I’m nine years old, running home from school. I’m running because I know if I slow down I’m giving my bullies a chance to catch up with me. We all live within four city blocks of each other and take the same way home.
Home isn’t far but every second counts. I run through a red light, a car stops on a dime and the driver leans on her horn. My eyes are stinging. I’m panting. Finally I reach the front doors of my mom’s apartment, jam my key in the lock, pull the door closed behind me and dash into the elevator. I don’t breathe until I’m through the door and close my blinds. I exhale and the tears fall.
Primary school was a nightmare for me, a tall, awkward, chubby girl with short hair. I didn’t relate to other kids and was an easy target, but there was one place where I did feel safe and secure: playing The Sims. I would log on as soon as I got home, only breaking for dinner and homework, and would create fantasy worlds where bullies didn't exist, parents didn’t split up, and I wasn’t a loser. I would create myself as an adult Sim and on days when I was feeling super low, use all the cheat codes available to me to ensure that all my needs were met 24/7.
The Sims helped make my life manageable—it made me, in some ways, resilient. I knew that no matter how bad things got at school I could always come home to a (virtual) life that was free of bullies. Arguably, it’s what kept me smiling as I sat in the library alone at lunch, or endured meetings with a principal who was determined not to believe me, or when my parents held my cold, sweaty body late at night after really bad nightmares.
Playing The Sims remained a coping mechanism for me years after the bullying stopped. Even now, eight years later, when my anxiety flares up, I instinctively turn to it, and having spent a lot of time on mod forums, places where other “simmers” post content related to the game, I know I’m not alone.
Bullying is still frighteningly common: The Canadian Institutes of Health Research released some statistics about it in 2012 and found that 1 in 3 adolescent students, at least, reported being bullied recently. In that same study, the CIHR cited research showing that bullying can potentially increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in young people.
Video games get a bad rap for leading to depression in young people. But some of these games can actually serve as a coping mechanism. Researcher Sally Merry, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Auckland, thinks that the link between screen time and an increase in depression, which other studies have found, isn’t quite there.
“I am not sure that there is robust data to show screen time increases depression, although young people can spend more time on screens than is advisable,” she wrote me in an email. “Like most things, balance is needed, and the actual content of what it being done on screens is important.”
Merry is the principal investigator on a team behind a fantasy game to help young people dealing with anxiety and depression. SPARX is a role playing game, like The Sims; you control a character and have them interact with the world. It’s based on cognitive behavioural therapy, a form of psychotherapy that helps people develop skills for becoming and staying healthy. In the game, you guide your character through this world and have them solve problems using coping mechanisms you could employ IRL.
“It teaches techniques for relaxation, for problem solving, for using activities to improve mood and to recognise and challenge negative thoughts,” wrote Merry.
“It also includes some information on combating social anxiety, and quite a bit of education on depression, its prevalence and likely course,” she told me. In essence, the game is intended to give young people the tools they need to cope.
Merry isn’t advocating for using escapism as the sole way to solve your problems—there’s story after story about how that goes badly. But for me and a few others I've met, escapism through simulation games is, or was, a way to feel in control when things are going south.
“Actually doing things is one good tool for managing low mood,” Merry told me. “This could be playing computer games like The Sims, or hanging out with friends, or cooking or doing exercise. For each person, it is good to work out what works for them.”
As for me, I didn’t ever manage to actually stand up to my bullies, but that wasn’t who I was as a kid. And I don’t find it surprising that, at my most tense times, I still turn to The Sims.
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