I first started playing online games when I realized that my brain had atrophied so much that I could barely even add 2+2 anymore. Seriously, after my massive breakdown a few years ago, which spiraled into crippling fatigue and depression, my brain turned to a mushy mess. I bought myself a Nintendo DS and used its free Brain Training programming and was appalled at my ineptitude. According to the game’s analysis, I had the brain of a 90-year-old!
So when I graduated to online games, it took me quite awhile to play even the simplest ones. I started with one of those jewel-matching games, and for the few weeks, my reflexes were so poor that I could barely make ten matches before my time ran out. It was so bad that I would start crying in sheer frustration – and sadness for all the brain power I had lost. It would have been very easy to give up out of a growing sense of failure and futility, but thankfully the games were addictive enough that eventually they helped me to lose track of time (and negative self-talk), which at the time was exactly what I needed.
So I persisted, moving from one game to the next, gradually noticing an improvement not only in my hand-eye co-ordination but also in my brain power.
Today, while I’m no game wizard by any means, I AM proud of my progress. My brain responds well to new challenges and there is a genuine pride and thrill when I finally conquer a difficult level and am able to move on.
So the games have clearly helped me get my brain back in shape. But much more has been going on while I’ve been sitting here tossing balls at coloured bubbles and sorting through complicated solitaire layouts. I’ve had a lot of crap to deal with over the past few years, and much of my coping has been done while escaping into my computer to play games. While tossing balls, I’ve also been tossing ideas and possible fixes at the problems that otherwise threatened to suffocate me; and while sorting through daunting solitaire scenarios, I’ve also been sorting through tangled complications and unwanted ripple effects that seemed too monumental to face. There have been many moments when I’ve been sorely tempted to run far far away…which might have helped at the time, but would have added a whole other set of suffocating problems and long-term complications. And so I stayed, and continued playing my games, learning useful lessons along the way.
So here are the top five things I’ve learned while playing my online games over the past few very turbulent years:
1. Not all games play fair. Some of these online games are clearly designed to make compulsive players so frustrated that they will pay real money to keep playing. I call these the “greedy games”; they’re easily recognizable by the blatant unfairness. For example, in one bubble game only 5 out of the 20 shooters were red, yet the majority of bubbles that I needed to smash were red. The game was impossible simply because the supposedly random generation of coloured balls leaned heavily toward unneeded colours. I don’t know if tossing some real money into the game would have magically changed the randomness of those balls, but I could see the writing on the wall…and refusing to keep banging my head against that brick wall I finally just walked away. The personal correlation? Life doesn’t play fair. We all know that by now. Sometimes our actions, or worse, the actions of others around us, throw us into a maelstrom of unexpected and devastating consequences. The challenge, for me, has been to determine if the ongoing impact is going to end up being a never-ending brick wall to bang my head against (thereby necessitating that I walk away), or if there is enough hope of winning through to stay put and keep trying.
2. As I get further along in each game, the higher levels often appear to be impossible when they first pop up on my screen. In my early days, I would often just click out of the game, unable to find the energy or confidence to even try. But over time I’ve learned that patience, careful appraisal and keeping an open mind helps me to find the loopholes and then develop the strategies needed to conquer those complicated scenarios. And I’ve been able to apply the same lessons to my real-life scenarios. While part of me craved quick resolution at the onset, and experienced a great deal of fear and anxiety over having to deal with these consequences on a long-term basis, I realized that an impulsive move on my part to just quit would be even more devastating in the long run. So I had to learn how to calm myself down, clear my head of the anxiety and fear, appraise the situations on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis, and keep my mind and eyes open for the glimmers of light. And once I regained my hope, and could glimpse that light at the end of the tunnel, I then had to figure out the best strategies to get myself from “here” (the overwhelmingly anxiety) to “there” (that light and stability, i.e., resolution, or at least the sense that everything was going to be okay).
