One day in the claustrophobic summer of 2020, a mere 20 minutes after the servers for battle royale shooter Apex Legends went down, I spiraled into a full-blown panic attack. This should have been indicative of a problem, but at the time, it wasn’t.
I had discovered the game that April. The reasoning behind my newfound fascination with the colorful shooter was, in theory, sound. After being sent home from university outwardly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in truth on a medical leave of absence due to chronic illness and a severe depression diagnosis, it became apparent I was going to have a lot of time on my hands. Rudderless and not particularly flush with cash, I sought something free — a game I could sink hours of my time into, and potentially satiate a much-craved social connection through, all without having to spend a penny. The trailers for Apex Legends were bright, punchy, and engaging, with a diverse roster of characters that I hoped spoke to a similarly diverse player base. So I downloaded it.
The thing about competitive shooters is that they’re notoriously addictive. The constant encouragement to improve, complete with win-fueled dopamine hits and loss-induced misery forms a textbook vicious cycle for the wrong person. Fans all over the world prove daily that many people can enjoy this kind of game in moderation without tilting themselves into a mental health episode, but at the time, I wasn’t one of them.
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Brand new to first-person shooters as a genre, I was understandably terrible, but my newfound fascination with the guns-blazing gameplay caused me to keep trying. After a couple of months, I acquired a slate of top-of-the-range peripherals in the hopes that it would enhance my performance, and my collection of in-game cosmetics similarly swelled — voiding my original intention that the game be free. I became consumed by the ranked mode, determined to make my way to Platinum at any cost, and by the time Apex launched on Steam that November, I’d racked up a solid 600 hours in my pursuit of “getting good.” My obsession, though I didn’t register it at the time, gave me purpose. In a world where I, a disabled college dropout, was trapped inside by the raging coronavirus, Apex Legends was my only joy, and getting better at the game was the only accomplishment I could put my name to.
Then, my wrist started to hurt.
I saw a local physical therapist; he recommended wrist supports and ice and suggested it was tendonitis. I had no reason to believe that this pain was connected to similar discomfort I’d suffered before, in weeklong bouts following strenuous activity that came and went like the wind, or the frequent body aches that had been dismissed as “growing pains” since childhood. So I carried on with my life, playing with an unhealthy dedication that reared its ugly head when I was denied access to the game. My friends and I rang in the new year with a winning match, and when I woke up on Jan. 1, 2021, I could no longer hold a glass of water.
I am intimately familiar with illness. Having experienced poor health for most of my life thanks to a variety of mental and physical disabilities, I view it akin to an old friend. But I’d never been in pain before. Not like this. The burning in my right wrist was constant, and entirely debilitating both physically and mentally. I couldn’t cook; I couldn’t write; my parents had to cut up my food before serving it because I was unable to hold a knife. I turned 21 that month with zero alcohol or celebration, hopped up on as many painkillers as I could safely ingest, and soon after, my left wrist fell by the wayside, too. Then came the small joints of my fingers, followed by my upper arms, until, eventually, my whole body was on fire.
In the nine miserable months that followed, before finally reaching the top of the waiting list to see a private specialist in September, I spent approximately as many hours playing games as I had useless, crippled digits. As a creative, introverted person used to long periods of bed rest, all of my hobbies involved the use of my hands, and I could do none of them.
When I finally received a diagnosis, I found that there would be no magic bullet. Joint hypermobility syndrome is a disorder concerning individuals with extremely flexible joints that cause them pain. My rheumatologist suggested that my pain had been triggered by significant inactivity and degeneration of the muscles supporting my joints over the previous 18 months, in stark contrast to the constant overuse of my hands while gaming. Though symptoms of JHS can be managed through physiotherapy and often ease with age, it is incurable. Still, this wasn’t the blow you might think. For me, a diagnosis was hope, and since I finally knew what was wrong, that meant I could try to do something about it.
Playing games again was one of the first goals I set with my physiotherapist. I yearned for the social enjoyment that gaming with friends brought in equal measure to how I missed the storytelling and exploration of single-player titles. I would never again be able to play with the same single-minded focus, but the physical and mental consequences JHS had caused cured me of that urge forever. I was merely grateful that both sides of my care team felt confident I could play again at all.
After several weeks of intensive physical therapy, I was finally cleared to pick up the controller again, as regular, typical use of my joints benefitted my therapy. Naturally, I chose to play Bloodborne, one of the most notoriously difficult and darkly thematic video games ever released. I have never claimed to possess common sense. Something about the story, combat, and community called to me in my injured state, and, through research that paralleled my earlier investigation of Apex, I surprisingly found I wasn’t alone.
Ironically, Soulslike games such as Bloodborne, which embody the extreme difficulty presented by Dark Souls and developer FromSoftware’s other titles, have frequently generated discussions around accessibility. Many players who find the games impossible argue that an easy mode has never ruined a game, and there may be an element of truth to this, as individuals with various disabilities may find the oblique game design and timed button-mashing insurmountable. My own search history was awash with questions like ‘Can you play Bloodborne with a disability?’ and ‘Is Bloodborne depressing?’ — but to my relief, I found a gold mine of success stories.
Contextually, Bloodborne is quick to assert that disability should not be underestimated, nor should it hold you back. One of the game’s earliest scares features a wheelchair-bound enemy shooting you in the back, and one of the game’s final bosses similarly spends the run time using a mobility aid right up until he unceremoniously kicks your ass. Disabled gamers have admitted to feeling at home in the world of Bloodborne, and disabled streamers such as HandicapableOne have beaten Souls bosses using nontraditional controls, with others proving the games can be completed with voice alone.
The inherent message behind all Soulslike games seems to be: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Each title comes with the promise of death, but Bloodborne’s bosses set themselves up to be impossible because they want you to conquer the challenge. In light of this, a strange phenomenon has popped up around the genre. Posts and video essays with titles like “Dark Souls saved my life” can be found across the internet, where fellow sufferers of mental and physical health issues have found solace in the behavioral activation and self-efficacy offered by the style of gameplay. The learning-driven, goal-based combat system provides a concrete sense of accomplishment not always given by multiplayer shooters, where the aim is to keep you battling other players ad infinitum. Bloodborne let me defeat my demons permanently, and finally knocking Rom, the Vacuous Spider on her ass boosted my drive to tackle my depression head-on, alongside providing me with a regular joint workout.
When I finally played Apex Legends again, it was with the primary intention of spending time with my friends. Despite playing far fewer hours, I discovered I was still able to steadily improve at the game, and I finally hit Platinum — a triumph made all the sweeter considering I was no longer destroying myself to do it.
I still experience daily pain. I likely will for the foreseeable future. The truth is, getting good at a video game cannot fix you. Used as a crutch for deeper problems, it may physically and mentally break you down to rubble, but approached with care, it is a hobby that can uplift players. The key is moderation and, honestly, kindness. It’s perfectly normal to want to be better at a game, or defeat a certain enemy, but it’s never worth running yourself into the ground over it.
A year on, I still haven’t beaten Bloodborne, and I don’t need to. The trick is knowing I can, in my own time.