During the first lockdown that happened in France between February and June, I slowran Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Can play be framed as a way to cope with the anxiety related to the pandemic?
Quoting Snodgrass et al.,1 Rachel Kowert writes that videogames “can increase one’s biological defenses toward stress reactions when facing adversity” (Kowert, 2020 : 162).2
During the first lockdown in France between February and June, I played Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) only by walking through its world. Beyond the simple appreciation of exploring Midgar, slowrunning (which I define here as the opposite of speedrunning) the game helped me cope with my anxiety toward the pandemic and the lockdown. Some research has suggested that entertainment media can be considered as effective coping strategies (Zillman, 1988).3 This prompted me to question how videogames may serve this purpose. In this essay, I explore how playing games in a specific way can contribute to their use as a coping strategy.
In the broadest sense, a coping strategy, or a coping mechanism, is a process enabling an individual to cope with a problem that is anxiety-provoking, stressful, etc. Generally, coping mechanisms seem to have been studied through the prism of potential addiction disorders (Plante et al, 2019).4 Other studies look at how marginalized groups of gamers develop coping mechanisms so that they can play videogames while limiting online harassment and mitigating the effects of the toxic environment in which they play (Fox and Tang, 2016)5.
Taking into account my recent experience with FF7R, what interests me here is, fundamentally, how these adaptation mechanisms work in a solo experience. Or rather, what interests me here is to formalize that the fact that playing, and more particularly slowrunning, is in itself a strategy that one may put in place in order to relieve stress and anxiety. For me, slowrunning was about managing the amount of work I had while teleworking, and the stress of the lockdown itself.
My practice of slowrunning suggests a plurality of reasons why a person may use videogames as a coping strategy. It is possible to represent these causes on a “micro <=> mezzo <=> macro” axis to refer to individual situations (micro), situations related to a particular social structure (mezzo) and situations related to the world as a whole (macro). Taking for example my slowrun of FF7R, my reasons were to manage my anxiety about teleworking and the organization of my company in times of pandemic (mezzo) and to manage my anxiety about the containment and evolution of this pandemic (macro).
Nonetheless, characterizing my current practice simply as coping or escapism is not enough. Indeed, academic research alerts us to the fact that “coping” refers to many strategies and mechanisms that may or may not be beneficial. Bowditch et al. note this complexity in their work : “having an engaged, problem-focused style of coping with everyday stressors was not only associated with fewer negative outcomes in relation to escapism; it also seems to play a role in protecting individuals against negative gaming outcomes more generally” (Bowditch et al 2018:94).6
Loton et al. consider two large “families” of coping strategies: approach strategies and avoidance strategies. “Approach” refers to efforts to concentrate in order to manage a stressful event, and “avoidance” includes “activities or cognitive changes to avoid situations via diversion (cognitive distancing) or withdrawal” (Loton et al., 2016:570).7 In the same way as for micro, mezzo, or macro causes, these are not exclusive categories. My slowrun of FF7R feels like it straddle efforts of concentration and diversion. On a micro level, walking in FF7R makes me feel like I’m in control of my own pace and place, which I don’t feel when I am teleworking. On a macro level, playing FF7R is a way for me to deal with the news related to containment and the pandemic (figure 1).
Figure 1 : How strategies served their purposes during my slowrun of FF7R
My FF7R slowrun allows me to manage my anxiety about the current environmental context.
My FF7R slowrun gives me the feeling that I fully grasp the rhythm and temporality of the situation I’m in.
Based on my own experience of FF7R during the pandemic, mapping coping strategies according to these parameters makes it possible to clearly formalize the reasons for such practices, and facilitates some hypotheses about the positive or negative effects that a particular strategy may have on the players who use it.
Based on this brief examination of the topic, it seems to me that it is possible to consider videogames, and more specifically the procedures put in place by players, as potential coping strategies that have positive impacts, particularly in a stressful epoch. Hopefully, this essay may help to raise awareness among players about mental health and well-being.