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Finding Relief In Overwatch – Chronic Pain And Gaming

by Kimberley Wallace on Feb 25, 2018 at 04:04 PM

You can never anticipate every curveball life throws at you, and sometimes the perfect video games just appear during your time of need. That's how it was for me and Overwatch. Blizzard's first-person shooter became a positive force amid my hardest years.

I've never had the strongest constitution score, as I've been battling an autoimmune disorder for over a decade now, but 2016 was a bigger challenge than I'd ever faced. I watched my health decline and problems without solutions continued to pile up. My life went into complete disarray because of this, a revolving door of doctor appointments that provided few answers and more exasperation. I felt so awful I couldn't even muster the energy to hang out with friends. I struggled to just be present in front of people, and I was in too much pain to do anything strenuous. I've always been ambitious, but that year saw important obligations of mine fall to the wayside. It was like my entire body had just shut down, and no matter how hard I fought, I couldn't win.

I felt like I had lost a part of myself. Everything became about recovery, and doing what my body demanded was so damn isolating and frustrating. I've never been one to sit still, and suddenly, it was all I could do. I needed something for myself - a distraction for whenever the bad feelings surfaced, whether it was to bypass the sheer depression, or just a way to take my mind off the pain. That 'thing' turned out to be Overwatch.

Blizzard's team-focused first-person shooter gave me something to climb the ladder in, and importantly, it provided a needed social outlet. In addition, it was something to look forward to and provided catharsis after a bad doctor's appointment. After all, nothing beats telling your problems to "Nerf this!" and logging a quintuple kill to put you on top of the world.

Every time my nameplate graced the leaderboard or I earned Play of the Game, I felt better about myself. And, at this point in my life, I needed to feel like I was at the top of my game somewhere, even if it was just virtual. That's the great thing about Overwatch; it celebrates players' achievements and doesn't shame their failures. Even if I wasn't having the greatest match, it wasn't going to be advertised. Once I decided to play competitive, my attachment to the game grew even more. When you're in an unhealthy body, you need validation that you can still be great at things. Rising up the ranks gave me the rush I so desperately needed.

Other game modes also helped me cope with my conflicting emotions. When I wanted to just be carefree and silly, I'd pick brawls because the pressure was off. And, really, who doesn't just laugh when you get the "Charge" brawl and have a screen full of Reinhardts swinging their hammers every which way? Mystery Heroes allowed me to work toward becoming more versatile, learning the ins and outs of each character and adapting my strategy to its unpredictability.  When I wasn't in the mood for structured play, deathmatch gave me a place to just unload and play in shorter bursts.

It also can't be understated how much Overwatch gave me a way to socialize instead of just being locked in my bedroom alone. I so desperately needed to find distraction from the pain, the doctor appointments, and the uncertainty. I urged my longtime friends to get the game and even reached out to Game Informer community members to play with them. Cheering each other on as we crushed opponents or failed miserably helped me feel, well, normal, giving me some much needed joy. I had control over how I played and how much I got better, something I lacked with my health. And most importantly, while I escorted the payload or finally captured a point, for a moment, my pain wasn't dominating my mind.

My finding a respite within game worlds isn't exclusive to Overwatch. Other games have certainly helped me, but my larger point is the power of games and how they can help us heal. Research, such as this study, has shown gaming to be a helpful active distraction in pain tolerance. Even recent studies showcase new tech like VR looking promising for pain reduction, comparing its effects to morphine. My experience echoes these findings; escaping into gaming worlds has real-life implications and provides relief for me. I know I'm not the only one, too, as I know gamers who play to relieve anxiety, others who find social engagement while physically disabled, and yet others who have used gaming to cope with hospital stays and long recoveries.

I wish Overwatch was something I needed just temporarily, but fighting chronic pain daily is extremely taxing both physically and mentally. This year has been more about accepting the hardships and learning to embrace where I find joy. As I watch my illness progress, there's something incredibly satisfying about seeing myself get better at something like Overwatch. The truth is, in many areas of my life, I will have to continue to dial back as I confront this vicious beast.  It's a reality I can't shake. A video game can't fix this problem, but it sure as hell brings some positivity into my life. Overwatch is often a light in my darkest days. It probably won't be that way forever, but for now it's enough, and I'm thankful for it.