Robin Williams, games, and depression


Robin Williams is gone, and it hurts. A lot. It was hard to focus on work after hearing the news, but I finally decided that the best tribute I could offer him was to write openly and honestly about depression and games–two subject that Robin knew well. It would cover everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think that he would have appreciated it.

Depression is a silent and potentially deadly illness. Statistics vary as to how many people are affected, depending who you ask and when. In 2011, the CDC estimated 1 in 10 U.S. adults. In 2012, the NIMH estimated 16 million adults had at least one depressive episode, or 6.9% of U.S. adults. For kids ages 12 to 17, the percentage rose to 9.1%.  Given that many cases go unreported, the real numbers could be much higher. In any case, it’s a serious problem, even without linking it to suicide rates.

I could talk a long time about the causes of depression, but I won’t for two reasons. One, we don’t have time for a doctoral dissertation and two, the causes are many and different for everyone. There is a common thread through all cases though, and that is the feeling of hopelessness. Somehow, nothing on the outside, no matter how good, can overcome the negativity inside. This is why medication alone doesn’t always work. It’s not enough to address the symptoms; you must change the internal dialogue. Neuroscience increasingly shows that memory is not static; it changes every time you recall an event. Talk therapy works because you continually explore your inner narrative and actively try to change it. A good counselor, like a good teacher, guides you, but ultimately it’s your journey.

Unfortunately for many people, depression isn’t a one-shot deal. Medication and talk therapy can provide short-term relief; however, long-term vitality requires character and life skills such as goal-setting, grit, gratefulness, self discipline, and perspective. Everyone could use these to succeed in life, but people with depression need them just to live normally. Humor is also a powerful tool, of which Robin was an undisputed master.

It would be great if everyone who needed help got it, but sadly, this is not the case. Raising awareness can help reduce the social stigma associated with depression and encourage people to seek help, but there will always be those that refuse. The bottom line is you can’t help people who don’t think they have a “problem” and/or don’t ask for it.  This is where “meeting people where they are” makes a lot of sense. A lot of these people play games. Can we somehow use games to mitigate or treat depression?

It turns out that we can. Here at Transformed Games, our mission is to create transformative games–games that build character and life skills–which may help to inhibit the onset of depression and mitigate its effects. There are several games out there designed to help treat depression including SPARX, SuperBetter, and Personal Zen. In addition, games such as Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest depict what it feels like to be depressed. I have played almost all of these games and share my thoughts here. For more thoughts on games and depression, check out this GameSpot feature and this Reddit thread (some mild language).

Some critics question the efficacy of games, but in this case, it is not their opinion but those of the silent sufferers that matter. We need all kinds of tools because everyone is different and has different needs at different times. Some people need to know that they are not alone (Depression Quest). Some are ready to try an established treatment method like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (SPARX) while others want  some do-it-yourself tools (SuperBetter). Still others are more in need of inspiration and beauty, and for them, artsy games like Journey, Ico, and Okami fit the bill. It doesn’t hurt to have something fun to look forward to after a long day. Robin Williams was an avid gamer who loved The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft (WoW), and first person shooters. It’s quite possible that playing these games helped him to make it through some rough patches as much as any medication or therapy did.

We’ve talked about the good, and as promised, it time to talk about the bad and the ugly. Games have a dark side, and if you talk to gamers (not game advocates), they’ll tell you too. It wasn’t dubbed “World of Warcrack” for nothing. Games can be addictive, but so can exercise, food, drugs, sex, and even war (as depicted in The Hurt Locker). The brain is a dope(amine) fiend and will take all the pleasure and rewards you give it, to the point of frying itself. Eventually, you’ll need more and more stimulus for less and less pleasure. It’s the law of diminishing returns. You may even get to the point where you’re bored with life and spend all of your time in-game or thinking about the game. A recent study even suggests that games may impact your subconscious as some gamers continue to hear sounds such as explosions and screams after they’ve stopped playing.

You don’t need to be addicted to games to feel somewhat down after playing them. It’s like watching color TV and then trying to go back to black-and-white. Life moves much more slowly than a game, and there aren’t always rewards for doing things. To me, this is the most concerning aspect of games. The other criticisms leveled against games could be said of all technology and media. Game can paradoxically be social and alienating at the same time, the stereotype being a person sitting in a darkened room, staring at a glowing screen while playing online with people s/he either doesn’t know or knows but has never met in real life. This is bad for your eyes, your body, your sleep, etc.  Well, this can also be true of watching TV, texting instead of talking to people, surfing the Internet nonstop, etc.

So what’s the answer? Are games good are bad? That depends on the user and the circumstances, like for all tools. The very games that Robin Williams played could have helped him out of a jam one day and deepened his hole the next. “That’s not an answer,” you say. Not the answer you want, perhaps, but it’s the truth. The truth is rarely simple, and we as a society often get into trouble for oversimplifying things. A hammer can be used to build a house or to whack your neighbor. Just because someone chooses to do the latter, should we ban all hammers?

Want a better answer? How about this:

AnswerThat you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse…What will your verse be?

Robin Williams has contributed some fine verses. Ours are still being written. Let’s stop finding faults in our tools and start taking responsibility for our own lives. Let’s build the character and life skills necessary to survive–nay, to thrive. The best way we can honor his memory is to live to the best of our abilities.

RIP Robin Williams.


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