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I haven’t posted in a while, and this post is going to be a fairly serious one – I am not going to write about gameplay or mechanics or design today, but instead talk about a curious facet of multiplayer gaming most of us have experienced but rarely are comfortable looking directly at: the complex emotions driving the players behind the avatars.

You’ve seen it before – hell, it may have happened to you: someone loses an event or contest, they’re replaced in a leadership role, or maybe they just slip up and wipe the raid… and then, suddenly, they react, disproportionately upset. It seems irrational. It’s a clear overreaction to a simple setback.

And so, you tell them, “Hey. Don’t worry. It’s just a game. Relax. Don’t be upset over it. It’s just a game.”

Stop. Doing. That.

If you went bowling with friends, and someone got a gutter ball and suddenly burst into tears, you wouldn’t just tell them to “Shut the fuck up, Donny!” (obvious exceptions excluded) – you’d go “Holy shit, what’s wrong?” or you’d hug them or ask them to talk about it. You’d instantly realize it’s not that gutter ball that’s upsetting them – obviously it’s something far more. The gutter ball was just the catalyst, simply the last straw on a pile of other problems – and that’s a connection we can mentally make, in a split-second, when the person is right there, in tears. They are hurting, and there are clearly deeper issues at the root of it.

Somehow, in online gaming, that instant, obvious realization is muddled.

Maybe it’s because we’re all remote. We can’t physically see the tears. The pain in their voices is muffled by the static of vent, or sanitized into choppy text. Maybe it’s because our chosen games, themselves, can loom large – dramas can seem more important than they are, and part of us thinks maybe the game itself and solely the game could be the source of someone’s emotional issues. Or maybe, maybe it’s because we play games for our own distraction. We don’t want to login every day to deal with someone’s personal, real-life crisis. We just want to kill monsters and roleplay being a hero and escape.

And that’s ok – you don’t have to fix everyone’s problems. It’s absolutely fine to recognize that you don’t want to – or can’t – invest that emotional energy to help someone. Most of us who game have stuff we’re struggling with, on our own. It can be exhausting and depressing to face those things, even in other people, during our happy-escapism time. AND. THAT’S. OK.

What’s not ok, what’s harmful and painful, is minimizing the experience someone else is going through. When you are hurting, you are hurting. Telling someone that it’s not a big deal will just push them away and make them feel ashamed for being upset. I know, I know, you’re trying to be helpful – but that’s not helping. Neither is demanding them to tell you what about the game in particular is upsetting them. If the game is merely a catalyst, they aren’t going to have a logical, clear answer…and they will feel even more frustrated and ashamed for that.

So what CAN you do?

Be insightful. Recognize that there’s almost always something else going on with this person who is upset, and the game – or the gutter ball, or the broken dish, or that stuffed animal they found cleaning their room – is merely the catalyst. Don’t minimize what they are feeling by dismissing the catalyst. More than that, recognize that people are passionate about their hobbies – and for many, gaming is a social outlet, with aspects of our real life persona tied into it. It’s a tangled mess, and for many people, it’s hard to draw a black and white distinction.

Be constructive. Instead of asking for specific game examples, instead ask how the setbacks or negatives in game are making them feel. This can be incredibly helpful to assist them in pinpointing the root of their frustrations and painful emotions. Maybe losing contests is highlighting how they feel like they can’t win real life. Maybe a roleplay arc involving losing a loved one is poking at buried feelings they have about an incident that happened a while ago. Emotions aren’t easy, and they don’t play nice – sometimes they are insidious and sneaky and creep in corners we aren’t watching, and identifying the underlying causes can be so useful to healthily addressing them.

Be flexible. Not everyone responds to the same things in the same way. Once, right after my boyfriend and I broke up (Heeeeey, I’m back on the market, wink wink), I was having an absolute mess of a night online – and my friends in game thought the best thing for me was to log off so I didn’t do anything rash. They were harsh, thinking I needed tough love – and that might have been a good answer, except the reason I was so upset was that I was feeling ALONE. Being told to log off, when, at the time, the internet held the only people I had to talk to…that was fairly devastating and the most wrong thing I could have heard. It only amplified my feelings of rejection and loneliness. Be flexible in how you help someone. Try to assess where they are at and what the root causes of their emotions are. What works on one person, or in one scenario, is not going to be the universally best answer.

Be supportive. Sometimes you won’t know what to say. Often you won’t know what to say. You’re not a therapist – you’re a friend…and that’s fine. Sometimes, all you need to say is “Want to talk about it?” or “Hey, I’m here.” They might not even take you up on that offer…but trust me, they hear it. Sometimes, all someone needs to know is that there are people there for them.

In short, don’t minimize what someone is feeling – to them, when they are experiencing it, it’s incredibly powerful and painful and hard and there are often underlying causes. If you can’t help them tackle that right now, let them know that you still care, despite being unable to help. If you can help, be insightful, constructive, flexible and supportive: understand that there are almost certainly bigger root causes, address their feelings about things versus just the things themselves, be flexible in how you deal with them, and, most importantly, at the very core, be supportive.

Let people know you’re there for them. I can’t emphasize how important this can be.