Editorial: Comfort Gaming in a Time of Crisis

Pull up a seat, as Sasquatch contributor Tyler has a story to tell.

It has been casually mentioned here on Silicon Sasquatch before but if you didn’t know, I’ve lived in Japan for the last year. You also should know that Japan recently suffered a rather large earthquake, followed by a ten-meter tsunami and a catastrophic failure at one of the major nuclear reactors Japan uses to power its rather demanding electrical grid. I’ve been here for all of it and all I can do is watch it unfold.

At the time of the earthquake I lived in a rural town north of Sendai in the Miyagi prefecture. Luckily, we were far enough inland to avoid the tsunami but the shock of the earthquake was certainly felt. From a personal standpoint, this couldn’t have hit at a worse time; it was the end of the school year and my work visa was up for renewal. In the two weeks to come I needed to move, start a new position in the Kanto region outside of Tokyo and renew all my official documents here with the government — and Japanese bureaucracy is no joke. For myself, my friends, coworkers and students, however, we were essentially stranded. With the power out trains stopped, and even if they could be made operational many lines were damaged. Major roadways south went through Sendai and thus were closed off; regardless, gas stations also were shut down. To make matters worse, it was snowing.

For the time being all we could do is wait. We waited in our apartments without heat or electricity, we waited in school gyms that had been made into refuge shelters, we even waited in a hot spring hotel as it was our only source of hot water. For the first half of the week we didn’t even have any cell service. No way to find out what was going on unless we attempted to read the local newspaper, and no way to contact our loved ones. When we did get service again we begun to hear news about the Fukushima nuclear reactor and I began to wonder if ignorance had been bliss.

It’s difficult to keep a level head in those sort of moments. I know many a foreigner living in southern parts of Japan farther from the dangers that simply gave up and left. For us with no means of departure, even if we wanted to leave, panicking wasn’t exactly a reasonable option. Daylight hours would obviously be spent taking care of necessities like finding food, water, etc. But with the other time I had, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say gaming helped me get through it.

I’ll be the first to say that gaming is absolutely escapism. It’s possibly the finest form of escapism we’ve ever devised as a species. The root of all entertainment is essentially escapism; whether actors, minstrels, jesters of the past or movies, music and games of the present, it can be a form of communication but perhaps more importantly, it serves as a distraction from the seriousness and gravity of our lives.

I’ve been an avid gaming enthusiast since I was six and got my SEGA Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. My memory has an interesting habit of attaching media to past moments. When I think of family reunions with my cousins, I remember Super Mario Kart. When I think of meeting Doug in sixth grade, I remember his enthusiasm for Gran Turismo and his (extremely misguided) declaration that the Dreamcast was the future of gaming. When I think of my freshman year of college (well, at least the parts I can remember), they include fond memories of competitive matches of Halo with my dorm neighbors. I wonder if years from now when I think back to my experiences during this time, if I recall Pokémon White, Tactics Ogre, or Infinity Blade.

People who don’t have these experiences with games, these memories and moments of nostalgia, often like to dwell on the possible negative side effects gaming can produce. They make declarations that games will turn you into a violent social recluse. I can’t help but think when my friends forcefully took away my phone (so I couldn’t keep refreshing twitter for news updates) and gave me my DS, that games can be equally if not more beneficial and therapeutic. Even when not in a state of emergency, who doesn’t occasionally need a break or some sort of release? With or without games, I would have come out of this experience safe and unharmed; however, mentally I think it was a boon to have these distractions, if only for an hour or two, so I wasn’t thinking about how many kilometers worth of gasoline we had remaining in our cars, or if water from the tap was safe to drink. Instead, I thought how much more experience I need until Tepig evolved or if I should buy that sword or save my gold for a different accessory.

Video games weren’t life-saving in any way. I do not want to understate the seriousness of what has happened here in Japan. Though I was close to the epicenter, I’m fortunate to have only really suffered inconvenience. People have lost their homes, their family and their lives. I don’t feel it’s insensitive, however, to comment on how rewarding these entertaining distractions can be in such stressful times. I remember the night my friends and I spent in a junior high school gymnasium seeing children play New Super Mario Bros., teenagers play Monster Hunter and adults play Brain Age or Picross. Even the smallest luxury can be a refreshing reminder that you’re still okay and, perhaps soon, things can return to normal.

Gaming in this instance could be replaced with any entertainment, but as a life-long gamer, I’m glad I could temporarily lose myself in these other worlds, and have these minor moments of accomplishment. They were just games, but were within my control and let me feel powerful in a time when it was easy to feel powerless.