To this day, I still play video games, but now I do it in a much healthier way. I am more aware now of how I’ve used playing video games as a method of distracting myself. This awareness has led to me moderating the time that I play, viewing it as a complement to my real-world experiences rather than a replacement.

Playing games is just one of the ways I build self-confidence. I no longer consciously think about the process; I just do it automatically. I associate the feeling of victory and accomplishment with overcoming something difficult. I no longer need to push myself so hard to tackle a challenge. When I encounter a challenging situation at work, for example, or if I feel anxious about an upcoming social event, I think back to how satisfied and proud I felt beating that big boss in that dungeon. It reminds me that I am able to overcome my fears and that the rewards on the other side are truly worth it.