Mindfulness practice can take many forms. Some people meditate, some do yoga, some do extreme sports like downhill mountain biking, and some play video games. I have been grappling with anxiety and depression for a long time, and before I had ever even heard the term ‘mindfulness,’ one tried-and-true method of quieting my mind and finding my happy place was doing Super Mario Bros. 3 speedruns.
For young me, Super Mario Bros. 3 had a mythic status. Teased mercilessly by the 1989 movie The Wizard, the hype for its eventual 1990 release in North America was palpable. When it finally did arrive, I remember we bought it down in Florida where my grandparents had a condo, and I had to wait to the end of the trip to go home and play it. IT WAS EXCRUCIATING. When I finally did though, I was in awe of Mario’s new abilities, the colorful world and bosses (I love the Koopalings so much I wrote a blog homage to them), and the challenging levels. The world was huge, had lots of secrets, and gave you options between different levels to advance. It was gaming bliss.
I am 32-years old, and by high school I already had a SNES and my trusty N64, but I had owned an NES since I was four. It was the very fact that Super Mario Bros. 3 was a nostalgic trip back to my childhood that also helped remove me from the troubles of the moment and filled me with the warm fuzzies of childhood gaming. I had other go-to games as well: I would often open a save file for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI just to beat the final boss and re watch the endings. For the most part though, my happy place was with the Mario bros.
Now I should state, I am far from a professional speedrunner. I never timed myself, and I certainly never had any perfect runs. In high school I would simply challenge myself to play Super Mario Bros. 3 as fast as possible. Generally with warp-whistles this could be done in less than an hour, which meant is wasn’t a huge time commitment, and the focus required took me right out of whatever was bothering me and put me right in the zone. I knew the game in and out, so playing it required very little thought and was done mostly by reflex, yet the concentration required gave me a singular focus that allowed for all of the negative thoughts that would typically dwell in my brain to shut up for an hour.
For all the bashing of games and its alleged detrimental affects, it’s definitely clear that gaming can have therapeutic effects. The idea that video games cause violent behavior has been consistently debunked, video games are used to help people with PTSD recover, and often help children with chronic illnesses manage their conditions and beat depression.
Yet gaming can definitely be addictive as well, where “the happy place” is a place you don’t want to leave (WordPress blogger Vahrkalla recently wrote an editorial on this topic). Over the years, I have had to make conscious decisions to stop playing games such as World of Warcraft and Stardew Valley for their sheer addictive properties, and have had to confront the idea that in the past I would often game to avoid social interaction.
Yet rather than give up games cold turkey, over the years I worked out my own systems for moderating my play time, and discovered the concepts of mindfulness thinking and meditation (I wrote a post on a Stephen Universe episode that handled the concept of mindfulness very well). With my adult life and relationships, I can’t play every game I want to, nor can I watch every movie or read every book, but perhaps that makes the discovery of a new and fantastic game even more beautiful.
My NES has been boxed up for a couple of years now, but every once in a while I have the itch to do a Super Mario Bros. 3 speedrun. I’m sure I will someday soon – but in the meantime, there’s a huge world out there to explore, and plenty of other games to play.
Has gaming helped you with anxiety or depression? What is your “happy place” game? I would love to hear from you in the comments! If you enjoyed this post, I encourage you to follow Nerd Speaker on Twitter and Facebook for more delicious nerd nuggets.