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What It's Like When Gaming Helps You Get Sober

Four people working toward sobriety describe their insights from the games that have helped them the most with addiction.
07 April 2020, 1:48am
Can Video Games Help People Get Sober?
Photo via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

There are no studies that explicitly link video games and sobriety, but some research has shown that games offer other concrete benefits to easing behavioral issues. A 2018 study that examined mental and behavioral health problems in veterans found that playing video games helped manage mood and stress levels and encouraged socialization. A 2015 study showed that playing Tetris after exposure to trauma helped interrupt the cycle of intrusive memories disturbing participants. In addition, a 2012 study focused on a specially developed video game, Islands, as complementary therapy for patients with mental illnesses. Participants who played Islands, which taught relaxation and coping skills through three minigames, "started to show new coping styles with negative emotions in normal stress life situations, additional generalization patterns and more self-control strategies when confronted with them."

Mental illnesses aren’t the same as addiction and recovery, but these studies suggest a promising link between games and positive behavioral changes.

Video games are repetitive. Some ask players to do the same tasks over and over, like crafting objects, attacking enemies, or solving puzzles. That repetition may sound dull, but it can provide players with a feeling of active control and focus. For those who enjoy video games and have alcohol or drug addictions, games aren’t just entertaining. They can become part of the structure that forms the basis of successful recovery.

For some gamers, multiplayer games act as an easy tether to other people, breaking the cycle of isolation that often comes with addiction. For others, single-player games are a chance for reflection and quiet. “A big part of early recovery is having structured meaningful activity,” said Zach Hansen, an assistant professor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies in St. Paul and Center City, MN. “If you're using [games] to build connections—to add some structure to your life—especially in early recovery, that can be healthy.”

Gaming on its own won’t necessarily lead to sobriety, especially since those who are newly sober sometimes develop new addictions. (One of the most common is exercise addiction, said Hansen, who elaborated that video games can also become a substitute for drugs or alcohol.) In Hansen’s view, recovering addicts should always find support networks, like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and sessions with a therapist.

Still, Hansen said that if one of his clients told him that video games helped them stay sober, “I would validate that. That's great. I would be interested in how that can help you in your recovery, how that can help you in reality. What insights did you learn? How might this help you in social interactions?”

Here, four people who are either currently sober or working towards sobriety describe the insights they learned from the games that have helped them the most with their addictions.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

David Boys-Layton, 35, Thanet, United Kingdom

At age 16, I thought I’d give smoking and drinking a try, and, from there, I didn't really stop. I was drinking an awful lot, and, using ecstasy, MDMA—anything I could get my hands on. The town that I live in is a little seaside town, but it's close to London. It's a place called Thanet and it’s where a lot of drugs come into the country.

I used to be in a lot of bands and organized gigs in local areas. There was a lot of recreational [drug] use, but I privately took it further. We'd go to the gig, then spend a night getting drunk, getting high. I would continue that over the next couple of days, then take a day off work.

I haven’t been drinking for about four years. It was interfering with everything. I was 30, 31, and I started to feel that I should have been compos mentis for a long time prior. I’d just bought myself a decent new computer, so I was playing mostly open world games: Dark Souls, The Witcher 3—anything I could entrench myself into.

In The Witcher 3, [I could] get on the horse and ride around. There’s a feeling of being in control. The writing has touching moments that made me process emotions that I hadn't really thought about when I'd been wasted. I find the ability to dip out of existence for an hour or so gives me perspective.

In Dark Souls, you do complex things while you’re kind of dropped into a world that you don't know anything about. The idea of failing at something once and then trying again can be very helpful. I stopped smoking weed about eight weeks ago. I still have trouble sleeping, so often I’ll play [games] for an hour before bed. When I was smoking, I’d roll two joints and completely cane them, and then I would feel relaxed enough to get to bed. Now, I can sit at the computer for an hour and wind my brain down a bit.

Alex D., 31, Portland, ME

Role-playing games (RPGs) dovetail very neatly into my addiction issues. Escapism is a big part of RPGs, and not just in the limited sense of wanting to be somewhere or someone else. It's an opportunity to explore aspects of yourself that don't really get to come out in normal human In interactions. The chance to experience a world or a story through another set of eyes is really valuable to me.

