Well, Doc, my mom thinks I spend way too much time gaming (which is probably true), and she isn’t one of those psycho anti-gaming parents that thinks games should be purged by purifying holy fire, she just wants me to go out more and meet new people. The problem is way back in my elementary school days kids decided that being douche bags to me was awesome, so now I’m extremely cautious about talking to new people and have trouble carrying conversations with people I don’t consider friends. Which, as you may be able to guess, puts a big damper on what she wants me to do.
I’m in no way one of those social recluses that puts blackout curtains on all their windows and hisses at sunlight. I go out every Friday to an MTG draft and try to get together with some friends to play D&D as much as possible, but most of my week is spent inside on my computer. Do you have any helpful tips so I can get out and not be so damn nervous about talking to people? To put it into perspective a bit more I’ve worked at my job for a little over a year and barely speak to anyone there.
In my experience, social issues can be a big factor in intensive videogame play. Some folks come to gaming with significant anxiety and find relief in engrossing games. They enjoy a new kind of social connection where it’s possible to share only a part of themselves, or project a persona more consonant with who they want to be, rather than who they actually feel they are.
I have known some people who have a very active online social community developed through gaming that includes many real life friends and some online relationships. Parents are naturally skeptical because they don’t see how playing a game on the internet could really be “hanging out with your friends,” but for growing numbers of kids, that’s just what it is.
In your case, it seems like gaming has been a place to retreat from aversive experiences and feeling comfortable only with certain groups of people in particular situations. It’s a good sign that you realize these limitations are problematic – it can’t be a good thing to barely speak to your co-workers after a year on the job.
I think the most benign way to address this problem would be to try expanding your comfort zone gradually. Perhaps you could arrange to do some things with your MTG or D&D friends that would involve meeting new people or going to new places. Each of these experiments would be intentionally contrived to put you in a situation where you would have to stretch a little bit. You’d have to push yourself to overcome your inhibition to talk to new people. Hopefully, you would get some positive results and your discomfort would slowly diminish. It might help if some of your friends were better at this, and you could, at least in the beginning, try to emulate one or two of them. There’s no harm in a little acting if it primes the pump. You may not feel like yourself, but you may start to feel calmer and more confident in these situations.
Your Mom is probably hoping you will start to develop a community and some significant relationships that will help you move forward in your life. Most parents are happy when their adult kids move out and show they can handle an independent lifestyle.
Let’s say you try the suggestion above and it doesn’t seem to work. You break out in a cold sweat, freeze up whenever someone you don’t know comes by, and feel so traumatized by the whole experiment that you’re even less inclined to leave the house. I hope this won’t happen, but it could, and if it does, I think it’s time to take things to the next level.
Counseling can be very helpful for people with social anxiety disorders. You could learn some strategies to help you relax in these situations and practice some techniques for managing the cognitive aspects of your apprehension. You might also develop some social scripts and practice them with your counselor until you are confident you can handle some of these situations. These strategies and techniques may provide some resources to better manage situations that you’ve been avoiding.
I also think there is value in using counseling to try to understand yourself better. This is an old-fashioned idea, but actually one of the major benefits I see clients getting from treatment. You clearly still feel hurt by the “douche bags” who mistreated you long ago. Treatment could help you understand why this has affected you so deeply and help you learn to let it go. While these idiots messed up your childhood, it would be far worse if you let them ruin the rest of your life. At the very least, if you are seeing the right person, you will get some emotional support and a neutral perspective that can really help.
If you’re still not making much progress, you could consider medicine. As a psychologist, I don’t write prescriptions and strongly prefer people solve their problems without meds. But I have seen some clients with severe social anxiety for whom nothing else seemed to help. There is a wide selection of drugs used to help with social anxiety these days. They tend to reduce tension and inhibition, allowing people to relax and engage more easily with others. I can’t guarantee they would work for you – even a great drug only helps a small percentage of people who try it – but if it did help, it could make all the difference.
Many people have strong opinions about psychotropic medication. Pharmaceutical intervention might make you reliant on a foreign substance and some patients certainly experience unpleasant side effects. This is not the case for many and the medicine creates the potential for a different and more satisfying social experience. If nothing else helps, it is worth a try. Spending the rest of your life this way doesn’t do anyone any good.
For me, your question raises a larger issue: is intensive videogaming mostly a boon to people with social anxiety, providing them a new and more comfortable way to connect, or does it just provide another way to dodge the tension-provoking situations, which, after all, need to be confronted if the person is going to overcome their social anxiety?
While groups of professionals and parents would tend to answer that gaming is more obstacle than asset, I think most gamers see it differently. For many, gaming can serve as an important bridge to others, but it’s certainly possible to get stuck on that bridge.
Dr. Mark Kline spends most weekends traipsing around remote suburban Boston as a marginally attentive youth soccer spectator. Since recovering from a year-long intensive WoW habit, he sticks to computer Risk and casual word games, but is still trying to figure out why his children like The Sims.
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