Super Awesome World: Gaming for the sake of sanity
For Christmas 1994 my dad got me a second-hand Nintendo Entertainment System or “NES” console. I didn't identity as a gamer as such but I was game-curious, and always ended up playing on friends' consoles after school. My Nintendo came with a handful of games, but what I loved most of all was the fun graphics and simple reward systems of games like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario World. I quickly became addicted.
In Mario's world I was fighting the good fight with an unequivocal goal: to save Princess Peach from the bad guy and thus save the kingdom. In this narrative I was the hero, and I was automatically imbued with the necessary heroic qualities. I was brave, I was strong, resilient and, most importantly, I didn't give up. The architecture of the game ensured that I remain positive: I might be killed by a Goomba within the first five seconds of a level but I was optimistic that given a few more attempts I could easily navigate the obstacle or neutralise the threat. It was seductive. I loved it.
Fast forward 20 years and I am no longer a gamer. You could say that life has got in the way but it would be more truthful to say that somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking of games as a vibrant form of escapism, an exciting way to exercise problem solving skills and mental agility, and started dismissing them as a frivolous, slightly juvenile waste of time. Even with a mountain of evidence to suggest that gaming (and play in general) can improve brain function and leave us better equipped for real life interactions, it is easy to believe popular opinion: that gaming is for “losers” who have no life. But as gaming moves from niche pursuit to ubiquitous time sink, with users of all ages and backgrounds glued to their phones and browsers, the time is ripe for dissecting the psychosocial effects of these sugary, addictive cycles of stimulation and reward.
I struggle with depression. I have tried to treat this condition with varying degrees of success over a period of about 6 years with the support of family, friends and medical professionals. During one of my darkest periods I came across a TED talk by Jane McGonigal which claimed that playing games could extend your life by up to 10 years. In fact, this same games designer says that a computer game saved her life. When she was in chronic pain from severe concussion and showing no signs of improvement after over a year, she was ready to quit the game of life altogether. But she found that turning getting better into a game, becoming the hero in her own bespoke video game, kept her going and gave her a way to carry on.
And it made me think: Perhaps now was the time for me to rediscover gaming. To re-engage with the younger part of myself that loved saving the world as a cheeky Italian plumber with remarkable powers. To embrace what gaming can offer where real life sometimes falls short: a risk-free environment with achievable goals, allies to share losses along with triumphs, and a chance to displace real life problems for a world where change is within your grasp.
So I made my own video game. Albeit, one for the stage.
I wanted to create a theatre show that explored issues around depression through the prism of gaming. One that included interactive elements and intimate autobiographical stories.
To create a fantasy world which served as a therapeutic environment that felt like play rather than therapy.
Super Awesome World is that show, and I am taking it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August. The show invites the audience to become my fellow adventurers in an interactive experience that asks difficult questions and quests for elusive sparks of joy in the deep dark multi-user dungeons of the soul. I’m excited and I’m feeling mentally stronger than I have in years. Come join the gaming!
Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World is winner of Summerhall’s Autopsy Award. Showing at Summerhall (Venue 26), Aug 2, 4-13, 15-27, at 17:40 (1hr).