The Lonely Gamer

There is a stereotype that exists that all gamers are isolated, lonely and depressed.  Too often therapists just assume that, almost to treating gaming as a symptom of depression if not addiction.  I have written at length about this elsewhere, but today I wanted to address the suboptimal treatment that can come from assuming gamers are not lonely, isolated or depressed.  I hope that this post will also be of benefit to gamers as well.

The 21st century video game is inherently social.  In fact, the recent boom we are seeing as Facebook, Google+ and other social media networks rush to integrate gaming into their platforms stems from the recognition that video games can be very powerful media of connection and engagement.

This isn’t really new, even Atari’s Pong had two-player mode.  And not all games are multiplayer, but multiplayer has become more and more predominant and accepted in mainstream culture.  But this is all in a way of saying that video games are social media, and in many ways, group activities.  Halo night is not unlike poker night, raiding takes place in real time with people talking with each other, and being in a guild can be a deep and abiding group membership that lasts for years.

Now when you are sitting with a patient, one of the things you often do is assess for engagement.  Do they still go to poker night?  Are they attending AA meetings?  Have they been enjoying the touch football group they joined last month?  And if they reply in the negative that should set off some alarms, or at least invite curiousity as to what’s changed.  Isolation is a key component of depression, both as a symptom but also as a precipitant and cause of it.  It’s why we often work with patients to become involved in community in some way.

Unfortunately, if therapists don’t see gaming as a community activity, they may miss early signs of isolation and depression.  They’re not spending as much time “on the computer,” so what?  Isn’t that a good thing?

No, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

I hope gamers will read and weigh in on this, but here’s my take.  Especially in multiplayer games, changes in enjoyment or activity can be a sign of emotional upset.  You’re just not getting the same sense of enjoyment from the game, or your guild.  People seem less connected in-world, more irritable, and Ventrilo has more arguments or awkward silences.  Or maybe people are rage-quitting more often, or a clique has formed and you aren’t in it.  Sometimes, often, guilds dissolve or reconstitute over this, and the player feels disillusioned.  And when this happens the gamer can turn to the gaming stigma from the “real” world and say, “these weren’t real relationships, they weren’t important.”

One thing that can happen is that gamers gquit (guild quit) at this point, and decide to do solo questing.  If there is a new patch or content they may enjoy this, or going over the old familiar instances at a higher level to farm may be fun.  But suddenly the game isn’t “fun” any more, and a feeling of numbness and ennui settles on the player.

At this point the simplest and most fundamentalist attitude is to blame the game, or oneself as “addicted,” but I think in many cases the truth is more complicated.  Detached from her in-game community the gamer may begin to feel isolated, bereft and yes, depressed, just like many of us are when we lose a social outlet.  But therapists and gamers may have a harder time catching it than if the social activity is one more socially sanctioned, like touch football or going to church.

Video games are social media and they can meet many social needs.  If you are a gamer and the above description fits you, ask yourself if maybe the problem is a social or psychological one.  Could your lack of interest in video games be a sign of a lack of interest in pleasurable activities?  Could your isolation be what’s causing the game to be less fun?  Is it time to consider risking the effort of joining a new guild, transferring to a server that seems more friendly, or help noobs level up and begin a chat or two?  I do not think video games (or any technology for that matter) is inherently bad, but I do think our personal issues and emotional concerns can play out in any arena, and that includes the game world.

So if you’re a therapist and you’ve been trying to be gamer-affirmative, don’t take a naive approach.  Don’t assume that things are hunky-dory in the player’s gaming, ask them about it.  Assess their in-world activities and level of enjoyment just as you would scrutinize their other group activities.  And be prepared to understand that decreased enjoyment and participation in their games of choice may actually be a sign of increased depression.

All of this is not to say that there is something wrong with people who play solo video games or even solo in multiplayer worlds.  That would be like saying that reading a book is pathological unless you read it in the library among others or join a book discussion group.  What I am saying is that video games are not, should not be exempt from our scrutiny, and that a gamer-affirmative therapist will explore these topics with their patients.  And patients should report changes in their gaming experience just like they should any other changes that impact they’re mood and sociability.

