Video games can offer refuge for soldiers. Here's how.
Some veterans experiencing PTSD, anxiety, or depression find comfort in gaming. Four share their stories.
Life in the military can be traumatic for some, especially those who serve overseas in combat zones.
The sounds of being shot at, the loss of fellow service members, and other experiences that the rest of us see only in movies can linger long after a veteran returns home to civilian life.
A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation, the U.S. global policy think tank, found that nearly 1 in 5 returning service members are clinically diagnosed with either PTSD or depression.
When you consider remedies, video games might not top the list. But many veterans say gaming gives them solace—an opportunity to stay connected with, and strengthen friendships among, fellow service members who understand their perspective.
“Moderate gaming helps with mental health by allowing the veterans an opportunity to escape, relax, release, and decompress,” says Cheryl Curtis, the director of veterans and military affairs at Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, N.C. “Being able to play video games with others provides a sense of community, and talking with people helps reduce the stressors present because the focus is on the task at hand.”
When I sat down with four veterans—Randy Stewart, Matt Blankenship, Jason "Proc" Procaccino, and Ryan Smith—to better understand their relationship with gaming, you could hear the camaraderie in their banter.
They live all over the U.S. (Blankenship is in Boston, Smith’s in New York, Proc is in Nashville, Stewart’s in Salt Lake City) but they have developed a brotherhood from the countless hours they’ve spent battling on the gaming sticks.
In a conversation lightly edited for clarity, the four veterans shared how they transitioned to civilian life and how gaming strengthened their mental health.
I’ll start with you, Randy. Where did you get the idea to bring these guys together through video games?
Stewart: I grew up an only child in a very rural area. I didn’t have any friends—my parents had to drive [me] an hour away to go to a good school. Before there was online gaming, video games were my friends.
When I got to high school, I was able to make lifelong friends while we were playing video games and learning so much about each other.
Fast forward to my time in the Air Force. I was still kind of shy, so I finally started to make friends with people playing video games again.
I worked with Matt and Ryan at the recruiting squadron in the New England area. We went our separate ways, but we were still able to maintain that connection. It was like we were next door neighbors online.
Proc: I’m the newest member to the group, but I've known these gentlemen throughout my recruiting service career. We always kind of knew of one another.
I went to Boston almost two years ago on official Air Force business. I was there to see how they were doing their training program. When I heard [conversation about] the game WarZone, I knew they were in my tribe immediately.
What has been the biggest benefit of playing video games together?
Blankenship: Our relationship that came with gaming is so fluid. If the same people weren’t online around the same time, then you knew something wasn't right and to reach out. It’s a good place for us to check in mentally and where we can vent in a safe space.
Smith: When Randy and I met, the first thing we bonded over was video games. That was our foundation. We couldn't be more different otherwise from vastly different backgrounds. On paper, there's no way we would be friends.
Stewart: Ryan and I would be at work together all day but would be so busy that we didn't get a chance to chat. When we would connect online later during a gaming session, we would talk through problems that took place earlier that day. By the time we came to work the next day, we had a game plan. All this collaboration while playing a video game.
How has gaming affected your mental health?
Blankenship: Video games have been part of my life ever since I was a child. Whenever I was overwhelmed, video games were there to take the weight off my shoulders.
For us, when we’re having a bad day and our minds cannot stop racing, we can jump online. Before you know it, we’re all chatting and whatever was troubling us prior is no longer there.
Stewart: We were in Iraq and a bombing attack had just ended. We didn’t know where the next one was going to drop—it was completely random. There was a lot of anxiety among the crew. The added suspense had our hands shaking. We turned to Halo and started playing. Before you know it, we were back to normal, cracking jokes. Our focus was on the game, and it momentarily took us out of the real world.
Proc: From the day I joined the military, whether I was playing NBA 2K, Madden, or a game like Call of Duty, gaming has always been an outlet.
It allows me to escape, whether it's frustration, depression, or isolation. I can be in any mood, but as soon as I turn on the game, I’m able to decompress and bring my blood pressure down.
We know the game is not real—but then again, it is real. It helps us deal with the real things that are taking place, and our mental state.
Were there other activities you tried before playing video games?
Stewart: I tried reading books and watching movies, but I had no control over the characters, which amplified my anxieties at times.
With video games, I'm in control, and on mission to save the character. It allows me to guide them through their journey while guiding me through my own journey.
It was a form of connective therapy: I achieve a [virtual] goal, so now I can conquer some things in my real life that are bringing me stress.
Proc: I did a number of sessions with a therapist. My wife asked me to speak to someone because I was preparing to retire. I had all these emotions built up—PTSD, anxiety, depression, all those things.
When I began gaming consistently with these guys, I noticed a shift in my mental health. I wasn’t snapping at my children or yelling at the dogs. It was more effective because the therapist didn’t fully understand what I was experiencing, but all three of these gentlemen had been in similar situations.
Any advice for service members who may be struggling with mental health?
Blankenship: Any veteran—or anyone at all—who thinks they're suffering from mental health challenges, whether it's anxiety, panic, or PTSD, my first recommendation is to talk to someone as soon as possible, whether it's friends, family, or a professional.
Find people that have had similar experiences. Pick their brains and write down everything they say. The day I opted to retire, I felt panic. I talked to Randy, and he was able to put me at ease.
Proc: My advice is: Don't be afraid. There may be a stigma out there—I'm a grown man playing video games. Who cares? It shouldn't matter when it comes to mental health. It’s helping me get through my day-to-day and become a better person for the civilian sector.
Smith: Moving so often [in the military] magnifies the importance of maintaining relationships. For many people, that’s through gaming. Like Proc said, it's becoming more accepted for people our age to be gamers. It provides that avenue to maintain friendships or to develop new ones when you're consistently put in new environments and establish that support network.
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