By now, it’s common knowledge that we’re living through a crisis in mental health. In the United States, depression and anxiety have become markedly more prevalent in both teens and young adults.1 Among older adults, drug overdoses and suicides (two extreme responses to mental distress) have become so tragically common that they’ve contributed to “the first three-year drop [in US life expectancy] since 1915 to 1918.”2 Yet the problem is hardly limited to the US. International observers at the medical journal Lancet and the World Health Organization have said that mental illness represents a “global health crisis”3 and “of the most significant public health challenges” that we face.4
As of yet, we have no clear consensus as to the causes of this situation. Various experts and non-experts have proposed a wide array of theories, but all of those theories fail to fully grapple with the reality of our modern mental health emergency. As such, perhaps a shift in focus is called for. Instead of attempting to grasp the slippery nature of the problem, maybe we ought to study the solutions that people have found.
One such solution is, somewhat counter-intuitively, fighting games. There are many reasons why the fighting game genre is an unexpected source of mental well-being. For one, many social commentators are quick to pin the blame on all video games, citing their allegedly antisocial properties. Fighting games in particular also lack many of the features that we might expect to find in a healing game. They aren’t relaxing, calming, or soothing. They rarely, if ever, immerse players in a compelling, well-ordered world or meaningful narrative. The challenges encountered in fighting games bear no overt similarity to the challenges we face in our day-to-day lives, and the rewards earned by the player are entirely unlike the rewards offered in “real” life.
And yet, somehow, there are people like Joe “NoGoodCitizen” Gillian, who says that, “in a way, fighting games ended up being sort of a therapy for me.” Clearly, despite all intuitions to the contrary, the Fighting Game Community (FGC) has somehow come into possession of an antidote to what ails us. But what is that antidote? And what does it have to do with fighting games?
“To Be Honest, I Wanted To Quit”
In the FGC, Gillian is best known for playing G, one of Street Fighter V’s new characters. Gillian was once sponsored by the r/StreetFighter subreddit and recently took his G to Chiba City in order to compete in the 2020 edition of Evolution Japan. He’d already visited Japan in 2008, but at the time “I wasn’t a super-serious fighting game player.” The main draw for that 2008 visit was the Metal Gear Online World Championship; Street Fighter was just a side interest. “At that point,” Gillian says, “I was like, ‘Okay, I need to learn.’”
Twelve years later, “I made the mistake of having an expectation.” Gillian wanted to validate his years of work by proving himself against the world’s strongest. Instead, “I quickly realized that there is no such thing as being too humble. Everyone there is worth paying attention to. I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to a constant stream of serious players who will absolutely rip your head off if you play lazily.” The end result was that Gillian bowed out of the tournament after registering only four wins, three of which came as a result of disqualification.
Afterwards, he took to Twitter to express the depth of the emotional wound that he’d suffered, saying that he was “absolutely shattered” and that “I wanted to quit.”
It’s nearly time for me to return home, so here I am again, being brutally honest to a fault.
Read on. pic.twitter.com/1pQDREMwSh
— NGN｜NoGoodCitizen (@NoGoodCitizen) February 2, 2020
So far, everything seems to fit with the story of our ongoing mental health crisis. Gillian traveled across the world to a place where “I kind of felt like I wasn’t really myself,” threw himself into a stress-filled competitive environment, and emerged a broken man. But look again at his tweet: in fact, Gillian’s experience only broke him for a moment. Before he even left the country to return home, he had already put the pieces back together. “I’ve chosen to be strong,” he said. “Fighting games made me who I am, and they’ll continue to make me who I’ll be.”
President Of Perseverance
Gillian’s Twitter statement is powerful in more ways than one. By speaking of himself as an ongoing project rather than a fixed entity, Gillian not only holds himself up in a positive light, he also defies a great deal of flawed conventional wisdom.
Many workplaces now operate according to supposedly innate strengths or personality types. One popular management tool, CliftonStrengths, encourages its customers “to perform better by doing more of what you naturally do best.”5 Similarly, a huge majority of the companies in the Fortune 500 use personality typing to assess job applicants.6 Yet these “strengths” and “types” are static, which means that they don’t account for the single most important human attribute, namely, the ability to change.
Before fighting games, “I [had] never sincerely committed to something in my life,” Gillian says. But he didn’t commit to fighters because they played to his natural advantages. On the contrary, they “seemed like a good opportunity to do something that I wasn’t already inherently good at, and to prove to myself and others that anyone could excel in something if they really tried.”
