Presence of Mind

May is mental health awareness month, and Cloud9 and Kaiser Permanente have combined their superpowers to launch a first-of-its-kind initiative called Presence of Mind.

The initiative will work to engage the esports and gaming communities in discussions and training to improve mental health and well-being, from clinician-led training to a Twitch series that “will showcase the real-life behind gaming, esports, and elite athletes, with a focus on total health.” Kaiser Permanente will serve as an advisory council to Cloud9 to aid them in research, designing activations, and monitoring the effects of the initiative.

Growing up as a gamer, I’ve run into my fair share of stigma and judgments against them; the stereotype was synonymous with sitting in a dark room, alone, for hours upon hours on end, being pimply, smelly, overweight, covered in Dorito dust, and being totally socially inept. And 99% of the time being male.

This image of gamers is neither a friendly nor a compassionate one, and it completely shortchanges all of the incredible traits I’ve found among the community in my years of being a part of it: kind and passionate individuals, who are bright, have the ability to think critically and creatively, and are particularly in touch with their child-like wonder and emotions in a world where we are frequently told to silence them or just ignore their existence.

Consequently, the stereotype affects those who are categorized by it to feel like outsiders who are frequently misunderstood, even worthless. Take This, a non-profit focused on bringing awareness to mental health in the gaming communities — both player and developer — knows this very well, stating, “One-in-two people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime. Especially in the video game community, the idea that ‘no one will miss me if Iโ€™m goneโ€™ is a pervasive one.”

Because of this lack of resources and understanding of mental health, there are gamers who punch holes in walls and slingshot controllers across the room in rage, who play for twelve hours straight and completely forget to hydrate or get up and stretch — all frightening for family members, who then blame the game for this behavior. But I posit to look beneath that: to the emotion. And, like I mentioned, our society does not put particular priority on emotions nor sensing our way through them to understand what they are trying to tell us.

Putting my yogi hat on here, but emotions remain in the body as energetic build-up if they aren’t allowed to flow. They can build, coagulate, and ultimately metastasize into a knot that must be faced and moved through in order to get over. If not, these blockages can lead to many behaviors, and explosions of irrational rage, burnout, and obsessive gaming habits are all some of them. Cultivating awareness of what you are even feeling at all is the first step in being able to overcome it, so my hope is that Presence of Mind will include this skill in their project.

I’ve found that games are one way to process the trials that come with the human experience and lead to strong emotions by way of play. Play has been a fundamental component of the human experience for thousands of years; it allows us to come up with creative solutions and face things that are occurring in our lives in a symbolic and new way, usually with others and sometimes in the form of teamwork. Games in particular are a way for an individual to practice and exhibit mastery, problem-solve, and fail over and over again in order to reach a goal.

In addition to that, story plays a huge part in our processing of experiences. Very often, games offer the power of story though role-playing scenarios that enable a player to enter a fictional space, practice a scenario without repercussions — other than what the game deems a consequence of those actions –, and then make better decisions after leaving those scenarios and re-entering into daily life.

Coupled with the power of play and story, mindful attention to gaming habits can reveal what exactly is going on beneath the surface for gamers from all walks of life. We live an existence that is marked and defined by uncertainty, which can cause tremendous anxiety and stress. Games give back control to an individual and can be tremendously effective and healthy coping mechanisms from that very distress. This initiative will hopefully promote gamers’ awareness of unhealthy behaviors before they become destructive, offer ways to cope, and, ultimately, allow them to nurture their mental health in a constructive way when their pressure valve needs to release rather than game as a form of avoidance.

With the explosion of esports’ recognition and the purchase of games happening in tandem with the onset of COVID-19, we can see that games are important. That’s clear as day.

So what does this mean? Everyone has mental health. Just like everyone has physical and emotional health. Kaiser Permanente and Cloud9’s move here humanizes the gaming communities by shining a spotlight on the importance of mental health and well-being and raising a community out of the shadows that has historically struggled due to its increasing demands on professional players and also the very stereotype that is attached to it.

My hope is that Presence of Mind will raise everyone involved up by introducing a very mindful approach to gaming, shed the stereotypes that have plagued gamers for so long, and educate on ways to handle all that comes with life, whether you are a professional esports player trying juggle the stress of a global competition or a high school student trying to navigate the social world who plays games casually with friends.

Either way, this initiative has already succeeded in demanding attention to recalibrate negative views of gamers to a view of gamers simply for who they are: human beings.

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