[Can’t find a gamer-affirmative therapist?  I may be able to refer you to one in your area, and I also do online therapy with gamers all over the world.  More info and rates can be found here.]

P.S.  Those of you who read regularly may have noticed that I took the last 2 weeks off.  I was on vacation and writing my book.  It’s now out on Amazon and other eBook stores for the scandalously low price of $2.99, so go buy it!  🙂


  1. edward mendes says

    nice article and definitely cuts to the point about where there are some current cultural differences based around the electronic medium(s). i have friends i from games that i no longer play who i have yet to visit because they are in other parts of the country, or in other countries altogether. this does not seem like a sign of isolation to me. i think the note made that a depressed gamer would be avoiding all the contexts where he would have to interact with other people is the more accurate one.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Edward, my point exactly. But until we stop demonizing video games we’ll tend to think of them as causes of problems, rather than part of the holistic health of a patient.

  2. Cheers, Mike! This can be a difficult concept to impart to someone who does not play online social games. I have sat down more than once to let someone look over my shoulder while I interact in various chats, play in a group with guild members in-game, and use Vent to talk while playing. While some of the folks I play with are “real-life” friends, some started out and online socializing in a pug (pick-up group) and we now socialize face-to-face.

    I also strongly agree with your warning about assessing in-game socializing as you would a face-to-face encounter: “Assess their in-world activities and level of enjoyment just as you would scrutinize their other group activities.” I would also emphasize that just because someone is engaged in socializing in a online game with other players, it does not mean that they are doing so in a healthy or productive way- evaluating that interaction is crucial.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Elisabeth, thanks for the example of having someone look over your shoulder that way! I often encourage my patients to bring in their laptops for just this reason!

  3. Good to see attention brought to this. Change in one’s routine, even if a video game, may be cause for more exploration and not dismissed.

    I particularly liked your explanation of guilds, quests, and other cultural aspects of gaming that others may not be familiar with. It is helpful to those who do not play to understand the vocabulary and concepts in gaming so that if mentioned one can understand, or even broach the topic. “Have you found yourself going on more solo quests?”

    Much thanks.

  4. Really good article that I almost didn’t read because I thought it would be the same old stuff about signs that gaming was becoming obsessive. I loved your points about people turning away from a really good supportive online community because of problems of one kind or another and how this might be a symptom of emotional difficulty rather than a sign of “recovery”.

    I do not see myself as a “gamer” at all but the outside world does. I run a music series in the virtual world of Second Life and am also actively involved in a number of community there. I see virtual reality as a platform for creation and expression. It can be very isolating when there are problems within my virtual music series or my community and my family doesn’t take it seriously. Or when pressure is brought to bear on me to shirk responsibility for a concert or meeting because it is just “Second Life stuff”. I don’t feel like I have a “problem”, but rather that some individuals in my life don’t value my activities as much as I do. Sometimes it does seem like it might be easier to conform and simply give up on activities that have been not only immensely rewarding to me but also have been a social and cultural weekly activity for many individuals around the world and the musicians who play on the series.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Kate, thanks for your comment. What a fascinating example of the stigma folks who use Second Life deal with. Feel free to include a link to information about your concerts!

  5. Janet Henson says

    Great article Mike, as a gamer as well as a therapist, I sometimes run into many of the issues in game with other players and it is difficult to explain to others that do not understand how social the gaming community can be. During the summer months I tend to be outside a lot more but during the cold inclement weather, I find gaming and Second Life to be a way that I can socialize with others from all over the planet. I still get odd looks from other members of the therapeutic community when they find out that I love gaming and use it as a way to process and wind down, much the same way others use the television or other activities to help them relax. When I have clients that are gamers (I currently work with adolescents so a lot of them are). I often ask about their gaming habits and if those have changed in recent weeks etc. I also believe you can tell a lot about a client when asking them about their interactions in game. What I find is that if they are having a difficult time in real life, it is also played out in game. I often use this to combat the denial in showing them how what is going on with them is effecting them in both areas. When I can parallel the two it provides an even more convincing argument that these are issues that need to be resolved rather than blamed on someone else.

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