I (don’t) want to play: Anxiety and Online Gaming

I love me some video games. And while it’s nice to just slip into a trance and play through an amazing story for hours on end, ignoring the rest of the outside world, it’s also fun to spend time with your friends, working toward a shared goal or vying for dominance.

I used to play Mario Kart quite a bit with a friend who lived down the street. It was all fun and games until I’d hit a streak of losses, and then I wouldn’t want to play anymore. Because we were kids, that was okay – we’d play something else for a while, then come back to Mario Kart. A lot of times we’d switch to a single-player RPG – one person at the controls, but both of us working our way through the puzzles.

In high school, and in my early twenties, I would play fighting games and puzzle games with friends. I’d go through the same cycles – needing to take a break after a run of losses, but that was OK because we were friends, and for the most part, my companions would be more invested in making sure I didn’t get too upset than in continuing to win.

Gaming has become a thing we do via the Internet, and as we get older, our schedules align less and less of the time. I love playing World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and Heroes of the Storm – I guess I’m a sucker for Blizzard properties – but I’m terrified to play them without a preselected group of friends.


Pictured: Sheer terror.

Switching gears, I have (professionally diagnosed!) anxiety and depression, and it makes it harder to deal with everyday human interactions. When those interactions are negative, it gets more difficult. Playing video games on the internet, with a random assortment of people, is… challenging. As a new, unskilled player of a game, I live in fear of being yelled at (either literally over voice chat, or figuratively in all caps in typed chat) due to my performance. Because of this fear, I avoid playing the game – even though I want to. Because I avoid playing the game, I never learn to play well, so I become a perpetual newbie.

Other players online have no prior connection to me and so, no vested interest in my long-term happiness. When you play games with friends in real life, assuming that they want to remain friends, they have good reason not to frustrate you past the point of breaking ties. Online, no such incentive exists.

Game developers use tools like banning and reporting to try to curb the most egregious behavior, but what happens when the problem isn’t just the behavior itself but the anticipation of such behavior?

The other problem that I run into is that, on the internet, people seem quicker to assume purposeful ignorance than to think that a person might need guidance or instruction. So instead of someone letting me know that next time, I need to do X instead of Y, I just get a person calling me names, leaving my team, kicking me off of a team, and so on.

If I felt that playing games online would be a truly cooperative and collaborative experience, with a team that felt some level of investment with each other, it might be easier to overcome the anxiety that I feel whenever I sit at that login screen, or hover the mouse cursor over the “Find Game” button. But I don’t. And maybe the only way to combat that is to have more good experiences – but how do I overcome the anxiety initially to have those experiences? And what do I do when the experiences are bad, and end with hours or days lost to an anxiety attack that I would not have otherwise experienced?

I don’t know. I guess I just keep trying, whenever I can. I’d love to join a group of people online who are here to support each other through experiences like this… but interacting with people is another source of anxiety…. and round and round the anxiety wheel goes.

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