I like to start by stating this:
My name is Joe, and I’ve been living with bipolar disorder for 23 years.
I spent most of my earlier adulthood undiagnosed and untreated. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I was able to get therapy and prescription drugs. It’s still a struggle, but I’m better equipped to cope with my symptoms. There is no cure, and I will continue to live with it for the rest of my life.
With that in mind, let’s get to the heart of the matter: how has gaming and role-play affected my mental health? For that, we go back to when I was a late teen. Generally, mental health issues don’t develop until the late teens, and I only saw my behavior as normal. I’ve played Atari, Nintendo, and an old IBM with only dual 5¼-inch drives, but long before then, role-play came into effect when I was introduced to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. My first character was a human paladin, and I slid into the role easily. I was so elated it may as well have been a bout of mania. I loved creating characters and being a part of a story woven together by our Dungeon Master and our actions as characters.
As the next few years passed, our little group continued the tradition of gaming regularly, telling our employers that a certain day was for religious purposes. It wasn't a complete lie; it was our only way to have steady gaming time with the newer 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I continued to create new characters of different races and genders, as needed for new campaigns. Role-play became a stairway for me to experiment and develop these combinations, putting character behavior and growth at the forefront.
Then along came World of Warcraft. A year or so after its release, some of our gaming group ended up playing. My first character was a night elf warrior. This was my first time RPing in an MMO. I easily slipped into his role of aggression and action. At some point, he was able to find a partner, and they soon became romantically involved. It was the first time I'd had a RP relationship in an online game. I was cautious, but that’s when I learned about in-character and out-of-character communication and boundaries. The relationship started by simply questing together. Unlike in AD&D, I didn’t know the person behind the character. It is inappropriate to ask a player for personal information, so I kept a clear border between in-game interaction and out of character.
After the relationship between our characters ended, I decided to roll up a night elf hunter. I had the most RP playing him, having a steady RP partner and going through the ups and downs of our in-game relationship, as well as becoming OOC friends. Over time, I ended up speaking to a couple of players out of character. I respected the boundaries, and we had great RP together. It was also at this point that I started to play the game so much just so I didn’t have to deal with reality. I remained undiagnosed. I had to deal with issues from depression that often had me sleeping for 15 hours straight, lack of motivation, and worse — no longer having any self-worth. At least, in this digital world, I could play something I was not. I could escape.
An opportunity to move to Texas came up as my employment dwindled thanks to my mental health issues. I took it, hoping to make a better life. I held a few jobs but not for long. The blessing was meeting the woman I eventually married. This was when I finally got what I needed. I was diagnosed and sent to a psychiatrist and therapist. Eventually, we got divorced amicably. However, before that, I had been on a few different medicinal treatments, which were either not working or making matters worse.
I continued to slip further and further into playing WoW and nothing else, RPing and raiding as much as I could. One day, I was faced with an angry roommate who scolded me about something trivial, and that was the final nail in the coffin. Hounded by a sense of worthlessness, I had thoughts of suicide. It was then that I decided I needed to go to the mental hospital. We made changes with medication and with my behavior. I was able to cut down on my online gaming and handle reality thanks to new drug regimens.
Eventually, I found another tabletop gaming group and slipped back into 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I informed them about my mental health. There were no issues in regards to that, and when my medication changed I would inform them. I wasn’t treated with kid gloves, which was fine. I feel that although my mental health and medications can explain my bad behavior, they weren’t an excuse. This group also introduced me to The Secret World, and I was intrigued with its setting.
When I first played The Secret World, I was turned off because of the difficulty, but I eventually made a serious return to the game. I leveled a character far from anything to do with myself and it was fruitful. There was plenty of RP and character growth, and I met other characters and found a cabal. It was great, but as with others, the line between in character and out of character remained. Eventually, I rolled up a second character, Joe. This was a different approach to a role-play character because it was an in-game representation of me, only more extreme. Introducing other characters to him was interesting. Some would ignore me, probably not wanting reality in their fantasy world. I can understand that, so I didn’t push anyone into it. I didn’t do much with this character until later.
When Funcom released Secret World Legends, I was still hesitant to create Joe. I was not keen on re-rolling him for the first year. I didn’t get enough RP with him previously and I wasn’t sure how people would react to him. This time, I decided to make him slightly more social. He met another character that fit with him really well and I gained a new RP partner. Some might wonder why I would have a character like myself, or question if I can keep things in character without it affecting my reality. I understand the risk, but I do know that it is role-play, just characters in game. As for my behavior both in game and out, it has been poor sometimes. I apologize and explain rather than excuse. I have learned to own up to my part in things.
In the long run, I do have some great RPers I frequently play with, and I’m forever thankful to those who RP with digital SWL Joe. No matter what, I continue to keep IC and OOC separate. I am playing a character, even if he is like me. SWL Joe became an outlet by which I came to understand my own behavior and symptoms. It has helped me to understand myself.