Follow My Instructions

I swear this post is about video games.

So, the above video by one of my favorite ASMRtists is intended to reduce anxiety. It does so by presenting a series of cognitive tasks - none of them are especially difficult, but they all require constant attention. The idea is to distract the mind so that it doesn’t have enough bandwidth left over to worry or catastrophize. Do this for several minutes and runaway anxiety loops should collapse and the mind should return to something like a base state where recent memories are instead about succeeding at several basic tasks. (In theory. This video is not made by a licensed mental health professional.)

I don’t know for sure that things actually work this way, or for what segment of the population it might be effective. But I do know that this formula sounds really familiar to me, and in fact is one of the main ways I’ve used video games over the years.

When I wrote that the main things I got from games were “chill, story, and action,” this is basically what I meant by “chill.” As I described it then:

There’s a difficult balance to strike here - the game must engage me, but at a relatively low level. My actions need to depend on the game state (purely rote actions like just clicking a button over and over to make a number go up are insufficient) but in a simple and straightforward way. Needing to pull in enough brainpower to do things like learn new systems…manage risk…or execute difficult inputs…means the game is no longer relaxing.

Good candidates for chill games are puzzle games…sandbox games…life sims…MMOs and grind-friendly RPGs…and some rhythm games.

Sure sounds like I was relaxing by keeping my brain occupied without making it work too hard, doesn’t it?

Then later, I wrote about how I was spending a lot less time with video games after I started taking L-theanine. I theorized that this was due to my no longer needing the sort of attentional lightning rod that games provide because the L-theanine was improving my focus and reducing the sensory overload I otherwise experienced from real life.

(As a side note, I now mostly get “story” from other sources as well and am skeptical about “action”.)

As noted in that post, I still engaged in what I called “gardening” tasks: “extended projects which have an overarching goal but are easily broken up into small-scale semi-repetitive tasks with largely-independent decision-making,” similar to the sort of “chill” gameplay I used to relax with but in projects outside of games.

So now I wonder: What if the main change from L-theanine wasn’t about focus or sensory overload, but actually about reducing my anxiety? What if it lowered the amount of background noise from anxiety such that it was easier to drown out and I could do so without relying on bright noisy video games and could instead just do data curation on my computer?

I don’t know a lot about anxiety. It’s not something I’ve ever been diagnosed with and I’ve never really studied it. Until now, it didn’t even occur to me that the term might apply to me because I didn’t feel nervous or worried or fearful. (I’ve definitely not had experiences like the anxiety ShayMay describes.) But what does happen to me sometimes is a feeling of being easily overwhelmed and wanting the world to just back off and leave me alone for a bit so I can catch my breath. Maybe that’s anxiety?

Whatever you call that mental state, one of my most consistently effective coping mechanisms for it has been “chill” video games. I think the mental state has become less common and less severe for me since I started taking L-theanine, but it does still strike. When it happens a little, I want to do “gardening” tasks. When it happens a lot - which is rare, but happened earlier this month for about a week and a half - I want to play “chill” video games. So, my current theory is that self-treatment for anxiety has been one of the main reasons I’ve been so into video games over the years, and the reduced need for that is a big reason I’m playing them so much less now.

I keep finding more and more reasons the therapeutic potential of video games deserves more exploration.