On Grief and the Games We Play

flickr photo shared by PS3 Attitude under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

The relationship between games and mental health can be clear cut–from Tetris easing PTSD to the games we play to escape anxiety, it’s often a simple healing relationship.

Often, but not even close to always. In this powerful essay by Alyssa Kai for Zeal, we see that games can be part of the problem as much as they are part of the solution.

Content warning: addiction, suicide, death

So I figured I would try to speedrun Super Monkey Ball 2. The game features cute backgrounds, an irreverent electropop score, and a press campaign convincing you that you’re playing the greatest party game ever developed for the console. But the men vying for world record speedruns of SMB2 play the game that lies underneath: a well-designed, difficult, and frustrating platformer. None of the world record speedruns are deathless — everyone has fallouts here and there. And in the youtube comments on these incredible videos, users clash over millisecond differences between strategies. I shouldn’t have tried to join this world, but I wanted to turn my grief into something I could live with; so I figured if I worked hard, why couldn’t I get as good as these speedrunners?

I’m not as good as they are. I will never be as good as they are. And witnessing their delicate, athletic, creative, ingenious runs only alienated myself further from my body. I remember when I was good at the game, I remember when the game was fun. What happened to those times? Is there are meritocracy to pain — if I work hard enough, will I have to feel grief ever again? Meanwhile, I’m downing whatever substances my wallet and puritanical conscience can afford, leaving me always not-quite-drunk-enough and not-quite-awake-enough and not-quite-good-enough for what I have forced myself to do.


Alyssa Kai finds more than pain through games, but healing proves to be harder and more complicated than defeating a game that holds memories of loss.

Grief is complicated–the ways we get through it aren’t always clear cut. If you find yourself struggling with grief, here are some resources that can help.

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