How a Decade-Old Game Helped Me Cope with Seasonal Depression

“This Vitamin D better work,” I thought bitterly to myself as I tilted a brown plastic supplement bottle into my hand. A tiny pill rolled into my palm. It was a small yellow droplet, golden like the sun, which I hadn’t seen in what felt like forever.

It was mid-December 2019, right smack in the middle of the Pacific Northwest winter. Even though we were only two months into the rainy season here in Washington (with seven months left to go), I felt like the near-constant rain had washed away all the joy and motivation I had left in my body. 

“Most people in the Pacific Northwest are woefully low in vitamin D, and that’s part of what contributes to low mood,” Seattle-based therapist Cami Ostman told me. “In my observation with clients, the lack of connection we have with others when it gets dark is part of the problem. The winter lasts so long. It kind of closes up life for us.”

Living this far north, the sun won’t rise until 8 am, and close to the winter solstice it’ll set by 4 pm. Layer those minimal daylight hours with dense gray rain clouds and some days it’s like the sun hadn’t risen at all. 

That particular winter, I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in my regular hobbies like hiking or gardening. I’d caught SAD, seasonal affective disorder, which affects 10.5 percent of us Washingtonians this time of year. It’s marked by most of the symptoms of depression, including listlessness, joylessness, decreased energy, and just generally feeling bummed out. 

“When hope and stimulation are whisked away, like in winter or during the pandemic, suddenly all the things we would do to cope with stress, anything you might normally do to stimulate all those happy chemicals like oxytocin in your body, all of those things are taken away,” Ostman said. 

That’s exactly how I felt. No gardening, no hiking, no patio happy hours with friends. I felt trapped inside my house with nothing to do, and when SAD set in, I felt trapped inside my head.

Then, the unexpected happened: My husband Zach got me an Xbox One as a Christmas gift. This was a weird and unexpected gift, because neither of us are gamers. The last time I’d played video games was in high school, when the guy who sold me weed would smoke me up if I let him win at Mario Kart, and that was over a decade ago.

When I opened the box, I marveled at its sleekness and modern look. When I turned it on, I was amazed by the breadth of opportunity at the tip of my fingers. Still, learning a new game felt like a huge lift while I was carrying around the weight of sadness on my shoulders.

I sat down in front of the TV and sent out a group text to my college friends. “Y’all this winter has me depressed AF, but Zach got me an Xbox for Christmas, any suggestions on what games I should play?”

A friend replied that we should give The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim a try, and followed that up with a long paragraph about how it was an “open-world” game with dragons and cat people and magic. I had no idea what an open-world game was, but the idea of escaping to a magical alternate reality sounded interesting enough. I took the bait and plunged in.

The first thing that struck me about the game was the quality of the graphics. The visual aspect of Skyrim surprised me with its beauty and artistry. From the detailed leaves on the trees to the epic mountainous moonscape in the background, it was gorgeous. Following footpaths and dirt roads through forests and meadows, I thought to myself, “This feels like virtual hiking.” Usually, I’d motivate myself to go on a few hikes in the winter, but SAD had me feeling like I was on emotional house arrest. Going on these virtual hikes in the game became candy for my brain.

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