Josh Pappenheim: On Video Games And Depression
Josh Pappenheim is a 29-year-old content creator for the BBC who has also worked for Comedy Central. In 2017 he wrote an article for the BBC3 website discussing how video games had helped him cope with anxiety and depression. He agreed to speak with Ed Acteson to discuss his experience in greater detail.
EA: How old were you when you first got into video games?
JP: I can’t remember a time that I didn’t play them. So, very young.
EA: Do you remember the first one you played?
JP: No! The first system I can remember getting obsessed over is the Sega Megadrive, so platformers Like Earthworm Jim, The Lion King and Taz-Mania. But I think my love for games really started when the N64 came out and I got my hands on Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64.
EA: You wrote a piece on video games and mental health for the BBC who you also work for. How did that come about?
JP: I worked at BBC Three a few years ago doing social media and wrote a couple of pieces there, both straight and comedy. I then went to Comedy Central, where I was writing three or four ‘funny’ pieces a day. I really wanted a serious outlet, so was incredibly lucky to know the editorial staff at Three. I’d seen a few articles doing the rounds about video game addiction in relation to mental health and I just thought ‘hey that doesn’t chime with my experiences’ and pitched them.
EA: Which of your comedy projects might I know?
JP: Probably not a lot of the writing as it was mostly listicles. The big one was the ‘Brexit Titanic’ video. I was creative lead on the project and worked with some incredibly talented people such as Jack Hextall our video editor as well as Amy Everett and Cal King, my co-writers. It didn’t do great numbers initially but has since been ripped and re-posted in hundreds of places and done pretty well! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svwslRDTyzU)
EA: In your article you discuss suffering from depression and anxiety. Are they independent of one another or are they linked?
JP: They definitely feed each other. I’d start by getting anxious and not wanting to socialise or leave the house, which made me depressed as I felt like a failure, which in turn made me more anxious. It would just spiral down like that.
EA: How old were you when it started?
JP: After I was formally diagnosed I looked back at myself when I was younger and thought “oh fuck, it’s been my whole life!” It first properly spiked when I was 24, I’d just moved to London, landed my first job that I really didn’t want to mess up and started using the London Underground every day. I think the pressure built up and, for some reason, came out as this real visceral fear of pissing myself in front of people. In meetings or on the tube, the more embarrassing the better.
EA: You wrote that your anxiety revolves around an inability to control situations, would you say that what you’ve just described is an example of that?
JP: Yeah definitely. I just felt trapped. Meetings and the tube just triggered my fight or flight response. I think the piss stuff was just the most embarrassing scenario I could think of.
EA: Was there a defining moment when things had been building up and you decided you needed to speak to someone?
JP: I suppose I realised it had got out of hand when I started worrying about pissing myself when I was alone in bed. I wasn’t trapped, there wasn’t anyone to embarrass myself in front of, it was just there. That’s when I decided I needed to talk to someone.
EA: Did you go to a doctor first or to a therapist?
JP: I went to a doctor at first because I thought it was just a physical thing, like a bladder issue, even though I’d never actually pissed myself. It didn’t even occur to me that it could be mental. The first thing the doctor asked was ‘how are you feeling?’ and I just broke down crying and talked about everything that had been going on. After a quick chat and going through a checklist they said it sounded like anxiety and depression. I couldn’t believe it. At the time I still had that ‘I control how I feel’ mentality.
EA: Yeah I think it’s something that easy to be sceptical about until you’ve actually experienced it personally or through someone you’re close to.
JP: I definitely didn’t get it when I was younger. I can remember saying ‘man up’ or something equally awful to people who were definitely depressed or anxious when I was a teenager.
EA: So while you were experiencing this, how did it impact your work?
JP: Well I stopped going and started working from home. I was lucky in that regard as the work I do has always revolved around the social media so it doesn’t really matter where I do it. However, for my own sanity it’s better to be in an office and around people but, because I had grown to be so terrified of the tube, I was having to get the bus or walk home which would add another hour onto my commute. I just got to the point where I thought that I couldn’t carry on with that.
