Video games are good for your mental health? Not if you play like me

Nearly half a century ago, I added video games to the lengthy list of things I was worse at than my younger brother. On a Christmas Day in the 70s, Santa delivered unto us what I suppose would now be called a console. On it, as I remember, you could play only that simple tennis game called Pong. I beat him at it soundly, but, to be fair to the lad, he was barely of school age. Sadly, that represented my last triumph over him. Along with Lego, maths and girls, video games became something I was judged – not least by myself – to have no aptitude for.

Gaming is now an extremely big and clever business, giving pleasure to huge numbers of people. Just this week, researchers from the University of Oxford reported that gaming can be good for your mental health. It would be stupid to scatter scorn on it all just because I have progressed not a jot since that famous Pong victory in 1970-something.

So, recently I have felt as if I have been missing out; gaming Fomo has finally kicked in. But help has been at hand. My friend and colleague at the BBC and S4C, Steffan Powell, is an expert on the gaming business. His podcast on the subject has just launched on BBC Sounds; it’s called Press X to Continue. I might set up an alternative aimed at Pong-era incompetents like me, called Press X to Give Up.

I asked Steffan to recommend an entry-level game I could try my hand at – a portal through which I could peep at the ways of this mysterious world. “For someone of your age,” he began, meaning no offence, I’m sure, “I’d go for one on your phone. Try Monument Valley. It’s really beautiful – quite moving, actually.”

Moving? I enjoy being moved as much as the next man, so I downloaded it – into the Monument Valley I rode. It really is quite something to tap on an icon on your phone and be plunged into another world. I suppose Twitter does that, in the same way as lifting a sewer cover in the street might. But this is a nicer world. You have to get a little girl called Ida up and down steps and things. I quickly formed a strong attachment to her as, excitingly, I got her through the first chapter unscathed.

On to chapter two, “In Which Ida Embarks on a Quest for Forgiveness”. Huh? What had she done? Pressing on, bewildered but absorbed, I helped Ida as best I could. I wasn’t exactly emotionally involved, but I did feel a flash of anger at some crow-like things that made to peck at her. Also, in one chapter, a totem pole-shaped friend assists her. This episode concludes with her going off in a boat as the totem pole sinks slowly into the sea, with Ida looking on. I must admit, I choked back a tear.

At about chapter seven, I started to get stuck. It had all got a bit complicated. I was finding it less calming and absorbing and more downright infuriating. I fired up my search engine to see what the gaming community had to say about Monument Valley. The first thing I came across was a review saying: “It should take around an hour and a half to complete.” An hour and half? I was on day eight at this point. I thought I had been steaming ahead. Nagging doubts seeped into my system; I really was hopeless after all.

By day nine, I was reaching into my toolbox for a hammer with which to reduce my iPhone to its component parts. I texted Steffan a cry for help. He soon sent me some videos that teach you to get Ida to wherever it is she wants to go. So I sat at my laptop watching the video and copying every move on my phone. It was shaming. I didn’t need this, Steffan. Don’t put me on to any of those shoot-’em-up games, for heaven’s sake. It won’t end well. I’m done with gaming.


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