I am married to a nerd. He is a bibliophile, an intellectual, a gamer, a writer, and a sci-fi/fantasy buff. I love all of those things about him. I share a lot of those qualities with him. But I haven’t always appreciated them.
I remember in the early days of our marriage there were three words that I feared would derail our new life before we even really got going. It made him forget things I asked him to do, made him deaf when I wanted to talk to him, and made him stay up way later than I thought was healthy (both for him and for our relationship). There were three words that I dreaded hearing: League of Legends.
I can hear y’all laughing, but I’m serious! Don’t get me wrong. I loved playing games as a child. I spent many a summer day weaving through the corridors of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for PC. I built so many zoos in Zoo Tycoon, so many roller coasters in RollerCoaster Tycoon, and fought so many droids in Star Wars Episode I on my Game Boy Color. But I gave all that up when I grew up, and I couldn’t understand why my husband hadn’t. It made me angry, and at the core of that anger was the thought that I had married a man-child who refused to grow up and be an adult.
I know that sounds harsh, but I also know that there are so many people who think exactly like I did. There are so many of us who believe that playing games is a waste of time, that games are only for children and those who play them are childish, and that when Paul says “When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11b NIV), he was talking to gamers. But something happened to me that changed all of that for me.
At this same time in our marriage, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. One of the first things I remember my counselor asking me is if I ever played. I thought about it for a bit. I mean, I played games in class with my students. I played the piano. That was all work though. No. I never really played, but that was because I was a grown-up, darn it. She suggested that I start exploring what place play might have in the life of an adult. “In fact,” she said, “that’s your homework for this week. Go play a little.” That left me no choice.Playing games is not a waste of time. It is not childish. Play is necessary.
I started by asking the husband to teach me how to play League. It was hard. It was vulnerable. I wasn’t very good, and I didn’t like that, especially because it involved playing with other people. And yet, it was so stinking fun! There was something freeing about heading toward a goal, making mistakes, and no one knowing who I was. And then those words I never understood when they came out of my husband’s mouth started to make sense. I remember being late for dinner while visiting my sister one spring. I was “right in the middle of a game.” There was no pause button and people were depending on me as part of their team. It all clicked.
Stardew Valley came next. It was like all the Tycoon games I used to play, but with all these quirky little characters. I could control the world and tick off tasks one by one. It brought me peace in the midst of anxiety.
As silly as it sounds, Slime Rancher became a quick obsession. Precious little kitty slimes, goofy little chickens, and beautiful colors. Most importantly, it was a fun place to develop my first-person skills. It had been a long time since I tried something I wasn’t good at and then watched myself improve.
Child of Light will always have a special place in my heart. It is still one of the most beautiful games I have ever played, with such a lovely story. I can’t even think about it without smiling. I didn’t understand the true beauty that could be found in video games until traveling through that world of interactive art.
There were tabletop games. too. That’s a whole different kind of vulnerability—having to be taught how to play something—but so rewarding. Lanterns was a go-to for us as a couple. Sagrada gave me a healthy way to feed my need for control and order. In a couple of weeks, I will play my first Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Play brings people together in a way nothing else does. I am excited to stretch myself, take a risk, and be creative in a safe place.
I get it now, and I hope I can help other people get it too. Playing games is not a waste of time. It is not childish. Play is necessary. Games are necessary. They are a healthy way to relieve stress, a safe way to escape and clear the mind, and possibly the best way to build relationships. Play that isolates, which is what I and so many others are so reactive against, is not healthy, but recreational play? Play that actually re-creates how we feel and how we perceive the world around us? Communal play? Play that brings us together? That can save lives and marriages. Play contributes to our social, emotional, and mental health in a way that we must not overlook. Games are good.