EA: How did your friends and family react to what was going on?
JP: A lot of my friends didn’t know. If my friends were having Friday night drinks I wouldn’t go as didn’t want people to see my like this. I didn’t know if I would be able to handle it or even hold a conversation together. I would even feel overwhelmed if I had too many people talking to me through text at once.
EA: So it sounds like a huge impact on your confidence as well.
EA: You’ve previously spoken about Firewatch as a game that was quite therapeutic to you at the time. Can you tell us about that?
JP: Yeah very much so. It’s a hard game to summarise, basically you’re a guy who, for reasons the player themselves picks, decides to remove himself from society and become a fire watchman in a forest. So he’s living a completely isolated existence and only communicating to one other person through a radio. It’s a very linear story but is set in an open world where you walk around doing menial tasks before a wider mystery unfolds.
EA: That isolation of the protagonist was mirrored in you removing yourself from social situations at the time. Was that just coincidental or did the similarities resonate with you?
JP: I don’t think I ever thought of it in those terms. I only bought it on recommendation and, because I was home a lot, I liked the idea of a game where I could wander around outside. So it wasn’t until afterwards that I realised that the main character was in the same place as me.
EA: Would it be fair to say that the amount of video games you were playing at the time increased if you were at home more?
JP: Yeah but also the type of games I was playing changed. Previously I was playing games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, long games that you could get lost in, but instead I began playing Rocket League and Overwatch, the type of games you can just play for 20 minutes to take your mind off everything else. Only I’d play for hours.
EA: You wrote that, on occasion, you would feel low after spending the weekend playing video games. Do you think that is because we are brought up being told that playing games is a waste of time or was it something else?
JP: It’s complicated. It’s the same pressure as when your parents tell you to go play in the sun when you’re a kid. At the time I was young and single so there was also a social pressure to go out and get drunk but I just didn’t want to do that. So I ended up feeling like a bit of a failure in that respect. It’s also to do with the sort of games you’re playing. Without meaning to sound like a snob, I’ve always seen games like Rocket League and Fortnite as an empty experience, as much as I like playing them. They’re a distraction in an arcade way, which is fine, but if you play them for an entire weekend and all you have to show for it is a couple of skins, it feels pointless.
EA: Would you say that perception of video games as a waste of time is changing a little bit though? They are much more social these days with the advent of online gaming and e-Sports, which you can make a living from.
JP: Yeah I do. I think the social aspect is definitely changing. You’ve got kids who would once have been isolated at home but now the parents know that they are interacting with their friends, just not necessarily whilst in the same room. Also video game narratives are changing and progressing. Rather than just always having the big bad guy like Ganondorf, the plots are more believable and relevant to society. The Last of Us is a great example.
EA: Do you think that a person suffering from anxiety might be impacted differently by a more stressful game than Firewatch? Or is it more about distracting yourself for a while regardless of the game?
JP: I can only speak from my own situation but in Firewatch’s case it was such an engrossing and tenderly acted story, because the voice actors are incredible, and it was also quite short so it felt within reach to complete rather than having a 30 hour plus commitment. It was like reading a book and feeling as though I’d accomplished something, learnt something, even felt something. Maybe it would be different for different people though. There were other times when playing Dark Souls helped because of the sense of accomplishment.
EA: A couple of years on from that, how are you dealing with the anxiety and depression at the moment?
JP: I’m coping at the moment which is probably the best way of putting it. I always know it’s there and some days it breaks through and maybe I’ll work from home but now I’ve learnt how to prevent it from spiralling out of control and that’s really what going to the doctor and therapist was for, putting coping strategies in place.
EA: My final question, to put you on the spot, can you name your top three games of all time?
JP: Jesus. Firewatch is definitely up there. It’s a lame choice but Ocarina Of Time as it was the first game I couldn’t put down. Lastly, either Dark Souls of Bloodborne. One of those two, maybe Bloodborne.
Josh’s BBC Three article can be found here and is well worth reading.
If you believe that you might be suffering from mental health issues, the NHS has a list of helplines that you can contact by clicking here