It was March 15, 2011, four days after the Great Tohoku Earthquake crippled northern Japan, three days since an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant spread radiation for miles and two days before the US expanded its recommended evacuation zone even further.
NHK, Japan’s national news channel, was pretending everything was under control, while Western news outlets were, as usual, predicting the apocalypse.
NHK, Japan’s national news channel, was pretending everything was under control, while Western news outlets were, as usual, predicting the apocalypse. My family in the US was pressuring me to leave the country and I was attempting to convince them — and myself — there was nothing to worry about. Trying to ignore my fear, I looked around desperately for a way to occupy my mind and found videogames. It’s been a year now and games are still helping me cope.
I had been working as an English teacher just south and east of Japan’s hardest hit areas. The past few days were a blur of terror, uncertainty, confusion and sorrow. Trains were barely running, the city had rolling blackouts, we couldn’t find bottled water anywhere and to top it off, all of my classes were cancelled until April. I had a lot of time on my hands and a lot to avoid thinking about. So, on March 15, I turned to a source of comfort I had abandoned years ago: World of Warcraft.
At the time, I thought I was just looking for something to occupy myself, a way to hide from the world and a place where my brain could hibernate while I tried to cope with reality. After playing it for a few months, I came to realize that it might have been more than that. While it was engrossing and the perfect waste of time, Azeroth was also familiar.
The years following the September 11 terrorist attacks saw television shows like Friends and Law and Order spike in popularity. Shows that had been around for years, which had been losing viewers, were suddenly thriving again. The ratings for Friends jumped up 17% from the previous season. The same tired dialogue and reused premises were exactly what the masses wanted. People were craving something comforting, something they had seen thousands of times before. They didn’t want anything remotely innovative. Basically, people wanted media meatloaf.
So, fast forward to March 15, 2011. The nuclear crisis in Japan was getting worse by the hour. The pressure and reasons to leave what had become my home were growing by the second. Confused and frightened, I turned to my massively multiplayer meatloaf, World of Warcraft.
While reality had become unrecognizable, WoW was still familiar, it was still predictable. Most of all, it was safe and comfortable. Sure, the Cataclysm damaged Stormwind and Deathwing was flying around causing havoc, but beyond that, little had changed. People in general chat were still horrible to each other, I was still sent on dull quests to kill X number of whatever and leveling to endgame was still tremendously tedious. What I found boring years before suddenly sounded incredibly appealing and I started playing again for the same reasons I stopped.
It wasn’t long after my return to Azeroth that familial guilt, fear and the growing nuclear crisis caused me to return to the US, leaving behind my uncertainties, anxieties and favorite Penny Arcade T-shirt. Leaving Japan was the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make, but when I disembarked from the plane, I was met by men carrying Geiger counters. They were checking us for radiation. That sort of validated my decision.
Fallout 3 turned out to be the most therapeutic game I have ever played.
With nowhere else to go I moved back in with my parents and committed full time to World of Warcraft. I had never made it to endgame before but this time I did so with ease. I became an active member of a prominent guild. I joined an arena team. Those lofty goals I had gotten bored with were suddenly easily achieved and interesting. All I wanted to do was play. I gorged on my MMO meatloaf until I couldn’t take anymore.
After a few months, after I achieved my goals in World of Warcraft, I had increased craving for a different game: Fallout. It may sound sort of insensitive and tasteless for me to want to play a game that takes place in a nuclear wasteland (in fact when I told a person about my desire at a party, he laughed awkwardly and walked away). Ignoring this odd feeling of guilt, I reloaded Fallout 3 on my computer. It turns out that it was the most therapeutic game I have ever played.
Around the time I started to play Fallout, I stopped being startled by the wind shaking the windows. I’m not saying that the game is responsible for my improved mood — a lot of time had passed and I was starting to move on — but I do think Fallout was an essential part of that moving on. I wasn’t able to brave the radiation in Japan, but I could in the Capital Wasteland. In the real world, I had no control over what happened, but in New Vegas I was powerful. Most of all, nothing could hurt me as I confronted my fears.
I recently found out that facing fears through videogames is common. Sometimes when soldiers get diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, therapists use a technique called “exposure therapy,” where a patient confronts a feared or traumatic memory. Recently, exposure therapists began incorporating virtual reality and of videogames into their treatment plans. In fact, therapists used parts of Full Spectrum Warrior to treat PTSD in 2005. The goal of exposure therapy is to create a safe, reliable method for sufferers to confront and overcome their fears and anxieties.
I’m not saying I was suffering from PTSD but I do think I was engaging in an amateur form of exposure therapy. Of course, the world of Fallout and the reality of Fukushima are different. Japanese society hasn’t collapsed, malevolent gangs haven’t formed, and there are no rad-roaches. In all the chaos after the quake and nuclear disaster, people didn’t lose their humanity or kindness; in fact the opposite happened. Everyone in Japan rallied, doing everything they could to make the situation easier on everyone. Except me. I left.
It’s hard to explain why I feel guilty about leaving Japan. I still feel like I should have done something to help but at the same time, I felt powerless. What could a foreigner, who spoke just enough Japanese to order a hamburger, do to help? Being unable to fully express myself made me feel even more impotent. In the end I felt more like a burden. It may sound monumentally stupid, but playing this silly post-apocalyptic game made me feel better.
I still feel guilty about leaving and being what has become known as a “flyjin,” a foreigner that abandoned Japan when they needed me most.
In games with a morality system, like Fallout, I tend to avoid being either good or evil, preferring to remain as neutral as possible. Each character I make is a shade of grey. But in last play-through of Fallout, I helped everybody. I was a paragon of justice in a broken world. I still feel guilty about leaving and being what has become known as a “flyjin,” a foreigner that abandoned Japan when they needed me most. That’s the sort of guilt that lasts a lifetime. However, while I felt powerless to help anyone during the crisis, while I felt weak and useless in the days following the earthquake, in Fallout I felt strong and, most of all, able to help people in need even though they were just NPCs.
This guilt might have be the reason I avoided almost all things Japanese for months. I stopped watching Japanese news, I didn’t read Japanese books and I even stopped eating Japanese food. (The last one was partly due to how hard it is to find good ingredients in the United States; seriously, why can’t I find good udon in this country?) This purge might be why the feelings of Japanese homesickness hit me so hard. Suddenly I wanted to binge on everything I was avoiding, and most of all, I wanted to go back to Japan. While I couldn’t afford a plane ticket, I could afford Catherine.
When people try to describe this game one word often comes up: Japanese. Parts of this game were like going home. The apartment the main character lived in looked just like mine. The bar the characters frequented looked just like the one I went to. Overall, the game just feels like Japan – aside from the bits with sheep and the giant demonic babies.
Playing Catherine wasn’t so much a part of the coping process, more a sign that I was getting over the quake. I played World of Warcraft to avoid thinking about anything and everything going on in Japan and Fallout helped me address my fear and guilt. Catherine on the other hand, in a small way, is a bit like going home. It’s been about a year since the earthquake and the nuclear crisis and there’s nothing I want nothing more than to return to Japan. I’m done hiding from the world; I’m done feeling afraid and guilty. I just want to go home.
David A. Graham is a fledging games writer. He also writes plays and fiction. His work had appeared in various literary magazines, theatres and websites, including his own neglected digitalpunchandpie.blogspot.com blog.