I’m crouching in a shadowy corner of the room, hidden between a stack of books and an old cardboard box. I can tell there’s something dangerous nearby. My heart beats in my fingertips and there’s a repetitive thud in my ears. But I have to move, or I’ll never get out of here.
I take the plunge, sprinting to the other side of the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a me-sized hole in the floor. I run for it. My heartbeat is getting faster, the thud is getting louder, and just as I reach the hole, a long, grayish arm with spindly fingers reaches from the next room, grabs me by the abdomen, and yanks me up to a face bandaged with dirty rags. Everything goes black.
And then, I save my progress, unclench my jaw, and make myself a cup of tea. I’ll go about the rest of my evening with a sense of calm, knowing nothing in the real world will frighten me as much as the endless monsters lurking in the darkness on my Nintendo Switch screen.
Since I was young, I’ve gravitated toward haunting and unsettling games like Little Nightmares, despite a lifelong fear of the dark—I slept with the light on until I was about 12—and a lifetime of anxiety. In high school, an afternoon home alone was pure torture if I’d spend it in the eerie quiet of my bedroom. Instead, I’d flick the TV on, power up my Xbox 360, and let the daylight fade unnoticed while I spent hours in the haunting world of Dead Space, borrowed from a friend who would become one of my greatest mental health advocates.
It isn’t just escapism, comfort, or feelings of control that push me toward playing video games to deal with my fears about reality. In fact, I think it’s closer to some version of exposure therapy, in which I seek out the games that depict some horrific extreme of my exact fears and give me an opportunity to practice my response to them. Often, I return to the real world calmer, more in tune with my breathing, and empowered to take control of my chronic depression and anxiety.
“What you’re often doing in exposure therapy is watching yourself watch the world, because most of us, when we’re feeling anxious, only attend to threatening cues in our environment,” Isabel Granic, director of Games for Emotional & Mental Health Lab at Radboud University, tells me. “So if you think about a video game, if you’re only looking at threatening contexts, you may lose out on strategic things you could be doing in the game if you were more relaxed, and your attention span would widen.”
At GEMH Lab, Granic develops and researches video games that use psychology principles to help children combat anxiety and depression. As a developmental psychology professor and a lover of video games, Granic says she noticed her own children gravitating toward challenging and often scary games, which inspired her to combine principles of exposure and cognitive behavioral therapies with the mechanics of video games.
So far, she’s worked on Mindlight, in which players don a brainwave sensor that controls the amount of light they have to explore a haunted house, and DEEP, a VR game in which a belt measuring the player’s diaphragmatic breathing controls their movements throughout an underwater world.
But it isn’t just games designed specifically to interact with your brainwaves or breathing habits that can help with anxiety. Granic says that when I choose to play scary video games, I’m training myself up for the anxiety I experience in real life, whether I’m conscious of it or not.