Call of Duty was once a matter of life and death. It’s odd to think of the series in those terms, to discuss that oh-so-familiar juggernaut with any kind of gravitas other than the number of online users or the number of copies sold. There’s no escaping it, though – Call of Duty once formed part of a gruelling battle for survival: my own.
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression when I was nineteen years old. There was no trauma attached to it, no awful event that caused a spiral into suicidal tendencies, and there doesn’t have to be. Clinical depression is, at its core, a chemical imbalance in the brain. Looking back now, I had clearly suffered from it for many years before that, undiagnosed and ignorant of warning signs and symptoms, plodding along as an unassuming teen. It was only at university that things started to deteriorate rapidly.
It didn’t start with thoughts of suicide, but instead symptoms that were a little bit more physical. I lost a lot of weight, dropping down to a skeletal frame, just through losing appetite. Insomnia also kicked in hard, throwing my entire life off kilter, but I didn’t seek any help until the well-known depressive tendencies started to rear their ugly heads.
So started a gruelling recovery program of medication and counselling sessions, that went on for over a year. Recovery from depression is difficult, for a number of reasons. Suicidal thoughts are always tough to deal with, even in brighter moments where they simply crop up as fleeting, subliminal flickers, but from my perspective it was the desensitization that was the hardest. Caused by a mixture of anti-depressants and having to deal with ongoing feelings of hopelessness every day, effectively I tuned out of the specifics. I was being ground down.
It’s here that it’s good to talk about coping mechanisms, and I had many. Keeping up a routine is vital at such times, and so – aside from classes, which could not perhaps be considered regular enough to take up a major focus – I tried to keep busy. I played in a rock band, rehearsing at least fortnightly, and although our output was hardly award-winning, it was at least a distraction. As a side note, those suggesting that depression builds art have never read or heard my cringeworthy creative output during these times.
I also played video games. I would love to say that I discovered some of those games that positively discuss mental health, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Instead, I generally turned to my past. Our house television had no TV signal, but my NES got a fairly decent level of use, while I kept old PC RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate close at hand.
These games provided a solid distraction, but nothing more. There’s something about the structure of classic games, particularly ones that have been stripped down through years of play. You come to understand the rhythm of them, and so playing games like Duck Tales take on an almost meditative state. So, too, did games like Counter-Strike – the muscle memory of the various routes of Dust will remain with me for as long as I live.
However, it wasn’t until later in my recovery cycle that I found a way to do more with games than keep treading water. Up until that point, I had been effectively using games to distance myself from troubles, and with good reason. After all, there was a normality to games that was missing from my regular life. The story of a plumber rescuing a princess with the help of mushrooms could never be as absurd as the notion that my own brain was trying to kill me, and a hellscape of fog and body horror abominations could never be as terrifying as waking up each morning disappointed that I was still alive.
Eventually, though, other games were able to help me. I bit the bullet, and started spending more time with people in relaxed settings. I was never a recluse as such, and it’s worth pointing out that from the outside looking in it would have been impossible to know about my mental health issues – I was, on the surface, entirely unremarkable. But, my interactions were kept to a minimum: watching films, discussions in classes, and going out clubbing and to gigs, where music was loud and spoken words short. I had successfully, tactically, managed to disengage from meaningful conversations, for the sake of others as much as for myself.
However, that all changed when my friends and I started playing console shooters. I’m sure that Bungie didn’t have the wellbeing of the mentally ill as a priority when developing Halo 3, but through some serendipity that game formed a part of my recovery. Multiplayer video games are interactive in every sense, from control over characters through to speaking with others, and these games marked a turning point for me.
Couch multiplayer in particular was hugely important, and Halo 3 provided me with this chance to spend time with the people close to me. To this day, I still want to apologise for those who carried me through those games, and even more sorry for the poor souls who ended up in the back of a Warthog I was driving. But, it was fun.
Video games evoke emotion, more so than perhaps any other medium. We would get angry, together, after losing an online match. We would cheer triumphantly with a win. But most importantly, we laughed. In the year prior to that, I hadn’t laughed an awful lot.
Online multiplayer was sometimes something of a challenge – being blunt, hearing random people on the other side of the world requesting that you kill yourself is never easy when your own mind is telling you the same thing – but playing games with friends in that online setting was always worth it. Couch co-op, too, was an important part of my life then, whether it was playing the campaign of Halo 3: ODST or perfecting Lazy Eye on Rock Band.
It was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and eventually Modern Warfare 2, that really cemented themselves in this time, though, with four of us crowded around an old tube television and roaming around the likes of Vacant and Crossfire. We spent endless hours playing the games, jovial accusations of screen-watching mixed up with slightly more serious complaints over camping. It was a good time to be playing video games, with such a focus on friends in the same room being able to share these experiences.
Eventually, these gaming sessions helped me lower my guard to other people. I let others in, and opened up in ways that I had found impossible before. I relaxed, and as such it helped take away some of the pressure of depression, that smothering doubt and fear that stops sufferers from talking about the effect the illness is having. It took time, but eventually I was able to get my life in a position close to where it had been before.
For some, depression is a one-off event, but for me it comes in peaks and troughs, and video games have always helped when I’ve needed them, either as a distraction or as a means to keep strong relationships going. Even now, in darker moments, playing Super Mario 3D World in co-op is a perfect way to have some kind of social-minded diversion.
Of course, I’m not saying that the likes of Halo 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare were alone in making sure that I am still here today. But, they formed an integral part of my recovery, in the end, helping to act as both a way to cope with the arduous side effects of my psychological recovery and as a means to keep communication with others when it would have been easier to hide away. For that, I’ll always be thankful for them.