3. These games can be downright frustrating. To the point where I could cheerfully toss my laptop out the window. Not good. I’ve learned to watch for the warning signs of that anger and catch it early enough to be able to just close the lid and walk away from the game for awhile before my game anger turns into raging aggression toward anyone (i.e., hubby) who innocently walks into the room at that inopportune moment. Perhaps more than any other lesson I’ve learned, learning about walking away from the “heat of the moment” has helped the most in my real life. The more intense my game-playing, the hotter my laptop gets. I can feel the heat searing through to my lap. Sometimes I just have to stop and walk away and let the laptop cool down. Likewise in life, the more intense the scenario and/or argument within that scenario, the hotter my body gets – I can actually feel the heat searing through my back and chest. NOT GOOD! That’s when I know to STOP, walk away for awhile and let things cool down. Sometimes I just have to let go of my need to stay and fight (win?) by physically removing myself from that scenario, either by moving into a different room or by deliberately changing the subject (what’s for supper honey) or if possible by taking a walk outside to get fresh air and perspective – anything to dissipate that heat as quickly as possible. Because we know that as dangerous as an overheated laptop is, more so is an overheated back and chest. No game is worth that risk of fire, and no situation – or person – is worth collapsing over in the heat of a moment you can walk away from.
4. Learning new games and learning to develop new strategies has done tremendous good for my brain. I can feel the difference. I notice the increase in mental sharpness and quickness to respond to academic challenges. (I can even answer more Jeopardy questions than ever before in my life!) Seeing that difference, and liking that change has opened me to the possibility that tremendous good can also come from meeting new people and learning new things, something that has been very difficult for me because of severe social anxiety over the past few years. I’ve already experienced the joy of “meeting” wonderful amazing people online through various social networking sites. Those positive experiences have opened the door to facing my encounters “out there” in the bigger world feeling more empowered and less fearful. I realize now how each new person brings a whole new mix of ideas and wisdom into my own life…and what a good difference each conquered challenge (like participating in any new social activity) makes in my sense of empowerment and confidence.
5. Every game has its designated time factor. Every game offers so many “lives” per session, and each “life” has its own time limit in which to complete the challenge. Sometimes this can be very frustrating, e.g., when I feel like I’m on a good roll and want to keep playing, but have used up all of my “lives” and am forced to wait for the bank to refill (which can range anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours). But what I’ve learned is that if those life banks didn’t empty and I was allowed to play indefinitely, I would. Because when I’m totally immersed in the game, I become totally unaware of time passing – and I would probably never come up for air until hunger (or the need to pee) finally forced me to stop. So too with life. When forced to face an intense ongoing situation, I sometimes get to the point where I need to designate only so much energy, or “life”, to it at one time. When I try to deal with an intense, complicated situation for long stretches of time, I become too immersed in it to maintain healthy, helpful perspective. I can choose to assign a time limit to each situation, I can choose how long I’m going to work on developing a strategy or resolution for it. And when that time is up, I walk away and do something else while my energy or “life bank” refills. And if need be, further down the road, if I realize that the situation is constantly draining my life energy and I’m still not getting anywhere, then maybe it’s time to reassess my strategy and make whatever changes necessary to replenish and keep my life bank as full and available as possible.
So even having said – and learned – all of the above, I’m still the first to admit that games can be a colossal time waster. And there are plenty of stats and articles on the Internet about the problems of compulsive gambling and the damage that can be wrought on lives and relationships by the uncontrolled amounts of money and time that many obsessively addicted players throw into these games. That dark side of online games is beyond the scope of my blog today. But being aware of the dangers helps me to monitor and correct my own game playing and keep it as healthy and balanced as possible.
There’s no doubt that the games have helped improve my brain power, but even I have been surprised by how they have also helped me face some major life problems and strategize my way through to the point where I now feel like I’m winning more than I’m losing. Feels like another one of those good win-win situations to me.
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Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings (blog), 2012. All rights reserved.
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