This is not to say that Gillian’s path was ever smooth or easy – or that he has achieved the excellence he desires. “I learned that my internal voice is very good at self-sabotage,” he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds, “Netplay is [also] very good at making you feel less than stellar.” Here, too, his experience flies in the face of our commonly held theories of mental health. Researchers have found various biological factors that predispose people towards conditions like depression and anxiety, but we can’t yet say how those predispositions turn into actual mental illnesses. One of our best guesses is “stress”: “When genetics, biology, and stressful life situations come together, depression can result,” according to Harvard’s Medical School.7
Typically, these medical statements are worded so as to suggest that all stressors are equally likely to cause mental illness (as Harvard’s is). Gillian’s experiences with fighting games may complicate this picture. Because Gillian journeyed into the FGC on his own behalf instead of at another’s command, he retained the freedom to change in accordance with his own interests and needs. As a result, his fighting game stresses have made him healthier.
“There is so much growth to be found as an actual person from playing fighting games,” he says. “I’ve found out so many things about myself that I wasn’t blatantly aware of just from competing these last four years…[It’s] proven to me undoubtedly, despite my bad days, that I’m extremely tenacious. I think I’ve taken a few beatings that would have surely made people quit. I don’t handle embarrassment particularly well, but I’ve learned to overcome and persevere.”
Pressure Makes Diamonds
It’s rare that adults have learning opportunities of this sort. The most common sources of stress – problems in our health, finances, jobs, or relationships – are always imposed upon us against our will and often leave us worse off even if we “beat” them. For example, an injured knee or hip will never be 100% healthy ever again, even with rehab; and those who become unemployed during an economic downturn are likely to be paid less for the rest of their lives even if they find new jobs.8 Circumstances like these create toxic stress. But Gillian has chosen many of his own most significant stressors, and, in virtue of having chosen wisely, he has become someone who is empowered by this stress.
Gillian doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Still, he’s got plenty of good advice for those who wish to follow in his footsteps or learn from his journey.
No Bad Advice
First and foremost, he credits his No Good Network colleagues. They form “a good support group who [have] kept me on track,” he says. Moreover, “we all practice together pretty regularly. Some of them are newer but I really do believe that you can learn from anyone, so we end up teaching each other a lot.” Through fighting games, Gillian has found one of the most important inoculations against mental illness: a community that offers both help and care. “Not everyone along the way will have your best interests in mind,” he adds. “Surround yourself with those who genuinely want to see you succeed. It may be hard to tell who is who sometimes, but generally always go with your gut – it’ll rarely fail you.”
He also advises his fellow players to keep an open mind. “I also think that a huge mistake as a growing player is to take your perspective into account so deeply that you forget to consider the perspective of other parts of the world. That was a hard lesson to learn for sure, because that’s something that can happen unconsciously, without you even being aware of it…I think that you can’t continue to progress past a certain point in this game if you have a matter-of-fact attitude, or if you think that you know everything already.” Being rigid or closed-off creates “an echo chamber of false confidence,” he says.
According to Gillian, false confidence is especially harmful in the FGC because “being a competitive fighting game player involves a lot of losing. Like… a lot. A lot, a lot.” Yet rather than running from losses, he insists that “if you aren’t taking anything away from setbacks, then you aren’t making proper use of your time. They’re key to reaching the top.” Here again, Gillian counsels tenacity: “Endure. If you truly want to be one of the best, you have to endure.”
Street Fight Therapy
Although Gillian is speaking specifically to the FGC, what he’s describing is the bedrock secret of all therapy: there is no secret. Everyone who enters into therapy must do so with a willingness to change, because healing is just a specific type of change. In turn, openness to change only matters for those who have the stamina to chase down change and the honesty to embrace those changes that are needed.
If you do it right, you’ll find three things along the way. The first is forgiveness: “give yourself time and space to forgive yourself for not performing [up] to expectations.” Second are “the right reasons,” which Gillian describes as “the things that make the [FGC] so great – wanting to improve the game you play, wanting to inspire others or trailblaze a path for those that thought it initially not possible.” Finally, and most importantly, you’ll find the realization that “everyone’s path is different,” which is just another way of saying that you’ll find self-acceptance.
In this way, fighting games have brought Joe Gillian to a state of being that almost looks like enlightenment. To be sure, it’s not the enlightenment that we’ve come to expect from placid images of Buddhist monks or ascetic hermits. It’s a scarred and calloused enlightenment, one that endures hardships with the stubborn solidity of a boulder instead of snaking smoothly around them like water. Nevertheless, it’s an enlightenment that has worked for Gillian – and if his story resonates with you, then the FGC just might prove to be therapeutic for you, too.
To support Gillian, follow him and the No Good Network on Twitter and subscribe to his Twitch channel. If you or a loved one need immediate help with mental health, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to a local mental health professional.
Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) lives in Pittsburgh, where he writes and works as a software professional. His first novel is set in the FGC.