If you haven’t already, you can also read Part 1, Forging an Identity
I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety and panic attacks in 2000 when I was 16. Looking back, my childhood was littered with warning signs and by age 13, I was keenly aware something was wrong. I had no framework for depression as an illness and my parents seemed unconcerned, dismissing my coded pleas for help as pleas for attention.
To be fair, it was definitely both. I needed help, but I also needed attention. I grew up with a mother that had no desire to provide affirmation, but placed unflinching demands on my own affections. From a young age, I was constantly abused of my emotions and given little in return in a fiendish familial cult of personality. I needed to be helped and to be validated by people who offered neither.
This is not a ploy for sympathy or an attempt to insult my parents. I’m being frank, and it’s important for this story to understand that this is how I entered adulthood: a broken mind with an unquenchable need for recognition and no true sense of self. I had spent years in therapy and on medications, but by the time I started collecting games, I had left that all behind.
Me at 16, a Super Cool Guy
In the long run, this was probably not a good idea, but I was in a good place in my life. I was gainfully employed, I was in a long-term relationship, I had pets, I had a nice home. No two sufferers of mental illness experience their symptoms the same way, but for me, these external factors were a distraction from mine; anxiety in particular.
Managing my depression was a little different. I bought video games. Lots of video games.
For a long while, I justified collecting in different ways, but never as a method of therapy. Either I didn’t know it was tied to my mental health, or probably more accurately, I didn’t want to confront that truth.
With a newfound burning passion, and modest income burning a hole in my pocket, I sought to experience all the games I possibly could firsthand. That was my rationale, and while it wasn’t the whole truth, it was, at least, a truth. I was tired of hearing that E.T. on the Atari 2600 was the worst game in the world or that the Zelda games on Philips CD-i were abhorrent nightmares from people online who hadn’t even played the games themselves. So I read up on these games, and I played these games, and I talked about these games with others.
[For the record: It turns out E.T. was produced from conception to manufacture in about 5 weeks and it’s a miracle it’s even as playable as it is, and the Zelda CD-i games, Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon, are admittedly not very good, but I’ve played much worse]
Part of the cycle: Playing games alone, in black and white
Here’s how my therapeutic cycle went:
- I’d learn about a game, usually from a YouTube personality similar to myself
- I’d research the game further by reading Wikipedia or watching videos
- I’d hunt the game down for the best bargain
- I’d bring the game home, or more often than not, it would arrive in the mail
- I’d snap a photo for Twitter and Facebook
- I’d play the game
- I’d discuss the game in a video, article, forum post and/or tweet
- I’d find a place for the game in my game room
Each step was a shot of dopamine, and I would always have various games at different steps in the cycle. I often purchased as much as 30 a month, and some were quite old and quite expensive. One year, I spent $6,000 on collecting. My collection swelled to 2,400 games and more than 75 systems.
Make no mistake, I had priorities. I made time for my then-girlfriend. I visited my family often. I hung out with my friends frequently. I occasionally dabbled in other hobbies or pastimes (reading and teaching myself conversation Japanese mostly). I actually worked a lot too, anywhere between 50 and 100 hours a week, which is how I afforded all those games.
But every other waking moment was devoted to collecting and building TV and Lust, my YouTube channel. TV&L was spun out into a website (a prior incarnation of this one, which provided the standard game news, previews and reviews) and a mildly successful podcast.
I have no idea why this photo is so blurry, but I wasn’t there as a photographer
It was a lot of hard work, but for me, it felt worthwhile. I’m not one to overstate my celebrity, but I found a modicum of success online. My brand was recognizable in the circles I wanted it to be recognizable in and YouTube’s ad revenue was reasonably generous during that time period.
But this all took a significant toll on me. For years, I barely slept. Dark circles appeared under my eyes and my weight constantly fluctuated. Because maintaining the niche I had carved out for myself required more and more work, video games became the most prominent aspect of my identity. I was overweight, overtired and I don’t think anyone really knew how to talk to me outside the context of video games.
I’m not sure I ever really caught onto problems. I thought I had made it. This was exactly the validation I had craved since I was a child, and more importantly, it wasn’t just handed to me. I felt like I had earned it.
With Suda 51 of Grasshopper Manufacture
The truth is though, this was just a flimsy structure propping up my mental health. The endless, rapid fire hustle I had trapped myself in was the only thing holding my unchecked MDD and anxiety at bay.
Then, over the course of about a year in what my psychiatrist called “a series of significant losses,” I split up with my girlfriend of 7 years (we were engaged, actually), lost my job of 8 years, and without a job or financial support, I had to move out of my townhouse into a tiny studio apartment with my two cats.
The flimsy structure collapsed. My “series of significant losses” made it impossible to focus on TV and Lust, which only compounded my depression. I dipped in and out producing content, bleeding viewers and losing ground. For a couple of years, I tried to reclaim the niche I once had, but the audience had moved on to things that I wasn’t interested in emulating or talking much about, like PewDiePie and Gamergate.
About play for the sake of play in Finnish gaming magazine Pelaaja
A lot of good came of all the time I spent on TV&L. I learned and experienced a lot about a hobby I enjoy, I made a lot of friends all over the world, I freelanced for magazines and websites, I guested on podcasts. I remember having a really engaging conversation with Nate Wells, then of Irrational Games, about video game narratives and environmental storytelling at a private after party. For someone who started just wanting to talk about games on YouTube, it felt surreal to have achieved all that, but I also felt like I belonged. This is who I am, I thought.
When it all slipped through my fingers and I couldn’t get it back, I had no idea who I was. I had invested so much of myself into video games and collecting and TV&L that without it, I felt rudderless and hollow.
If you’d like, you can also read Part 3, Creating Meaning in a Vacuum