The tales of an unapologetic nerd
When I was about fifteen, my dad sat me down before school one morning and asked me, "So, who's the boy?" I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. I knew that. But for weeks now, I'd been up, dressed, and ready for school hours early. And I was (am) not a morning person. All of this added up to, in my parents' eyes, "Kaitlin is secretly sneaking out to meet a boy."
Oh, how I wished I were that cool. My father probably did, too. But no, the answer was much, much more frightening. Two words: HARVEST. MOON.
Every morning, I had been waking up at four AM, getting completely ready for my day, and scurrying downstairs to spend two blissful hours of uninterrupted game time before I had to go to school. And most of the time, that game was Harvest Moon. My first gaming addiction. Well, tied for first with the entire Neopets website and Spyro: Ripto's Rage.
To me, it was simple: when Mom was awake, my screen time was limited to half an hour a day. And, if she woke up and I was NOT completely ready for the day, she would FIND things for me to do. So I did everything in my power to make sure I was overly prepared. To make SURE there was nothing for her to find, nothing she could possibly invent for me to do before school. NOTHING that might take up my precious gaming time. Hence the makeup, when I didn't usually wear makeup. Bed was made, healthy breakfast was eaten, dog was fed (and often walked), and I was an all-around model citizen and perfect daughter. All in the name of gaming.
It's no secret that people can lose themselves in video games when they are experiencing depression or lack of fulfillment in their lives. In her memoir, You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day goes into great detail about her own World of Warcraft addiction. When she felt unsuccessful and lost as an actor, she turned a part-time gaming hobby into a full-time gaming alternative life.
We all know the danger. We have all seen the citcom cariactures that have lost touch with reality and drowned themselves in gaming. We've read internet articles about the dangers of too much screen time on our children and ourselves. But video games have saved my life, and given it purpose, time and time again.
When I first wrote this (originally for a journalism class, later published on a since-deleted literary website) I was stuck at home, recovering from a hosiptalizing knee injury. I was awaiting surgery. I was out of work. I could not walk without crutches, or get in and out of the shower safely without assistance. People had to come over and feed me, and I have never felt quite so pathetic in my life. Right after the injury, I was on the verge of becoming a semi-catatonic depression blob, never getting out of bed. I wasn't eating, even when people tried to bring me food. I slept all day. I wasn't even hydrating, because getting up to pee afterwards was just too exhausting on crutches.
And then, my boyfriend helped me downstairs one morning before he had to go to work. He turned on my console, and started up the game I had last left off on. Dragon Age: Origins -- Awakening.
It worked. I awakened.
The Dragon Age franchise has been my favorite video game series since I created my first Grey Warden in early 2010. I have fallen in love with the characters, the story, and the world. It has become my new Harvest Moon; the game that can literally get me out of bed in the morning. The next day, I figured out how to get myself downstairs for the first time in weeks, because nobody was home to help me, and the console was down there. Since my painkillers put me to sleep, I started drinking caffeine to keep myself awake and log more hours. Very soon, I was hydrating properly again. I was getting myself to and from the kitchen, not to mention other household necessaries. I started setting alarms to wake myself up at a normal hour in the morning. I started eating. I started sleeping regularly through the night, since I wasn't allowing my painkillers to force me to nap all day. Most importantly: I was out of bed, and happy.
I am a workaholic. At the time of my injury, I had thirteen different jobs, plus school, an active social life, and a collection of ridiculous hobbies. I have always been, as my dad used to call me, a "creature of chaos." I do not do well with a sedentary lifestyle. But, between medical bed rest and an entire apothecary of sleep-inducing medications, sedentary was forced upon me. Dragon Age kept the depression at bay, and gave me back a small sense of control and accomplishment.
And it's fairly simple to figure out why: there is measurable success. There are clearly defined quest lines and story progressions. There are battles to win, and every hour I spent in the game resulted in achievements and gained levels. But every hour my body spent healing? When I still couldn't even walk? (Insert eye roll and disgusted noise here.) How do you measure THAT?
It's not the first time a video game has positively affected my life and encouraged out-of-game progress. In 2015, when Assassin's Creed: Syndicate was released, my physical health took a major upswing. I have always loved the AC games -- some more than others (Edward Kenway, you will always have my heart) -- and in the back of my mind I always wanted to be able to do what they did. Physically, I mean, not the assassinating. But it wasn't until Evie Frye came along that I got up and did something about it. I wanted to be her. And it was a motivation that didn't fade. I started going to the gym more regularly, and taking kickboxing classes. It motivated me so well that I actually started to noticeably lose weight, an issue I've struggled with for over fifteen years. In fact, the only thing that stopped me in that particular quest line was my aforementioned knee injury.
But there is not a single aspect of my life that gaming has not touched, and changed for the better. I became a voice actor and electronic puppeteer, which is how I make my living, because of my love for video games. They actually hired me at one of my favorite jobs because I knew how to handle different console controllers. My boyfriend and I bonded over our favorite franchises when we first started dating, and became deeply involved in our tabletop and roleplaying worlds as well. My writing has constantly been influenced by the amazing worlds and incredible characters I find in my favorite console worlds. Even in my family life, games have helped shape who I am. As a child, my older siblings only let me hang around when I showed interest in what they were playing. It was usually Wolfenstein or Lode Runner, and for years it was the closest contact I had to either of them on a day-to-day basis. I wasn't old enough to play yet, but oh how I longed to do what they did. In my heart, even then, I knew I was a gamer.
There is something about art that draws us in. Mankind has killed for paintings and sculptures. We idolize musicians, and have glamorous awards shows for film and television. Books take us into a new world we can visit over and over again, and classic poetry has survived since the age of Homer and The Odyssey. But there is something sorely overlooked about the particular immersive beauty that is video games.
It is important to have a life. But it's just as important, I think, to have an alt life. It is a built-in social circle, filled with friends you haven't met yet. It's not just a hobby, it's a life you can aspire to. Maybe you can't slay dragons in real life, but you can always be a hero. Maybe you can't actually sword fight in real life, but why not learn? Bring a little magic into your real, everyday life. Stand up for what you love.
I had a long, arduous recovery ahead of me, after my knee exploded. In fact, to this day I still have pain and weakness and healing to manage. But, because of Dragon Age, when my boyfriend came over after that to check on me, I didn't have to tell him all I did was sleep and mope around all day. My glow of success from fighting through Thedas had put the spark of determination back into my life. A spark that has never faded since, and has reminded me that I can, in fact, fight through the worst of times. I began to write a few scripts. Podcasts, a webseries, even revisited some of my dusty old novel ideas, one of which I'm still working on to this day. I threw myself into a few hands-on projects -- crafting in real life, guys! It's so much harder than in looks in the games!
Gaming woke my imagination back up, because that's what gaming is at its very core. Imagining. Even if you're playing a farmer, in a little mountain town with pixilated people and cows and truly impractical farming mechanics. I will always call that little mountain town home. It taught me to balance life and gaming, and always let one inspire the other. It taught me that it was okay to love a fictional world that took up more time than an average book or movie.
If I could go back to that fifteen year old girl, embarrassed that she was hiding a video game obsession instead of a cute boy, I would tell her, "Baby, it's all gonna turn out alright. Love what you love. And game on."
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.