I always drank alone. I got drunk with friends, but that was not the source of the addiction. At my heaviest, I was probably drinking a bottle of vodka a day. I didn't go out. I just went to the supermarket, got my bottle of liquor, came home, and drank it. Browse the internet, watch a movie, play video games. I was playing the first Dark Souls, and there was this cycle of playing the game until I was too drunk to make any more progress.

My drinking was interfering with my job, my life. I couldn't ignore it. My wife couldn't ignore it. No one could. I was lucky enough to be able to go to an inpatient rehab facility for about two months. That second month, I got around to playing Skyrim. I’d heard it was a skin-deep RPG where you go around and meet a bunch of similar people and do some big, loud, heroic quest, fighting the same skeletons over and over again. But it was a safe way for me to play with the idea of interacting with the real world. I think that I was preparing myself for emerging back into reality.

I’ve been sober for seven years, and my relationship with the Dark Souls series changed after I stopped drinking. Dark Souls 2, a lot of people don't like it. I think it's the best one. My experience of playing it as a sober person was very fulfilling. I was setting goals for myself, and not just concrete goals—“I'm going to beat this boss”—but goals of experiencing a world sober.

Leisha Riddel, 31, Toronto, ON, Canada

I discovered recently that my liver just doesn't filter as well as it should. I've stopped drinking per the doctor's orders. It really messed me up every time I had alcohol. I tried to tough it out, thinking, My tolerance is better than that. As soon as I did, I got too drunk. Then I would black out and they would send me to the emergency room. It was super scary, and I kept doing it to my best friend. She said, “I'm not coming to the hospital anymore for you,” but she would anyway.

I decided, I can't do this to people that I love anymore. This is not a solution. I have to pledge at least not to drink, right?

When I drank, I needed to be with other people, because then I could justify the drinking. Now I'm a little bit more comfortable with keeping myself company. I play a lot of solo games by myself and find peace in those. Initially, I played Fire Emblem: Three Houses because of fear of missing out, but then it became something to do other than drink. Before, I would go to friends’ houses and drink wine while watching TV. I have ADHD, and drinking shut that itch up in my brain. But so does having something to do. Having the portability of Fire Emblem: Three Houses on my Nintendo Switch gives me something to do while my friends drink, because I still love my friends. The platform is key—if it weren't portable, I don’t know what I would do. Now I have 250 hours in the game. I can't imagine playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses drunk. I would make so many bad decisions. I haven’t felt like murdering anyone in Fire Emblem; I recruit everyone I can.

So I don't touch alcohol. I don't do it—I play games. I have a sobriety app on my phone, and it says I’ve been sober for seven months, 19 days, 21 hours, 23 minutes, and as of right now, 17 seconds.

Brendon North, 30, San Francisco, CA

My vice is drinking. I was a horrendously anti-social drinker. I've been a Nintendo gamer all my life, and I would go home and play Smash Brothers on my 3DS while drinking myself silly. I was a very isolated alcoholic, and I never found a dedicated online group until Nintendo Switch online released its voice chat.

When I tried Mario Kart voice chat, I was so delightfully surprised: it felt like a safer Chat Roulette. A lot of it was general nerdy Nintendo talk. I was playing Wario Stadium, and a voice chat that someone trolled homophobically turned into a really articulate and interesting conversation about being safe as a gay person on the internet. I found that you can play Mario Kart and still have really deep conversations.

After about three months talking to these people, we migrated to Discord. I talk to them every day, pretty much. We’ve got a healthy, thriving Discord. I feel comfortable enough to have conversations about sexuality, what we're watching on TV, everything under the sun. And with that comes conversations about sobriety. I love my gaming group of friends because they don't judge or get uncomfortable. They ask thoughtful questions, like, “Does gaming regularly bring back feelings about alcohol addiction for you?” Because for so many gamers, to game and to drink is the ritual; when I was drinking, Nintendo wasn't a great space for me.

I've been very upfront with my Discord friends: “If you ever feel like there’s a red flag, you can feel comfortable asking me because I know myself. I know that I'm not someone who should ever dabble again.”

When you are an alcoholic or a drug addict, it's so isolating. You feel like there's no one you can talk to in the world that would understand these problems. Eventually, that disease turns into self-sabotage where you are actively pushing friends and loved ones away—everything is just to feed the addiction. So, now, I will tell a person on the bus, I will tell a person on the street—I'll tell anybody—about my sobriety. I'll talk your ear off about it. Including in my Discord.

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