Mixing Social Anxiety and Online Gaming, and driving myself crazy in the process.

I’ve been thinking about social anxiety a lot lately, particularly with respect to online multiplayer gaming. I realized recently that with all of my complaints about wanting to try online gaming, I managed to completely forget that I have tried it before, but I just never stuck to it. I’ve played Minecraft online, even joining in on a popular Youtuber’s livestream with fans once, and I’ve played Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball (which is a mouthful but stupidly fun, if only handicapped by the fact that there is not a very big player base, so half of the teams are usually bots). I’ve played Garry’s Mod multiplayer, and at the time had absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing. I pretty much just ran through and died immediately every time… and no one said a thing, despite the fact that I could barely figure out how to pick up a gun. After realizing that I’ve already dipped my toes in with little to no consequence, I put my big girl panties on and started playing more. I found and fell in love with Paladins, a free to play hero shooter that some tout as an Overwatch clone (though some vehemently deny that fact), and I’ve sunk over 25 hours into that puppy so far. I even had someone get mad at me and my lack of skill on it – one of my biggest fears about online gaming – and you know what? I only felt bad for about 2 seconds before realizing that it was stupid, and I would likely never see that person again.

At the same time, I also panicked and force quit Grand Theft Auto 5 after the online tutorial dumped me into a race with other players, but baby steps, right?

I feel like you can’t go more than two pages on the internet without coming across something mentioning anxiety (my own blog included, obviously), and gaming is rampant right now – apparently 155 million Americans, and 19 million Canadians (but we don’t have as many people, that’s still more than half of us – 54%, to be exact) played video games as of 2015, and that number is almost guaranteed to be growing. I personally know of several people who wouldn’t typically play games who are getting into it a bit more now thanks to things like Nintendo Switch and the NES Classic Mini. There has to be an overlap, right? I can’t be the only socially anxious gamer out there, and I certainly can’t be the only one who plays online – or at least, wants to.

I found this paper from the University of Wollongong (which is ridiculously fun to say out loud, for the record) which focused on MMORPGs and social anxiety, and states that people with social anxiety are actually more likely to play MMORPGs than our less anxious peers, essentially because it is easier to socialize behind a computer, where people can’t see our nervous ticks and triggers. I’m not super duper familiar with MMORPGs myself – my ex once tried to get me into World of Warcraft, but it just wasn’t my jam. While my knowledge on them is limited, I’m fairly positive that they don’t typically include voice chat, which brings me to a realization about myself: I can play online totally fine… as long as voice chat isn’t a part of it. And I have to agree with the Australians on this one – I can socialize relatively easily online because I can hide. I can make a crappy move in a game or say the wrong thing and nobody is going to necessarily associate that with me as a person, but with my screen name, which I can change at any moment. And besides, with text chat, it doesn’t really feel like it’s a person getting upset with me anyway. It’s when you add a voice that it really sinks in that there is another person on the other side of the exchange.

Additionally, you can type online gaming and social anxiety into Google and you’ll get about 3,320,000 results. Some of those are articles or blogs like this (although admittedly much better written), but some are forums filled with people just like me. People who want to play games but are hindered by irrational fears about embarrassing themselves and making others angry. And you know what? A lot of them are sucking it up and throwing caution to the wind, and being social.

The game that I really want to play has text and voice chat, and is focused on being tactile and working as a team. I.E. you’re going to have a much better chance at winning if you use a mic. But at the same time, I watch Let’s Plays of it all the time and while in my head I’m going to be on the mic all the time while playing it, there are frequently matches were no one talks at all. Some people use text chat, and some people just fuck off and do their own thing, and it all still works out just fine for them. So why am I so convinced that it’s going to be bad? If there is anything I’ve learned in my slightly more than a quarter century of life, it’s that usually my imagination is far meaner than reality, and whatever happens will rarely if ever be as bad as it was in my head. Still, I can’t completely get over that silly voice in my head saying “what if this time it isn’t?”.

There was a point to this post, but I can’t remember what it was and instead here we are, with mindless blabbering. Fantastic.

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Conversations are scary.

  • The dark.
  • Being lonely.
  • Tight spaces.
  • Mascots.
  • People.

These things all have one thing in common: I’m afraid of them. Some fears are a lot more rational than others… some are just plain weird. In my defense though, the monster that comes out to play when the lights are out could very easily disguise itself as a mascot just to terrorize me during the day. That’s totally a thing that could happen, right?

Honestly though, it’s my fear of other people that is my current issue. I have a lovely little thing called social anxiety disorder. Just thinking about talking to people makes me feel like the sky is falling, and we’re all doomed, and OMG why is nobody else taking this as seriously as I am because I honestly think I might die any moment from all of the shaking and panicking and impending feelings of doom. You know the feeling of having butterflies in your stomach? Well, mine have knives. It took me a while to realize that not everyone felt that way… Imagine my surprise when I discovered that some people actually enjoy talking to strangers. I have a hard enough time talking to people I actually know, why the hell do I have to talk to  everyone else, too?

Story time – I have a lot of employment history as a receptionist. Part of being a receptionist is making phone calls. I used to get such horrific anxiety at the prospect of calling people that I would have to go to a different room entirely from my co-workers, because having people watch me meltdown while I tried to awkwardly work through a conversation with a client made the whole situation 10 times worse. Because you know, the embarrassment of having to excuse myself to complete a basic part of my job in a closed room by myself wasn’t bad enough. Thankfully, I’ve overcome that. Mostly. I still get jittery when I have to call people, especially if someone is watching or listening while I’m on the phone. I can fake it though, and it works. What I haven’t done, however, is figure out how to fake it in my personal life.

I recently acquired a video game that I have been drooling over for weeks. This particular game is almost entirely dependent on its online community. It’s an online multiplayer first person shooter, for heaven’s sake. The whole point of it is to play on a team with real people, against real people. And what do I do? I play against AIs. Bots. Anything other than real people who might happen to talk to me. If anyone asks, I’m “practicing”. Fair enough, I’m pretty freaking terrible at the game, but that’s not really why I haven’t made the jump to online. I don’t want to deal with people.

And I suppose that my fears aren’t entirely unwarranted. I’m a girl. There are a lot of people in online gaming who treat girls in games… unpleasantly, shall we say? Every single woman I’ve talked to who games has at least one story about online harassment or bullying. The fact that I am a girl and am also really bad at games? I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to deal with  it, because I don’t have the thickest of skins. There is a very real chance that I will walk away from a game that I love because of a single asshole with nothing better to do than be a dick on the internet. But at the same time… I hold back from a lot of things that I really want because of this fear. What if they don’t like me? What if they say something mean… is it going to be enough to ruin it for me forever? They’re going to notice that I’m bad at this. I shouldn’t even bother.

I shouldn’t even bother. That’s inadvertently become my life motto.

So in an effort to change this, I got myself a fancy headset and found a community of other gamers who are also girls and/or gamer girl friendly, who are also willing to hang out with a newbie with no aim until I get comfortable enough to try this on my own. I’m still intimidated – they are after all still strangers who could very possibly say something unfavorable about my lack of skills – but I’m willing to take that chance.

I will learn to like socializing if it is the last thing I do.