Awakening

Written by Kaitlin Bellamy

When I was about fifteen, my dad sat me down before school one morning and asked me, “So, who’s the boy?” I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. I knew that. But for weeks now, I’d been up, dressed, and ready for school hours early. And I was (am) not a morning person. All of this added up to, in my parents eyes, “Kaitlin is secretly sneaking out to meet a boy.”

Oh, how I wished I were that cool. My father probably did too. No, the answer was much, much more frightening. Two words: Harvest. Moon. Every morning, I had been waking up at four AM, getting completely ready for my day, and scurrying downstairs to spend two blissful hours of uninterrupted game time before I had to go to school. And most of the time, that game was Harvest Moon. My first gaming addiction. Well, tied for first with Neopets and Spyro: Ripto’s Rage.

To me, it was simple: when Mom was awake, my screen time was limited to a half hour. And if she woke up and I was not completely ready for the day, she would find things for me to do. So I did everything in my power to make sure I was overly prepared. To make sure there was nothing for her to find, nothing she could possibly invent for me to do before school, to take up my precious game time. Hence the makeup, when I didn’t usually wear makeup. Bed was made, healthy breakfast was eaten, dog was fed (and often walked), and I was an all-around model citizen and perfect daughter. All in the name of gaming.

It’s no secret that people can lose themselves in video games when they are experiencing depression or a lack of fulfilment in their lives. In her memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day goes into great detail about her own World of Warcraft addiction. When she felt unsuccessful and lost as an actor, she turned a part-time gaming hobby into a full time gaming alternative life.

We all know the danger. We have all seen the sitcom caricatures that have lost touch with reality and drowned themselves in gaming. We’ve read internet articles about the dangers of too much screen time on our children and ourselves. But video games have saved my life, and given it purpose, time and time again.

As I write this, I am stuck at home, recovering from a hospitalizing knee injury (sustained during a light saber battle at a stunt workshop, if you must know). I am waiting for surgery. I am out of work. I cannot walk without crutches, or get in and out of the shower safely without assistance. People have been coming over to feed me, and I’ve never felt quite so pathetic in my life. Right after the injury, I was on the verge of becoming a semi-catatonic depression blob, never getting out of bed. I wasn’t eating, I slept all day. I wasn’t even hydrating, because getting up to pee afterwards was just too exhausting on crutches.

And then, my boyfriend helped me downstairs one morning before he left for work. He turned on my console, and started up the game I had last left off on: Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening.

It worked. I awakened.

The Dragon Age franchise has been my favorite video game series since I created my first Grey Warden in early 2010. I have fallen in love with the characters, the story, and the world. It has become my new Harvest Moon; the game that can literally get me out of bed in the morning. The next day, I figured out how to get myself downstairs for the first time, because nobody was home to help me and the console was downstairs. Since my painkillers put me to sleep, I started drinking caffeine to keep myself awake and log more hours. Very soon, I was hydrating properly again. I was getting myself to and from the kitchen, and other household necessities. I started setting alarms to wake myself up at a normal hour in the morning. I started eating. I started sleeping regularly through the night, since I wasn’t allowing my painkillers to force me to nap all day. Most importantly: I was out of bed, and happy.

I am a workaholic. I have 13 different jobs, plus school, an active social life, and a collection of hobbies. I have always been, as my dad calls me, a “creature of chaos.” I do not do well with a sedentary lifestyle. But, between medical bed rest and a collection of sleep-inducing medications, sedentary was forced upon me. Dragon Age kept the depression at bay, and gave me back a small sense of control and accomplishment.

And it’s fairly simple to figure out why: there is measurable success. There are clearly defined quest lines and story progressions. There are battles to win, and every hour I spend in the game results in achievements and gained levels. But every hour my body spends healing? When I still can’t even walk? (Insert eye-roll and disgusted noise here) How do you measure that?

It’s not the first time a video game has positively affected my life and encourage out-ofgame progress. In 2015, when Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate was released, my physical health took a major upswing. I have always loved the AC games – some more than others (Edward Kenway, you will always have my heart) – and in the back of my mind I always wanted to be able to sort of do what they did. Physically, I mean, not the assassinating. But it wasn’t until Evie Frye came along that I got up and did something about it. I wanted to be her. And it was a motivation that didn’t fade. I started going to the gym more regularly, and taking fighting classes. It motivated me so well that I actually started to noticeably lose weight, an issue I’ve struggled with for over a decade. In fact, the only thing that stopped me in that particular quest line was my current injury.

There is not a single aspect of my life that gaming has not touched, and changed for the better. I became a voice actor and electronic puppeteer, which is how I make my living, because of my love for video games. They actually hired me at one of my jobs because I knew how to handle different console controllers. My boyfriend and I bond over our favorite franchises, and we are deeply involved in our tabletop and roleplaying worlds as well. Even in my family life, games have helped shape me. As a child, my older siblings only let me hang around when I showed interest in what they were playing. It was usually Wolfenstein or Lode Runner, and for years it was the closest contact I had to either of them on a day-to-day basis. I wasn’t old enough to play yet, but oh how I longed to do what they did. In my heart, even then, I knew I was a gamer.

There is something about art that draws us in. Mankind has killed for paintings and sculptures. We idolize musicians, and have glamorous awards shows for film and television. Books take us into a new world we can visit over and over again, and classic poetry has survived since the age of Homer and The Odyssey, but there is something sorely overlooked about the particular immersive beauty that is video games.

It is important to have a life. But it’s just as important, I think, to have an alt life. It is a built-in social circle, filled with friends you haven’t met yet. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a life you can aspire to. Maybe you can’t slay dragons in real life. But you can always be a hero. Maybe you can’t actually sword fight in real life. But why not learn? Bring a little magic into your real, everyday life. Stand up for what you love.

I have a long road to recovery ahead of me. But now, when my boyfriend gets home from work, I don’t have to tell him all I did was sleep and mope around all day. My glow of success from fighting through Thedas has put the spark of determination back into my life. I have begun (much like the aforementioned Felicia Day – she is my idol, and should be an inspiration to everyone) to write a few scripts. Podcasts, and a webseries, I’ve even revisited my dusty old novel ideas. I’ve thrown myself into a few hands-on projects – crafting in real life, guys! It’s so much harder than it looks in the games! Gaming woke my imagination back up, because that’s what gaming is at its very core. Imagining. Even if you’re playing a farmer, in a little mountain town with pixilated people and cows and truly impractical farming mechanics. I will always call that little mountain town home. It taught me to balance life and gaming, and not let one be ruled by the other. It taught me that it was okay to love a fictional world that took up more time than an average book or movie.

If I could go back to that fifteen year old girl, embarrassed that she was hiding a video game obsession instead of a cute boy, I would tell her, “Baby, it’s all gonna turn out alright. Love what you love. And game on.”