I have an IV stuck in a very inconvenient spot, lodged in the inside of my elbow. It rests there because the very sweet emergency ward nurse couldn’t tap the veins out of a better part of my left arm. I can’t brush my hair. I have to use utensils with my non-dominant hand now. Every time I dare to bend my elbow the IV pump starts beeping worriedly. I tell it to shut up.
At least I can play. The 3DS my boyfriend left me, my laptop sitting on my knees, the apps on my phone, are all I need. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really very simple.
I’m sitting in the surgery ward of my local hospital with an enflamed pancreas and a bad attitude, but this all started two years ago. It began with stomach attacks, striking and painful but difficult to pinpoint. A feeling of creeping heaviness after eating something heavy or fatty—that was the failure of my body to digest what I had eaten. Then the pain – like my abdomen was caving in on itself. The pain would roll from my front to my back like knives hacking into me. Sometimes it would just pass on its own. Sometimes I felt the need to induce the offending foodstuff out of my body. The same remedy wouldn’t necessarily work twice, and the same foods wouldn’t necessarily trigger an attack.
Sometimes I would get attacks days apart, sometimes months apart. I figured it was IBS, or bad indigestion—painful, but not enough to be hospitalized. I thought I might just shell out the money for a probiotic supplement or something. A few things I knew for sure, however: first of all, it was generally brought on by heavier foods, and sometimes carbonated beverages like soda or beer, and two; stress—like the kind felt during my current semester’s crunch time—was a major trigger.
The easier it was to calm me down, the easier it was for me to dissipate an attack. There was something about Nintendogs+Cats for 3DS, the creepiness of a pet simulator aside, that just put me in a good place. The stress compounded with desperation when the pain exploded inside me, so the fact that my boyfriend had downloaded the demo came in handy one night. I flopped down on the bed after returning from the bathroom, trembling and groaning. He suggested I give the game a try, since it might cheer me up. It did.
I’ve tried to think about all the intricacies as to why the game not only got me calm, but helped the pain subside. I’m sure there have been plenty of studies done already on “video games as therapy.” I know there are companies like InteraXon, whose speciality is brainwave-controlled therapeutic, zen-like games. I know there’s a growing amount of psychological and physiological research on this kind of thing. But for my own purposes, sitting here in a smelly, uncomfortable and generally unpleasant setting, it really makes a lot of sense.
I played Nintendogs+Cats until the demo availability count got down to 4, while I was lying on a stretcher in the emergency ward waiting for test results. The pain I had that night was unlike anything else—definitely beyond any sort of “bad indigestion.” I thought I had burst something. It wouldn’t go away. It kept getting worse and nothing could fix it until around 4 a.m. that night, at the emergency room, when the nurse put the IV in my arm and hooked me up with some morphine. Not having the pain anymore—at least, not like it was before—put the power of the game’s magic in perspective: it took my mind off things.
Nintendogs+Cats is a game that offers almost infinitely positive feedback. The way the virtual pets behave when you play with them, brush them, feed them—and even dress them—helped me cope with the bustle of the emergency room; of being stuck on a stretcher in a hallway in which people rush by and bump into it; of going for scans and coming back and finding out that all along, I had had pancreatitis, and that I would be sticking around the hospital a little while longer than I would have liked.
I needed the kind of carefree escapism Nintendogs+Cats provided, because thinking about the real world for even a second was too difficult a mode for me to want to tackle.
Of course, one has to confront the real world and its consequences. But outlets are needed (in every sense when one is in a hospital and packed to the hilt with electronics.) I have since been moved to the surgery ward, but I still need to pass the long hours in my bed with Fruit Ninja; I need to feel the ever-acquiescent optimism of Nintendogs+Cats when everything around me is a nuisance or a disappointment. No, I can’t have laparoscopic surgery today, to remove the gall bladder whose stones caused my pancreatitis. No, I’m still too swollen. No, I can’t go home until I’ve had enough antibiotics. No, the woman on the other side of the room will not stop that infernal snoring every single night.
The smell. Is that soup or is that urine? Is my headache from the uncomfortable pillows or from the noise-canceling headphones I’m using to drown out the snoring? I’m not even in pain anymore, but maybe I should ask for morphine just to fall asleep here. Maybe I’ll be too groggy to care about my umpteenth blood test scheduled for the next morning. And the thing in my arm tugs and if I want to go to the bathroom I have to bring the whole thing along with me. And I just want to go home. And I want to cry again.
I need something entrancing, like Rhythm Thief, or engrossingly odd, like Space Funeral, to direct my attention away from all this. Maybe mindless yet endearing destruction will do the trick, like Lego Batman 2: DC Heroes. I don’t want to be too challenged or too anxious. It can’t be something to make me ragequit. I’m not in the mindset of a gamer that privileges mastery of difficulty. If anything, I need a dose of the opposite. I need to not be here right now.
Most of my time is waiting. Whining and crying when I have to think about where I am. But at least I can play. At least I can pet a virtual dog. At least I can smash virtual Legos with no significant consequences. At least I can find the surreal in the real, and float there for awhile. It helps make the pain go away.
About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.