Finding comfort in competitive gaming

When the problems of the world set anchor at my dock, I take comfort in the opening lyrics to one of my favorite songs by the Beatles: “When I find myself in times of trouble/Super Mario comes to me/Speaking words of wisdom/Let it be.”

Strange. I’d have pegged Paul McCartney for a Sonic the Hedgehog guy, given his 1973 hit Band on the Run.

Gaming is one of the few things I have found in life that centers my mind and places my thoughts at ease. While others turn to reading or the splendor of Mother Nature, the tried-and-true method for anything that disturbs my calm is to lose the overactive voice in my head via video games.


A scene from “World of Warcraft.”


It’s more than just busy work for my hands and brain. If it were so simple, my internal monologue could be satiated by a simple game of Pong. I need a game that acts as a key to each proverbial door within the recesses of my inner-self. The problems of the day and fear of what I should have done or didn’t do are all sorted into these rooms.

I use gaming to lock the doors. Compartmentalization is a powerful tool, and video games are the oil that keeps it from breaking down. If you’re wondering what all of this means, look no further than psychology. To compartmentalize is a defensive mechanism for the mind from cognitive dissonance, allowing one to separate the facts, thoughts, and feelings that make us all doubt ourselves.

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Boxes. Rooms. Shelves. Whatever your metaphor, it’s all about sorting and labeling the things that make us feel bad and separating our problems from our identity. You are not your flaws or problems. Your mistakes do not identify you. These are all statements meant to compartmentalize our problems.

But how do we even begin to sort and label these issues? Gaming has always been a way that I’ve engaged my subconscious, using task-oriented gameplay to clear my mind. In college, that game was World of Warcraft.

People who don’t “get” World of Warcraft often ask why a game that appears to be a checklist simulator is so popular. After all, the main point of the game is to collect tasks given to you by in-game characters and carry out these quests to their completion. If you spend all day attempting to complete real-world tasks, why would anyone want to spend hours upon hours doing the exact same thing, but with no reward in our physical reality?

That repetitive game design gives way to familiarity — knowing exactly where you need to go within the game world, almost as a sixth sense. Slipping into the skin of a game in such a manner is like a fugue state that gives my thoughts and emotions a break from the constant barrage of that day’s negativity. My subconscious takes the wheel and I prop my legs up while sitting in the back seat, enjoying the ride.

I found myself thinking about gaming as a method for clearing mental space after recently returning to an old favorite. Fallout: New Vegas is a game that I’ve cleared multiple times and have literally played for thousands of hours. Why would I go back to a game that I’ve played so often? This comfort in repetition gives my mind and reflexes something familiar that requires little active thought on my part — like throwing a ball up in the air and catching it.

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You don’t think about the act of catching the ball. It just happens.

Competitive gaming brings a similar mental comfort, but in different ways. Playing against a live opponent in and of itself is a macro-level game — a game within a game. You’re not only thinking about the rules and mechanics at work but also attempting to think about and slip into the mindset of the opposition. When I have a difficult choice to make, throwing myself into a game like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, or Heroes of the Storm boils my thoughts down to reactions.

The rest go in boxes, and on shelves, and to their rooms.

The next time a tough decision or a past mistakes weights heavy on your head, try sitting down with a beloved, familiar game that allows you to check out and simply just … react. You might find that shutting the door labeled with a brittle, cracked placard of doubt is a bit easier to shut, and much more willing to be locked away.

Contact William Harrison at or on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison.


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