I’m on the elimination spree of a lifetime. 28 kills, no deaths. I feel unstoppable. An enemy Reaper tries to sneakily teleport onto the payload. I, as Pharah, rocket into the sky and unleash the full fury of my ultimate on him, just because I can.
“Damn, that was nasty,” he types into chat, clearly impressed and even more clearly dead. Then a tiny voice in my head suddenly gets loud. “Hey, know what’d be neat?” it whispers. “What if, out of nowhere, you started to REALLY SUCK.”
This is how most competitive multiplayer games go for me. I play decently for a time, and then I remember that other people exist, and spaghetti erupts from my pockets like a dang pasta factory meltdown. It’s all downhill after that. I can’t relax; I can’t focus. Performance anxiety has set in, and I’m no good anymore.
I play reflex-driven multiplayer games to shut off my brain, or at least to shush the part of it that carries on my usual internal monologue. “Mindless fun” is a phrase thrown around frequently when describing certain video games, and for me, it means freedom from the background radiation of anxiety that makes most of my day-to-day life at least a little bit uncomfortable. In those slivers of time where I’m totally on, moving more quickly and accurately than I imagined I could, the world around me is like a gentle rain on the window panes of my awareness. I don’t have the bandwidth to think about anything else, and I’m so devoid of conscious thought that it’s like I’m not even thinking at all.
But whenever I snap back into my regular thought patterns, my safe little glass house shatters. The higher the stakes, the more likely I am to slip out of that flow state. It’s when I’m carrying my Overwatch team, or I make it to the top ten in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or are otherwise on the precipice of greatness that the little voice insists on being heard. “Don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up,” it says, growing louder and louder each time.
Without fail, I do. I leap right into the line of fire, despite knowing how stupid I’m being, or I miss a crucial shot and give away my perfect hiding spot. Red-faced embarrassment and frustration follow. Some people can reliably pivot away from the mental sinkhole those feelings open up, but I am not one of them.
This really hems in my ambitions. You will, for instance, never see me solo queueing to play ranked Overwatch. I’m immediately stricken by anxiety over the fact that somebody might decide I’m not pulling my weight and start yelling at me. Odds are, that won’t even happen, but I preemptively psych myself out.
In Overwatch, you can at least afford to screw up a handful of times. But if I’m soloing PUBG, which is how I usually play, every decision is crucial to my survival, and it’s mad embarrassing to miss an easy shotgun blast and then get frying-panned in the head. After that, I get kicked back to the main menu. I don’t even get to seek revenge! I’m just a footnote in some rando’s video game history, a grain of spice on their chicken dinner.
Logically, of course, I know that most players are preoccupied with their own performances and don’t care much about mine. But that’s the thing about any kind of anxiety: it’s not logical. It’s just a stew of garbage emotions boiling over in your head. It takes a while to go back to feeling normal, and by then, I’m not really in the mood to play anything anymore.
I find myself drawn to games that shut off those thoughts by overwhelming my senses with things for me to reflexively react to, with strategic possibilities to consider. And I’ve recently realized there’s a sort of upside to those times when the anxiety boomerang comes back around and hits me smack in the head: They are relatively safe exposure to situations that can be, for me, viscerally upsetting. It helps dull the edge on my anxiety in general, and gives me experiences I can use to remind myself that, whatever’s next—whether in games or real life—it probably won’t be as bad as I’m expecting.
That said, if you ever come up against me in the final moments of a PUBG match, here’s a tip: stand still and do nothing, because I’ll probably find a way to choke on the chicken dinner.