Sometimes, context is everything. For example, finding out you’re skilled at a game is normally considered to be good news, and If I’d been at home playing Call of Duty 4‘s multiplayer, I’d have been outright pleased. But instead, I learned that I was good at the game at two in the morning, sitting at a friend’s computer, on the night the woman I had been with for ten years told me that our marriage wasn’t working anymore.
My relationship with my parents is such that they weren’t my first point of call, so I went to a friend’s house instead and ended up blasting kids with usernames like ‘xXx_PsychoKilla_xXx’ with a modified AK47 in some unnamed town in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. It was a weird place to find solace, but playing the game meant that I had to focus my attention on something other than my broken heart. It was just random chance that my friend had been playing Modern Warfare that night, but after nothing but raw hurt for hours and hours, I needed to stop thinking for a little while. Modern Warfare allowed me to do that.
I suppose to the casual observer, it looks like I used gaming as a way to hide from my heartache; but it wasn’t the kind of problem I could beat, it was a situation I had to endure, and gaming let me do that. While the split with my wife was undeniably the very best thing that could have happened to me, getting to the point where I could see that properly certainly didn’t happen overnight. It was the first time in my entire adult life that I’d been single, and that concept took a long time to get used to.
It’s never easy to lose someone, especially when it comes as such as surprise. I was completely caught off guard. That very morning, she’d gone off to work as normal, without the faintest hint of what she was thinking. We hadn’t been arguing, like you might imagine, although I had noticed that something was bothering her. With the gift of hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that the best days of our marriage were behind us, but there, in the moment, as she was ending things, I was completely blindsided.
Modern Warfare may have been the first game that made me feel better, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Videogames have always been a very big part of my life, and so playing more of them after the breakup was perfectly natural. My ex was incredibly efficient in getting my things ready for me to move out of the apartment, and, while it hurt like hell to see all my stuff boxed up, it meant that I had my PC, Wii and 360 ready for use at my parents’ house. When you have a wife and a house, and it is suddenly taken away from you, it’s very easy to start moping about what you have lost, and the last thing I wanted to do was roll the memory around in my head and relive the moment over and over. I quickly got the internet set up in my new, unfamiliar room, and dove into the Champions Online beta.
After a couple of false starts – you don’t want to see how stupid my first hero looked – I created the mighty Warforge, an experimental combat robot programmed to fight crime. His back story wasn’t the most original, and he looked almost exactly like War Machine from the Iron Man comics, but compared to a lot of the characters that were fighting aliens, ghosts and mutants alongside me, I looked like a seasoned comic book pro. The intricate nuances of Champions Online‘s character builder and gear system kept my mind occupied with something other than my loss. I’m not normally an MMO kind of guy, but zooming around on jet boots, blasting criminals with heat-seeking missiles and cutting through ne’er-do-wells with Warforge’s laser vision was a lot of fun, and was enough to keep me playing – and to stop me from dwelling on how bad I felt – for a few weeks, at least. Maybe life wasn’t so bad, I was going to be all right.
Then the beta ended, and I lost my job.
I suddenly had plenty of time on my hands, which, for a person dealing with such heartache, was not the ideal situation. So, after a particularly upsetting visit with my ex, I spent a sizeable chunk of my severance pay on a PS3 and a bunch of games and went to town. I got immersed in Metal Gear Solid 4. When you’re doing your best to not think about your life, a long game with a very, very confusing plot is a good way to pass a couple dozen hours. You could infer all kinds of things from the game’s story, as the treachery of women plays a big part in the plot, but its appeal was actually much simpler than that. If I was concentrating on nanomachines, Big Bosses, and various types of Snake, I simply wasn’t thinking about my breakup.
After dismantling the Patriots, I turned my attention to InFAMOUS, electing to aid the poor folks of Empire City after the damage caused by the Ray Sphere. I spent much more time with that game than was strictly necessary. I liberated a significant portion of the city from the gangs that occupied it, and stopped to heal wounded civilians, even when I had somewhere I really needed to be. I wasn’t consciously dragging the game out, but I didn’t have much else to do, so it’s no surprise that I took my time.
As with all wounds, eventually it stopped hurting as much and started to heal. As days became weeks and then months, I moved on and put the pieces of my life back together. I got back in touch with old friends, got myself a new job and began to adjust to my new life, doing things I’d always wanted to do, but could never have done as part of a couple. With a little time and a little distance, I began to see my break-up as a fresh start rather than a tragic end, and began doing my utmost to live well and be a better person.
I’m not going to pretend that gaming was the panacea that cured all my ills and put me back together again – there’s no game that makes it easier to get used to sleeping alone after a decade of sharing a bed – but gaming helped me take my mind off of the pain. It was much better to be angry over losing a fight in Street Fighter IV or to get worked up over a tricky level in ‘Spolosion Man than it was to be angry at her for hurting me so badly. By engaging me and forcing me to concentrate on the moment, rather than pining for the past, gaming helped me get through a time that would have been almost impossible without it.
Logan Westbrook is a news contributor for The Escapist. Occasionally he updates his blog, www.verbscience.com.